An Interview with Thomas Wartenberg: Teaching Philosophy to Children

An Interview with Thomas Wartenberg: Teaching Philosophy to Children


Michael F. Shaughnessy - May 14, 2009
Senior Columnist
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


1) First of all, tell us about you and your background and your education.


I am a professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College.  I got my BA from Amherst College, my MA from Stanford University, and my Ph. D from the University of Pittsburgh.


I did my dissertation on the Critique of Pure Reason with Wilfrid Sellars. But since then I’ve moved in different directions.  Most of my recent work has been in the philosophy of film, where I’ve published a number of anthologies and books.


2) When did you first get involved with philosophy?


I actually first encountered philosophy as an alienated teenager.  I remembered this when I was writing my book, Existentialism:A Beginner’s Guide.  What’s odd is that, when I encountered philosophy as an undergraduate, I didn’t make the connection to my earlier interest in Existentialism.  I think that’s because American academic philosophy is generally very different from Existentialism, which is much more concerned with problems that people encounter directly in the course of their lives.


3) Why do you think it important?


Philosophy’s important because it provides us with ways of thinking about the most basic questions that confront us as human beings.  We all wonder why we’re here, if there’s a point to living, and whether there’s more to life that we can see.  The odd thing is that, important as these issues are to us, we don’t know how to go about thinking about them.  Instead, most of the time we run from them because thinking about them makes us anxious.  Philosophy gives us a way to pursue our individual attempts to come to terms with these issues.


4) In terms of children, what are the basic concepts that children need to learn in terms of philosophy?


I could go on for hours about this.  But it’s less a question of what children need to learn than what studying philosophy offers them.  One of the key things it can offer them is the realization that other people worry about the same things they do.  Often, when kids think about what we like to call “the big questions,” they do so, on their own, with no sense that other people have thought about these questions, too.  This can give them a sense of isolation.  Discussing these issues with other children gives them a sense that other people also worry about them.


5) How do you personally use books to teach children and adolescents philosophy?


Most of my work has been with elementary-school children.  We generally use picture-books to stimulate a philosophical discussion among a group of children.  We read the book aloud to the children and then begin a discussion by asking them a question about a central philosophical issue that the book raises.  So, for example, the Frog and Toad story “Dragons and Giants” is about being brave.  So I might start by asking the children to tell me about a time when they were brave.  I then listen very carefully to what they say and follow up with a question seeking to get them to think about what being brave involves.  I never tell them what I think, but get to talk to one another about what their thoughts are.


6) Who are some of the key people that you teach about? Or key concepts?


I never mention the name of a famous philosopher to the children.  My aim is to get the children to develop their own philosophical thinking, so I don’t want to intimidate them by saying, “Oh, Kant thought that, too.”  I do introduce them to all the key concepts of philosophy.  In fact, I’ve been trying to give second graders an introduction to philosophy class that surveys all the main fields of philosophy.


7) Do you have an actual class for children? How long does it last and what do you cover?


I have developed a college class in which my students go into a local elementary school and teach an introduction to philosophy class.  Given our timing, we teach for seven weeks.  We cover all the main areas of philosophy, from metaphysics to aesthetics.  You can see the details on my website.  Each of our philosophy classes lasts about 45 minutes.


8) At what age or grade should kids be exposed to a philosophy of life or ideas about philosophy?


We’ve been working with second graders.  In part, this has to do with external factors, such as the MCAS exams that third graders already have to deal with.  And first graders are still dealing with getting used to being in school.  So I don’t think children are ever too young to be introduced to doing philosophy.  They have ideas and you can discuss them with them.  In fact, I think kids benefit from having adults really listen to them and respond to their concerns.  We don’t do enough of that.


9) How do you explain philosophy to children?


I don’t spend much time explaining philosophy to them.  My focus is on getting them to realize that they have their own philosophical ideas.  I do this, as I’ve said, by reading them a book and then asking them to think about the philosophical issues it raises.  I do briefly tell them that philosophy asks the Big Questions, most of which they have wondered about but never talked about in school.  And I might start off by getting them to discuss a philosophical issue, such as why they think that stealing is wrong.  They have never let me down, but have always shown me that they have sophisticated philosophical beliefs.


10) Do you have a web page that delves into your thinking and ideas and


Yes.  It’s

It has two sections.  First, with the help of my own students, I have posted what I call “book modules” on a wide range of children’s picture books.  Anyone who is interested in discussing philosophy with children will get a lot of guidance from these modules, which contain both introductions to the philosophical issues raised by the books as well as questions designed to get the children talking about them. 

Second, you can find all the details of my own course.  It’s been exciting to make all this available to people via the web!


May 14th, 2009

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Senior Columnist

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