Kids talking

Young Philosophers of New York: Interview with Joseph S. Biehl

Joseph S. Biehl runs the Gotham Philosophical Society, an ‘idea bank’ for New York City, and is launching a philosophy workshop series for children.  I spoke with Joe about the workshops, his approach to learning and teaching, and his thoughts on philosophy for children in general.   

Can you tell me about your interest and involvement with philosophy for children? 

When I started the Gotham Philosophical Society in the summer of 2014, my intent was to bring the clarity and creativity of philosophical thinking out of the college classroom and into the everyday discourse of the city. I knew then that making a connection with the city’s children through youth-oriented programming would be especially important. Creating communities that are collectively thoughtful, deliberative, and intellectually curious takes time, and is unsustainable (if not impossible), without establishing these habits in our children.

My initial effort in this direction was a one-off workshop on the origins of morality. It was enjoyable and eye-opening. Pre-college, and in particular pre-high school children, possess a natural interest in philosophical questions. Moreover, they can offer valuable insights to adults who are actually willing to listen, who are open to the possibility that they can achieve an even greater appreciation for life’s most enduring questions by approaching them from the perspective of those without a wealth of experience in living.

I soon decided that I wanted to structure a ‘series’ of classes where conversations could continue over time and range over a number of issues. I want to see the children grow in confidence, make connections among different ideas, but most importantly I want to see them become sensitive to the very different ways we can–and do–think about philosophical issues. Philosophy is hard but it’s not rocket science. The challenge of philosophical disagreement is not overcome by being smarter than everyone else. Rather the challenge is met by appreciating that people can come to philosophical questions holding very different assumptions and then proceed to survey the available answers harboring very different aspirations. I hope the ‘Young Philosophers of New York’ program will help prepare them for participating philosophically in a city as intellectually diverse as New York.

Why should children be learning philosophy?

There are a number of answers one could give to this question, but perhaps the most immediately compelling is that we want our children to develop strong, independent minds and that there is no better method to achieve this than by philosophizing with them. Throughout their lives they will be confronted by advertisers, politicians, and busybodies of various sorts who make it their business to claim a special knowledge concerning what they ought to do or buy or what social policies they should endorse. We want our children to possess a healthy skepticism about such claims and be confident in their ability to take in all sorts of information and come to well-reasoned judgments of their own.

Is there a best way to encourage children to think philosophically?

The philosopher David Hills’ take on philosophy is insightful here. “Philosophy,” he says, “is the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers”. The first thing we ought to do is make sure we don’t discourage them from thinking philosophically. We shouldn’t ignore them nor condescend and tell them that though that is a very interesting question, we don’t have time for it now. We should rather give them the time and space to ask their questions and then encourage them to question whatever answers they receive in turn. It’s also important to keep lawyerly stuff, particularly the habit of assuming an adversarial posture, out of it. Philosophy for children should be collaborative and fun.

The challenge of doing philosophy with young people is not how to convince them that it is worthwhile–as it too often is at the college level–but creating the opportunities to do it. The time and space I spoke of is unfortunately very hard to find during the typical day of most school systems. It is certainly scarce in New York–as I frustratingly learned over the course of the last year. That’s why we are offering workshops as an after-school program.

What approach to teaching and learning will you be taking in the workshops? Do you have a method?

My intention is to jointly create with the children a collaborative environment for philosophical exploration. I have given the workshops general themes–the introduction of fundamental philosophical categories for 8-10 year olds, and the creation of their own city for 11-14 year olds–but the particular directions and order that the workshops will take will be determined by the participants themselves. As David Hume said, “’Tis not only in music and poetry, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in philosophy.”

I would like to say that in the preparation for these workshops, I have been aided considerably by the  wonderful new book Philosophy in Education: Questioning and Dialogue in Schools, by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). I highly recommend it for anyone interested in engaging children in philosophical activity, as well as the resources at PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization).

What sorts of activities and discussions will you be focusing on in your workshops?

In the ‘Keys to the City’ workshop, we will begin our investigation into what kind of city we would make with the story Plato chose to launch his discussion of the just city in the Republic: the ring of Gyges. The aim is to get us thinking about human nature, and what that might imply for discussion of matters of justice, policing, property, and education. And when we do pick up these questions, we will approach them via their appearance in current debates in New York City.

The ‘What’s the Big Idea?’ workshop will focus on short readings, video clips, and other prompts designed to provoke thoughts on aesthetic, ethical, epistemological, metaphysical, and political matters.

Should we be teaching philosophy in schools?  And if so, when do you think they should start learning about it?

I wish that we would, because I think that education is impoverished without it. As parents, we find it natural to invest in our children our hopes for a world better than the one in which we find ourselves. Moreover, we tell our children they can do or be anything. Yet the education that we provide for them is primarily designed to help them ‘succeed’ in the world as it is. Instead of fostering the disciplined imagination that would enable them to be agents of systematic change, we groom them to be the next round of participants in an ongoing social struggle where individual success is too easily understood in terms of material gain. By introducing philosophy into the school curriculum we would at least be providing children with the resources to contemplate an alternative way for people to exist. Whether they would be able to bring their visions to life would depend on them, but first they have to imagine different possibilities.

What can parents do at home to introduce their children to philosophy?

Being a parent is hard. The constant cleaning up is physically exhausting and the almost unending barrage of questions, requests, demands, petitions, and pleas is mentally exhausting. So it’s all too easy for children’s philosophical questions to get lost in the shuffle, even when mom or dad is a professional philosopher!

Carving out a dedicated ‘question time’ can make exploring philosophical questions an enjoyable family activity, especially if the parent plays the role of partner in the search for satisfying solutions rather than the sage who already has them. Indeed, part of what makes our children’s ‘big questions’ discomforting is that we dont have the answers. Admitting that to our children, and yet taking the questions seriously nevertheless, provides us with an opportunity to share in our children’s wonder about the world.

Do you have a favorite philosophically-oriented children’s book?

There are any number of books, pitched at different ages, that nicely raise philosophical questions for discussion. Dr. Seuss is especially good for younger children, though even older kids can still be amused by the wordplay. I would, however, like to mention a scene from the children’s movie Ratatouille. I think Anton Ego’s review is fantastic starting point for questions about opinion, taste, art, equality, and being open to new possibilities.

When and where will your workshops be held?

Our workshops will be held on Friday afternoons and will take place in Washington Heights, New York City, so if you live uptown, check us out at www.philosophy.nyc. And if you are interested but live elsewhere in the city, let us know where you are. We’ll set up shop in a neighborhood near you as soon as possible!

The workshops run from January 20 to March 31.  More information can be found here.  

Joseph S. Biehl earned his B.A. in philosophy in Queens (St. John’s University) and his Ph.D. in Manhattan (CUNY), and he now runs the Gotham Philosophical Society, an ‘idea bank’ for New York City. He is still learning.