Philosopher: Tom Wartenberg

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Tom Wartenberg is Research Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. In addition to the usual teaching of undergraduates and writing of academic books and articles, Tom has been a tireless advocate for bringing philosophy to children. In this interview, we discuss the difference between philosophy and critical thinking, the connection between academic philosophy and philosophy for children, and the prospects of a career in philosophy education outside of a university setting.

DEREK: In your book Big Ideas for Little Kids you discuss some of the doubts you had when you first began, regarding children’s’ capacities for philosophical reflection – doubts which can now be answered just by looking at the results of your program and other programs to bring philosophy to children. But you also briefly mention another kind of doubt that you once had – that what your program teaches them is just basic critical thinking skills and not really philosophy.  What is the difference between philosophy and mere critical thinking, and how did you become convinced that your elementary school students were doing real philosophy?

TOM: Let’s begin with the difference between philosophy and critical thinking.  Critical thinking is a component of philosophy because philosophers are always critically examining arguments that other philosophers make.  So to actually do philosophy you have to be adept at critical thinking.  This means that you need to be able to see when an argument violates one of the canons of logical reasoning, say by begging the question.  Critical thinking skills are essential to philosophy, but also to all other academic disciplines and much of public life.  So it’s important for people to learn them.

But philosophy involves more than just critical thinking.  There are specific questions that philosophy addresses that lie outside the realm of critical thinking.  For example, philosophers often discuss whether there is a certain type of life that is the best life to live.  That’s a philosophical issue.  Or they wonder about whether we really know what we think we do.  In considering answers to these questions, you would use critical thinking, but they are not in themselves issues that can be addressed except through engaging in doing philosophy.

It’s because we get elementary school children to discuss issues that are specifically philosophical that I think that they are actually engaged in the activity of philosophizing.  After we have read them a picture book or a story from a picture book, we raise a philosophical question and ask them to discuss it with their classmates.  To use one of my favorite examples, we read them the Frog and Toad story “Cookies” and then ask them whether they agree with Toad’s definition of will-power as not doing something you really want to do.  When they discuss that, they are doing philosophy.

I believe that children deserve the opportunity to discuss philosophy because they are troubled by philosophical problems, just as philosophers are.  We abdicate our responsibility to them when we don’t address those issues in the classroom.  I can’t tell you how often a child has told me that she used to think she was really a weirdo because she wondered whether the world could just be her dream only to find us raising that very question in one of our philosophy discussions.  When that happens, the child is reassured that the questions she wonders about – which we can see are really philosophical – are actually ones that people, philosophers, take seriously.  That is so reassuring to those children.  Knowing that their concerns are legitimate integrates them into the classroom and spares them the sort of isolation that they should not have to endure.


DEREK: How is the philosophy that your second graders (or fifth graders, or middle-schoolers) do related to the academic philosophy that people write in dissertations and journal articles and that we teach to our undergraduate students?

TOM: A dissertation or a journal article is an attempt to make a contribution to an ongoing philosophical discussion of an issue.  It requires knowledge of what other philosophers have said about the issue.  You can’t discuss the nature of skepticism at a professional level, without knowing something about the history of skepticism.

When I work with young students, I don’t want them to even know the name of the problem they are discussing; my sole goal is to get them to engage in the activity of carefully reflecting on a problem that is recognizably philosophical.  A children’s book like Many Moons raises issues about knowledge that children can discuss, but that’s very different than reading Descartes’ first Meditation and all the responses that have been made to it over the years.

With undergraduates, you have to figure out the right balance between the two.  That is, you want to get them engaged in thinking about a philosophical problem and you also want to teach them what is involved in making a contribution to the ongoing discussion of it.  Depending on the course, I do more of one or more of the other.


DEREK: You’ve been doing this long enough that some of your second-grade philosophy students have begun to grow up and go to college. Have any of them become students at Mount Holyoke? Do you ever hear any of their thoughts about the connection between their early education in philosophy and the philosophy classes they choose (or are forced) to take at the colleges and universities they attend?

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I haven’t really followed up with the students.  I do know that my own son, who we taught in second and fifth grades, got the philosophy bug and took some courses with the Johns Hopkins CTY program and then majored in philosophy.  But I have not tracked down the children we taught to see what has happened to them.


DEREK: Is there any concern that advocating philosophy for children might devalue the specialized training of university teachers and researchers? Not only is philosophy something that children can do, but a key presupposition of your course at Mount Holyoke is that teaching philosophy to children doesn’t require any specialized education. Do you think there is still a need for the kind of specialized philosophy traditionally done by full-time academic philosophers?

