Philosophizing in primary school

Philosophizing in primary school

What has philosophy to do with primary school? Whether in a positive way or critically, most of those who hear of such an initiative are puzzled and raise the question. How could this activity even be considered with children aged three to eleven while eighteen years old teenagers, whose Bachelor results in the field are not particularly good, often struggle with this strange material of dubious reputation? Or else, let’s ask the question differently: at eighteen, isn’t it too late to philosophize, too late to start in any case?

Which professor does not periodically feel helpless while striving for a whole year to induce a kind of critical thinking in his students, amongst other skills, often without much success? If, for reasons generally related to a favorable family environment towards this type of method, some students seem to be able to develop a certain intellectual fitness to move about within the philosophical path, this is not the case for the majority. For most, critical thinking and the development of speech as a reflective tool remain foreign and unusual practices.


It is not that an initiation into critical thinking would necessarily produce miracles and solve all pedagogical problems, but if we were to think that it is somewhat necessary, could we not avoid the artificial veneer, the tardy and drop out side of the matter, the idea of a single school year set up as a coronation? Could we not instead chose to gradually accustom our children to such a state of mind, according to their gradual cognitive and emotional development? Of course, and there probably lies the crux of the matter, it would be required to extract philosophy from its mainly cultural and scholarly coating in order to conceive of it as a probation of the singular being, as the constitution of an individuality that builds up since tender years through the formation of the mind. The true difficulty certainly lies in this Copernican revolution: it requires the toppling of a certain amount of educational concepts.


From our point of view, we are here involved in a ‘philosophizing’ defined as a pedagogical practice and not as a separate field of inquiry or as a specific subject. To begin with, let’s try to identify how, for example, a discussion with children could be philosophical. This is because the form of the exercise often amounts to a discussion, especially when writing skills are still missing, when it comes to confront various perspectives or when one must harass the mind in order to bring its errors to light. We were once asked: “Would it not amount to a mere propaedeutic to philosophy, a simple preparation to philosophizing?” But in the end, within the Socratic tradition, is not philosophizing in essence a propaedeutic? Is it not a never ending training? Is not ongoing questioning its live matter? Is not any particular idea a simple hypothesis, a momentary event in an ongoing thinking process?


Therefore, do we engage in philosophy less when we actually make a practical attempt at philosophy or when we get stuck in thick and complex philosophical theories? Does the scholar engage in philosophy more than the child in kindergarten? Nothing is less certain. What is worst, the question is irrelevant. For, if philosophizing is a trial of the singular being, it is by no means certain that the awakening of critical thinking is not a much more fundamental transformation on the personal level than what any intricate analysis of the seasoned scholar could ever offer. It is for this reason that philosophical practice should be incorporated early on in a child. There is otherwise a risk that the life of the mind be later on perceived as a peripheral operation, something external to existence. This is a common phenomenon observed within the philosophical establishment and more generally in education.


However, let’s imagine that in attempting to inculcate a philosophical practice in the early beginnings of the schooling process we might run the risk of reaching the limits of philosophy. Haven’t we fall in the mere learning of language in general? Or in some minimal art of discussion? The philosophical ingredient here seems to be so diluted that it is to flatter oneself to continue to make use of such a label to define the pedagogical practice. Here again, let’s look at the problem from another angle. Let’s ask ourselves if, on the contrary, the fact of facing liminal situations, all the while challenging the very idea of philosophizing, its mere possibility, does not force us to restrict to a maximum the definition of such an activity, so as to articulate its constitutive and limitative unity in a more essential manner. In other words, is not by any chance the emergence of philosophizing the very essence of philosophy? This seems to be the question towards which Socrates is pointing at when, to the bewilderment of the modern scholars, he continuously engage in philosophy with the uninitiated, including the learned sophists, those so-called enemies of philosophy. It is as if he was challenging us by showing just how much can thus be accomplished. Could not this extreme trivialization of philosophy become its most revealing expression, a dramatization of its mysterious activity which escapes from anyone who tries to grasp at it as a vulgar object, like the amorous feeling?


2 – The three registers of philosophizing


As a starting point to our practice, let’s determine three registers of philosophical requirement, in other words three aspects that will be used to constitute the practice. These three aspects of the activity seem to define a requirement that comes in addition to the mere exercise of speech or to the use of reading and writing, similar to what any elementary teacher is already doing. We are referring to the three intellectual, existential and social dimensions; three terms that anyone can rename has he pleases. All three registers could be summarized as the idea of thinking by oneself, being oneself and being among the group.


