Children in U.Va. Summer Class Practice Being Philosophers

July 25, 2007 -- The world calls out to each of us every day – how are you going to answer?

Think of it as the “response” in responsibility, says Marietta McCarty, author of “Little Big Minds,” a guide to discussing life’s oldest questions with young minds.

“As adults in the lives of children, we have the opportunity to guide little big minds toward seeing the positive side of responsibility: the invitation to help sustain the world and to express caring,” McCarty writes in her book.

McCarty, who teaches philosophy at Piedmont Virginia Community College, was invited to visit a class offered to fifth- and sixth-graders through the University of Virginia Curry School of Education’s Summer Enrichment Program this month.

The instructor, Anne Carter, who has taught in the SEP for three years, based this new class, "Discovering and Developing the Philosopher Within," on McCarty’s book, published in December last year to wide acclaim. The class uses the Socratic method to get children thinking and talking about topics such as courage, happiness, responsibility, prejudice, love, friendship and justice.

McCarty has been taking the subject to elementary school classrooms in Virginia and around the United States for about 15 years.

“Children are very good at getting right to the heart of the matter,” she said. She told this group she uses philosophy every day in her personal life and that she learns from her students and philosophy all the time.

The result: “When your mind becomes more open and clear, your heart opens.”

After visiting one of Carter’s classes, McCarty said it is gratifying to see someone else using her book exactly the way she intended it and to see it working.

Carter described the class, part of the program’s Investigations in the Arts & Humanities unit, as giving students opportunities to discover more about themselves and the world around them, and to be able to make meaningful connections to others. They keep philosophy journals, with the goal of practicing McCarty’s definition of philosophy — "the art of clear thinking."

“Like any art, it takes practice to get good at it,” McCarty tells the 16 middle-schoolers sitting around her. The day McCarty visited this class, Carter arranged for them to ask their guest questions, such as how she came to write her book, along with her asking them questions.

McCarty told them her college students often said no one had asked them what they thought about some of these big concepts they’d been discussing. She decided to start with younger minds. She found that “philosophical questions are on the tips of their tongues.”

Carter, who will pursue a master’s in reading education at the Curry School of Education this fall, gave them an example of clear thinking in recounting a common experience from her daily life about taking responsibility. Instead of getting impatient in the grocery store check-out line as she usually did, she said she thought about it and chose to see it as an invitation to focus on her small children and have fun with them while waiting.

That led to a discussion of love — loving family, strangers, even the enemy. “What if we had loved our enemy — can you think of a historic event that might have been different?” she asked. One boy answered the Civil War, and they realized in that case, we were our own enemy.

“Why do you think friendship is important?” McCarty asked.

One child responded, “if we didn’t have friends, how would we even go out of the house without being mad at ourselves and everyone!”

Carter added, “That’s a good point. To be a good friend, you have to have a good relationship with yourself.”

Another child asked McCarty if she ever had a question it took a few days to answer.

“I get questions I can’t answer all the time,” she told the class. “When you get the answer, then it becomes something else — psychology or sociology, or something like that.

“Philosophy is about the questions and what happens in your mind.”