Prominent TheoristRecommends Philosophy for Children
Maughn Gregory, January 2011
In her new book from Princeton University Press,Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), American philosopher Martha Nussbaum recommends Philosophy for Children as an exemplaryprogram of “Socratic pedagogy,” which, she argues, is a necessary component ofeducation in democratic societies. Nussbaum calls attention to a“world-wide crisis in education” (2): making national economic growth itsprimary purpose. This crisis involves “radical changes … in what democratic societies teach the young,” (2) and in particular, the de-emphasis and evenelimination of teaching the humanities and the arts. Nussbaum’s own philosophy gives education three aims: to prepare people “for [democratic]citizenship, for employment and, importantly, for meaningful lives” (9). As her title indicates, the book’s focus is on the first of these aims,and its argument may be summed up in two statements: democracy requires threebroad kinds of abilities - “the ability to think critically; the ability totranscend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a “citizen of theworld”; and ... the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicaments ofanother person” (7); and a liberal arts education, with emphasis on the artsand humanities, is necessary to cultivate these abilities.
In chapter 4,“Socratic Pedagogy: The Importance of Argument,” Nussbaum traces a genealogy ofSocratic education - “in which the child [is] an active and critical participant,” (57) to eighteenth-century Europe and North America, andnineteenth-century India. As she explains it, Socratic pedagogy combines a focus on “the child’sability to understand the logical structure of an argument, to detect badreasoning, [and] to challenge ambiguity,” with a focus on the “Socraticvalues,” such as being “active, critical, curious, [and] capable of resistingauthority and peer pressure” (72). Nussbaum describes the work ofJean-Jacques Rousseau, Johan Pestalozzi, Friedrich Froebel, Bronson Alcott,Horace Mann, John Dewey, and Rabindranath Tagore, but explains that their workis mostly too theoretical, their recommendations too general and too time- andplace-specific to “show us … what we should do or can do here and now, in theelementary and secondary schools of today“ (72). Even Dewey, whomNussbaum calls “the most influential and theoretically distinguished Americanpractitioner of Socratic education,” (64) “never addressed systematically thequestion of how Socratic critical reasoning might be taught to children ofvarious ages.” (73) The solution she finds in one exemplary program:
But teachers who want to teach Socratically have a contemporarysource of practical guidance .... They can find very useful and yetnondictatorial advice about Socratic pedagogy in a series of books produced byphilosopher Matthew Lipman, whose Philosophy for Children curriculum wasdeveloped at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children atMontclair State College [now University] in New Jersey. Lipman begins from theconviction that young children are active, questioning beings whose capacity toprobe and inquire ought to be respected and further developed …. (73)
Nussbaum spends the remainder of the chapter describing the Philosophy for Children curriculum,extolling its attention to the logical properties of thought, its presentationof complex ideas through engaging stories, its illustration of how attention tological structure can pay off in daily life, the progression in complexity ofnovels for children of different ages, its treatment of philosophical topicssuch as mind and ethics, and its respect for children (73-6).
Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, and chair of the new Committee for Public Philosophy of the American Philosophical Association. She hastaught at Harvard, Brown and Oxford Universities, is a Board Member of theHuman Rights Program and founder and coordinator of the Center for ComparativeConstitutionalism. Her other publications include TheFragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy(1986, updated edition 2000), Love's Knowledge (1990), The Therapy ofDesire (1994), Poetic Justice (1996), For Love of Country(1996), Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in LiberalEducation (1997), Sex and Social Justice (1998), Women and HumanDevelopment (2000), Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions(2001), Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004), Frontiersof Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (2006), TheClash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future (2007), Libertyof Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality(2008), and From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and ConstitutionalLaw (2010).