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Education: Grade-School Philosophers

2 minute read

It was hardly the ordinary elementary-school class. First-graders were learning to categorize: “Four stores and three men make seven things in the world we can touch.” In the same classroom, sixth-graders were making distinctions between things and beings: “If you have a friend who is only your friend when you are lonely, then you are using your friend as a thing.” Another added perceptively: “You use a person as a thing if you have sex together and don’t care about the person.”

In fact, the experimental class set up in Newark’s Morton Street School last year was designed to expose young children to a rigorous introduction to philosophy. It covered syllogistic inferences, universal and particular sentences, logic, differences of degree, relationships and styles of thought. The course was so successful that it is being introduced for fifth-and sixth-graders this week in other elementary schools in Newark and in Texas.

Better Reasoning. The pioneering course was put together by Matthew Lipman, 51, a philosophy professor at Montclair State College, who had long thought that primary schools could do a better job of teaching children to reason. “In the beginning it was hard, because the children were very excited,” recalls Morton Street Teacher Gerry Dawson. “By the end of the course, they were going to the library and taking volumes of the encyclopedia home.”

In one philosophy lesson, Dawson discussed the use of generalizations and the natural inclination of children to believe that their personal experience is a universal condition. She urged her students to qualify their statements. A few days later, she says, one boy told her that “all Puerto Ricans are nasty.” Then, looking at the teacher, he suddenly remembered his lesson and said, “Most Puerto Ricans are nasty.” Almost as quickly, he regrouped and concluded, “Well, the Puerto Ricans I know are nasty.” The recitation came out of the blue, Dawson says, because “we had never discussed ethnic groups or racial prejudices in class.”

During another class, the pupils discussed nonreversible sentences. “All cats are animals,” said one boy, “but not all animals are cats.” “All onions are vegetables,” said another, “but not all vegetables are onions.” Dawson then asked: “What would it be like if all animals were cats and all vegetables were onions?” A girl replied logically: “Elephants would have whiskers, and if you peeled carrots, you would cry.”

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