Author and philosopher Marietta McCarty is passionate about challenging young minds to think big. In this post, she shares her inspiration, her experiences, and her successes with child philosophers.
Although you’ve taught philosophy to college students for a number of years, your first experience with kid thinkers happened somewhere outside of the classroom. Tell us about that.
My first experience was as a “kid thinker!” Wonder, questions, and conversation filled my days. Playing tournament tennis from a young age taught me volumes about human behavior—my own and others. At seventeen I began teaching tennis to children, eventually directing a summer tennis camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I relished the questions and insights of the children—natural philosophers regardless of subject matter. They kept my sense of wonder and seeking alive. So when I began teaching college students and felt a responsibility to bring “the art of clear thinking” to our larger community, my immediate move was to follow the yellow school buses. Sitting in circles with child philosophers changed my life.
In “Little Big Minds”, you make mention of quite a few historical thinkers. What role do these philosophers play in your workshops with children, and how do young learners react to them?
I play the part of the philosopher with the children. They love telling me that I look 3,000 years old, like Epicurus…that I forgot the food that Jane Addams would surely have supplied…and that it’s a privilege to be Dr. King or the Dalai Lama, if only for one class. Teachers using Little Big Minds, however, often ask or write: “Do I have to know the philosophy of Kant or Kierkegaard or De Beauvoir? Do I have to teach Lao Tzu?” Absolutely not! I chose certain philosophers because their theories lend themselves beautifully to discussion of the topics that have been of most interest and benefit to the children. Knowing about Epicurus isn’t the key—appreciating simple pleasures is what matters. The ability to withstand the pressures of the crowd and cliques hopefully will last a lifetime, while the name “Kierkegaard” fades away fast.
Your work praises the fearlessness of children as philosophers. Can you tell us about some of the most “fearless” questions you’ve ever encountered from young thinkers? Are there any questions that you don’t think should be included in children’s philosophy?
Children are willing to tackle their fears, which is indeed “fearless.” Growing comfortable in their philosophy circles and writing in their journals, they name it: death, loss, humiliation, loneliness, failure. Calling out the source marks the huge first step. My most-used question remains: “If you could have the answer to one question in your life—a question that you do not think will ever be answered—what would that question be?” When I hear their questions, which they think about for weeks and write down, I follow their leads. I don’t introduce death or bullying or violence to children—but the little big minds may wonder…. I am very, very careful with my words and the direction the conversation takes. When in doubt, I don’t!
There’s obviously a difference in the way philosophy is taught to adults and children, but do you find there are huge differences in the way different age groups of children approach big questions? How do you adjust your teaching to allow for these differences?
The biggest difference lies in their choice of words. Often, but not always, older children express themselves in more sophisticated ways. The simplest observations, though, may well be the most profound, as the stories in Little Big Minds prove to readers’ (but not children’s) astonishment. I adjust my teaching by putting myself in their smaller or larger shoes.
Practically speaking, what do you think is the best way to get philosophical discussion into more classrooms and homes?
Do it! Children feed their souls with open-ended intellectual discussion. I see teachers in every sort of setting carving out the time—as a class or a club or special activity. Every teacher sharing philosophy increases momentum. When teachers include parents and guardians—and the opportunities are infinite—the contemplative outlook spreads. Lunch in a garden talking about Nature…listening to music and wondering how it’s made…mornings started with quiet time—the sky may not be the limit.
In addition to National Bestseller Little Big Minds: Sharing Philosophy With Kids, Marietta McCarty is the author of Nautilus Book Award winner How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas That Matter Most, and The Philosopher’s Table: How to Start Your Philosophy Dinner Club – Monthly Conversation, Music, and Recipes. Having been Assistant Professor of Philosophy since 1988 at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Virginia, her teaching now revolves around her books. She hosts workshops, gives talks, teaches classes, and delights in joining philosophy circles of all ages.