Philosophy for Children: Reclaiming the Discipline Outside of Higher Education

By ISABELLA LAWRENCE

Colorado College concluded this year’s Philosophy Colloquium Talks with a lecture from Dr. Jana Mohr Lone on March 28. Dr. Lone is the founder and current director of the Center for Philosophy for Children. Based in Seattle, Lone holds both a Ph.D. and M.A. in philosophy from the University of Washington, as well as a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. Throughout the course of her lecture, Dr. Lone explored the ways in which children are uniquely philosophical, and how we can use their uninhibited practice of philosophy toward improving and diversifying developmental education, while actively redefining what it means to be a philosopher.

Dr. Lone began with an explanation of coming to her professional work through an anecdotal story of a conversation with her own son, Will. “Like most four, five, six year olds, Will was constantly asking questions, like ‘why do we dream?’ or ‘can you be happy and sad at the same time?’” She said. This conversation took place while Lone was a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, leading her to realize that “These were philosophical questions.” This, she emphasized, “really surprised me, because I hadn’t thought about children as being philosophical. I guess if I had thought about it, I probably would have assumed that they really weren’t.” This was the beginning of Lone’s journey towards the discovery of the child’s “philosophical self” and the depth of childhood philosophy.

Illustration by Lo Wall

For over 20 years, Lone has been developing the process of classroom exploration in philosophy through active conversations with children, coming to the conclusion that “many, if not most, children have philosophical selves.” By way of explanation for this term, Lone said that this is “the part of them that wonders about their experiences, that thinks about the human condition, that asks sort of existential and moral and other questions about life.” 

So, although we recognize that young children are full of questions, and we often ask them about these questions, we do not actively think about children as philosophical. Lone offered two reasons for this oversight. The first is that “Philosophy is seen as kind of an esoteric discipline.” She believes this is “really unfortunate because philosophy is part of being a human being.” The second reason is because children are children, and in “the United States today, one of the last surviving, across the board acceptable prejudices is ageism. Negative assumptions about younger and older people based simply on the age they are.” This is a disadvantage for the philosophical discipline, because we then limit the scope of possible perspectives for exploring these types of questions. 

Bringing philosophy into schools and facilitating classroom conversations with children of all ages, serves both the child and the practice. In order to explain why this is important for philosophy, Lone returned to her “favorite description of philosophy” from the philosopher Robert Johann, who said that “Philosophical inquiry is, at its best, an adventure in making life whole.” For Lone, “When we do philosophy in K-12 classrooms, the ensuing dialogues take place on many levels,” allowing for an “adventure that involves both our cognitive selves and our emotional selves.” This brings “a wholeness to the enterprise that has the potential to transform academic philosophy in some really important and positive ways,” she said. For children, the impact is simple, but of upmost importance. It empowers individuals of all ages to ask questions by giving them “the space to explore the things that matter to them.” 

This lecture was the final in this series of talks hosted by the CC Philosophy Department during the 2018–2019 academic year. Next year’s series will be focused on paying significant attention to the philosophies of Indigenous people. 

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