Engaging children and teens with philosophy

Sharon Kaye is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After receiving her Ph.D. in 1997 from the University of Toronto, she was a Killam postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since then, she has published numerous articles as well as books which have been translated into Japanese, Greek, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Slovak.  I was eager to ask Sharon Kaye for ideas about outreach, as she has been so successful with her approach to engaging children and teens with philosophy.

Can you tell us a bit about the program you have designed where undergraduates teach philosophy in grade schools? 

I’m professor in the philosophy department at John Carroll University. We decided we wanted to increase our community outreach. So I contacted the gifted program at a local public school. We established a partnership: eight JCU undergraduates teach in pairs for one hour each week. Our four classrooms are gifted 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Right now, we have a grant, so that we can actually pay our undergraduates as interns.

However, we have also experimented with offering university credit, in the form of ‘independent study,’ instead of pay. In the future, we envision offering a three credit “Teaching Philosophy” course. Needless to say, our undergraduate teachers learn as much as do the kids they teach!

You’ve just published a set of philosophy books for kids, including a trilogy for teens. Can you describe your general approach?

The publisher of this trilogy, Royal Fireworks, is a press for gifted children. They’ve carved out a niche for inquisitive kids who want to go beyond the standard public school curriculum. I called Royal Fireworks a few years ago, expressing interest in making some of the great thinkers of Western history accessible. Now I’m writing a whole K-12 curriculum for them.

The first six volumes are for elementary school. The new trilogy is for middle school. It’s called “The Noumenal Realm,” because it explores Plato’s contention that there is a world of perfect ideas beyond this world. It’s about a group of kids who enter a virtual reality simulation that enables them to meet Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant. We wanted to keep the trilogy from feeling like a textbook so I wrote a separate guidebook for each novel. The guidebook contains all the 411 on the philosophers. That way the story doesn’t get bogged down.

As those who spend time around young people can attest, they can be fairly philosophical. It is not clear that such thinking is always encouraged in them, however. What do you see as the obstacles to children thinking philosophically? 

Well, philosophy is inherently subversive. So the public schools don’t want to include it. As long as they have a battery of state standards to pass, they need to keep kids from questioning their authority. Parents are also threatened by philosophy because philosophers demand reasons and reject blind obedience. So kids who do philosophy will always be in tension with the society around them.

What are the benefits that you see?  

Philosophy really lights kids on fire. It is empowering for them to think critically and see that it is OK to challenge authority. To be leaders, good leaders, they need philosophy. It teaches them how to engage constructively with people who have different points of view. Also, the ideas philosophy studies–God, freedom, the self–are deeply interesting, so they ignite the love of learning.

Find out more about Sharon’s work here.

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