TOM: As I’ve said, there is a big difference between getting young students to engage in a philosophical discussion and training older students to produce writing that aspires to professional standards.  Only trained philosophers can really do the latter since this requires knowledge of the norms for published academic writing.  So there definitely is a place for the type of academic philosophy that professors do.  In addition to training students, we also continue the discussion of philosophical questions characteristic of the tradition and sometimes make genuine contributions to it.

But having the broader public see that children are already engaged in the sort of questioning characteristic of philosophy doesn’t undermine what professional philosophers do; rather it demonstrates that the esoteric contributions academics make are continuing a discussion that has its roots in the lives of ordinary people and children.  By seeing what’s involved in even a basic philosophical discussion such as that which children engage in, people come to appreciate the importance of philosophy and realize that philosophers have a great deal to say that is important to non-specialists.  They even can come to realize that they want to get more involved in philosophical thinking.  These days, there are lots of venues in which ordinary people get together to discuss philosophical issues, and I think that’s really a great development.  But rather than threaten the existence of professional philosophy, I think it supports it.


DEREK: In convincing parents and educators of the feasibility of teaching philosophy to young children, you often emphasize that it doesn’t involve teaching them the names of philosophers or any philosophical theories or terminology. The same seems to be true for the film and philosophy modules you’ve offered for middle school students (at What’s the Big Idea?). At what age do you think it becomes valuable to introduce students to the names and theories of traditionally recognized philosophers?

I don’t think it’s an issue of the correct age for introducing students to the names and theories of philosophers, but what one’s goals are.  If you are interested in training even middle school students to write essays that involve critically assessing philosophical arguments, then you need to introduce the names of some philosophers and the problems they address.  By high school, most teachers would want to do that.  The reason I don’t do this when we are dealing with younger students is that it would get in the way of their enjoyment of their discussions.

But let me just add that in some of my college courses, I want to engage students in philosophical thinking and I keep the names and problems to the side at least at first.  When you are introducing students to philosophical thinking, the goal is to get them engaged in that activity.  There is plenty of time for them to learn who has said what about what traditional problem later in their philosophical educations.


DEREK: How did you initially convince public elementary schools to allow you to teach their students? How important is your university affiliation for the work you do?

TOM: When my son began kindergarten, I went to his school principal and asked if I could do a workshop.  Eventually, we found a time and, after the workshop, I began working with two of the teachers.  As other teachers saw what we were doing, they became eager to get involved.  I was really lucky.

There is no question that it’s difficult to convince public schools of the validity of philosophical discussion, so all I can say is that it takes perseverance.  Being a philosophy professor certainly gives me credibility when I go into a school.  They trust that I know what I’m talking about.  But anyone who is really committed to introducing philosophy into a school can do so.  They just need to realize that it can take time to get results.


DEREK: Do you think a philosopher working outside the academy could successfully partner with local schools in this way? If so, what advice would you offer for making initial contact with educators and administrators at their local schools?

TOM: For many years, people have written to me and asked about this.  I always encourage them to do so.  I know that people have founded programs in their kids’ schools and also in home schooling contexts.  Many of them use the film about my college class, Big Ideas for Little Kids, because it shows children actually having philosophical discussions based on picture books.  And once people see what those discussions are like, it’s not as hard to convince them that they should provide children with the opportunity to engage in them.  Children are actually the best salespeople when it comes to convincing people of the importance of allowing them to do philosophy in schools.

I also offer to come and do workshops to show teachers and administrators what’s involved in having philosophy in schools.  Those are also effective and have led to some programs being developed.  Often, teachers and administrators get very excited when they have the opportunity to engage in philosophical discussion themselves and that sells them on having a philosophy program.  The very first time I did a workshop, I was blown away by the depth and sincerity of the communication that the teachers engaged in.  It turns out that they were, too, and that’s why they wanted me to help them get philosophy into their classrooms.


DEREK: In some of your other interviews you mention that many of the undergraduate students at Mount Holyoke who take your Philosophy for Children course are inspired by that experience to go into careers in childhood education, with the ambition of continuing the work of teaching philosophy to children. Do any of those students consider – or pursue – a philosophy PhD as an element in following that vision? If not, what credentials or work experience have they pursued instead?

TOM: Mostly, when my students decide to continue working with children and philosophy, they have gone on to get degrees from Education programs.  Partly, this is a pragmatic decision:  In order to get into a public school classroom, they need to have the appropriate credentials and they can get that from an education program.  But some of them have gone on to get advanced philosophy degrees, usually MA’s.  I’m not sure you need a PhD to work with young children, though having a deeper grounding in philosophy is certainly an advantage.

One of the problems about getting a philosophy PhD is that very few graduate programs recognize philosophy for children as a legitimate academic specialization.  So when a student enters into those more traditional philosophy programs, they can’t see how their interests are being supported by the school.  There are some programs that are different, that allow students to write their dissertations on philosophy in schools, but they are few and far between.

For example, I know that the University of Memphis has graduated PhD’s whose works has been in the philosophy of childhood, but inspired by work with pre-college students.  Even with my own students who want to write honors theses, it’s difficult to find a topic that is both philosophical and also related to their work with pre-college students.  But it can be done and hopefully will be more often in the future.


DEREK: Many philosophers persist in the struggle to get or keep academic jobs in a bleak job market, despite significant personal costs, because they don’t want to give up on their commitment to philosophy and/or philosophy education. Do you think there are viable career paths for such philosophers in primary or secondary education? If so, what advice do you have for graduate students or academic philosophers considering a shift to other educational careers?

TOM: I’m currently teaching a Seminar on Existentialism for School Teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  This is the third time I’ve done so, and this opportunity has allowed me to meet teachers who began philosophy graduate school but decided to take a different career path.  Some even got PhDs before settling into a teaching career.  So there certainly are opportunities, especially at the high school level, for people to teach philosophy.  Of course, few public schools have dedicated philosophy classes, though some do.  There is more flexibility in private schools.  What I tell people who are interested in teaching philosophy in schools is that they need to have another areas, such as English or history, and that they can use their base in one of those disciplines to teach philosophy.

What I have realized from getting to known middle and high school teachers is that there are opportunities for teachers to teach philosophy at those levels.  Sometimes, there are dedicated philosophy classes, but that’s not the only way to teach philosophy in schools.  In an English class or a history class, for example, a teacher can choose a philosophy text or a text that has philosophical themes and use that as a way of introducing philosophy into the curriculum without having to get permission to teach a dedicated philosophy course.  And I should add that some of the teachers I have worked with have been inspired to introduce programs where their high school students teach philosophy to younger students at their schools or in their districts, modeling their programs on mine at Mount Holyoke.

If a student wants to pursue the idea of teaching philosophy at the high or middle school level, I do suggest that they at least minor in a field that is regularly taught, like English or history.  If they are not certified, they will have to work in a private school or a charter school.  So getting certification is also an option.  These students do have to think strategically about how they’ll get the opportunity to teach philosophy in the schools.


DEREK: Speaking more generally, would you advise undergraduates with a talent and passion for philosophy to pursue a PhD in philosophy? If not, what other outlets would you suggest for that passion? 

TOM: That’s a difficult question, given the bad market for philosophy professors.  With talented students who have a deep passion for philosophy, one that they can’t imagine quenching, I tell them to go to graduate school but only with eyes wide open.  They have to realize that they may have a rough path before landing a tenure track job, if that is even possible.

But one of the real problems with graduate school is how often the message gets conveyed that the only appropriate path to take for someone with genuine philosophical interest is becoming a professional philosopher and, given our society, what that means is a philosophy professor.  There are so many opportunities for people to use their philosophical skills in other jobs and professions that it’s irresponsible of graduate schools to ignore them.  More and more firms are realizing that philosophers have an ability to cut to the chase and really see what the crux of an issue is.  So students who love philosophy should be encouraged to take their passion and bring it into the market place and use it to bring greater sensitivity and intellectual scruples to many different arenas.  Remember that Socrates wasn’t interested in creating more people like himself, but in educating the leaders of his society using his skills.  So students should see that taking their philosophical interests into the public arena is really just continuing the tradition of philosophy that began in ancient Athens.


Thanks to Tom for sharing his experience and reflections. Do yourself a favor and check out the short documentary video at WGBY about Mount Holyoke’s philosophy for children course, which includes footage of second grade students engaged in philosophical conversations. For a wealth of additional information and resources about philosophy for children, including the syllabus to Tom’s undergraduate class, additional interviews, and specific modules based on children’s books, see his website Teaching Children Philosophy. For classroom-ready modules for using films to teach philosophy in middle school, see his other website What’s the Big Idea?

Tom’s most recent web project is Philosophy@The Virtual Art Museum, a website that uses works of art to raise philosophical issues in different areas of philosophy.  The website is appropriate for high school students.  His book, A Sneetch Is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries uses children’s picture books to introduce philosophy to older students and the general public.