Intellectual (To Think by Oneself)


  • To propose concepts and hypothesis.
  • To structure, articulate and clarify ideas.
  • To understand the ideas of others and one’s own.
  • To analyze.
  • To reformulate or modify an idea.
  • To work on the relation between an example and an idea.
  • To argue.
  • To practice interrogating and objecting.
  • Initiation to logic: the link between concepts, coherency, and the legitimacy of ideas.
  • To formulate one’s judgement.
  • To use and create conceptual tools: error, lie, truth, triviality, contrary, identical, categories, etc.
  • To verify the comprehension and the sense of an idea.


Existential (To be oneself)


  • Singularization and universalization of thought.
  • To express and assume one’s identity through one’s own choices and judgements.
  • To be aware of oneself: of one’s own ideas and behavior.
  • To master one’s reactions.
  • To work on one’s own way of being and thought.
  • To question oneself, so as to discover and to recognize errors and incoherencies.
  • To see, to accept, to say and to work on one’s own limits.
  • To distinguish between one’s way of being, one’s ideas and oneself.


Social (To be and to think within the group)


  • To listen to the other, to give him space, to respect and understand him.
  • To be interested in the ideas of the other: to reverse self-centeredness by reformulating, questioning and engaging in dialogue.
  • To risk oneself and to integrate a group: to test oneself through the other.
  • To understand, to accept and to apply functional rules.
  • To discuss functional rules.
  • To take responsibility: modification of the status of the student towards the teacher and the group.
  • To think together instead of competing: to learn to confront ideas and to emulate.


Thinking by oneself


One possible summary of the activity that we are describing here is the principle of “thinking by oneself’. It is an idea cherished by the philosophical tradition, something that Plato, Descartes or Kant articulated as the first and fundamental injunction. Of course, some might smile at the idea of “thinking by oneself” in kindergarten. We will discuss this reluctance later on. For now it suffices to say that, if we maintain this pattern of doubt till the end, we won’t hesitate to assert, in Final, if not even in College, as is common, that students don’t have anything interesting to say anyway. No wonder then, that we see ignorance and contempt, for oneself and others, flourishing in a more or less conscious and explicit manner.

“Thinking by oneself” means, first of all, to understand that thought and knowledge do not fall from heaven already armed and shielded, but that they are produced by individuals whose sole merit is to ponder on ideas, to express them, to examine and to refashion them. Thus, the thinking process is a practice, not a revelation. Otherwise, if from his early days a child is led to believe that to think and to gather knowledge amounts to learning and repeating the ideas of adults, all preconceived ideas, then it is only by accident that he might ever learn to think for himself. Generally speaking, it is heteronomy rather than autonomy that he will be prompted in his behavior. A difficulty remains: how can one who assume the Master’s function, the teacher, ever encourage a child to think by himself?

One must consider In the first place that the thinking process might be defined as a natural act which every human being possesses in varying degrees from his early days onwards. However, considerable work must be done, and this is the responsibility of the parents and teachers. In class, any exercise in that direction will require the child to articulate the ideas that arise and dwell in his mind in a more or less conscious manner. Their articulation constitute the first and most crucial component of the practice of “thinking by oneself”. On the one hand because verbalization allows for a greater awareness of these ideas and of the mind that generates them. On the other hand, because difficulties encountered during the formulation of these ideas directly relate to the difficulties inherent in thinking itself: imprecisions, paralogisms, incoherencies, etc… One must therefore not simply incite a child to talk, to express himself, but to do so with a greater mastery of his thought and speech. By the way, let us mention that even if understanding, learning and summarizing a lesson might also help to acquire this capacity, this traditional mode of teaching, left unto itself, tends to encourage parroting and formalism, a disembodied speech and, most of all, a double language. In other words, it leads to a radical rupture between expressing what one thinks and holding a discourse expected by authorities. This catastrophic rupture has severe consequences on the intellectual and social level.

In brief, ‘thinking for oneself’ consists in several components. First, it means to express what one thinks on a given topic, which already requires that one reflects on the question, and to clarify one’s own thought in order to be understood. Second, it means to become aware of what one thinks, an awareness that already partially refers to the implications and consequences of such ideas. From this, a somewhat forced reasoning draft comes about. Third, it means to work on this thinking process and this speech so as to fulfill the requirements of clarity and consistency. Fourth, it means to venture towards the other, this other who questions us, who contradicts us, of whom we must assume the ideas and speech while reviewing and rearticulating ours. However, there is no formal lesson that could ever replace this practice, nor would discourses on swimming ever replace a jump in the bath and movements in water.


Being oneself


As shocking as this may seem to some, going to school is an alienating activity for the existing and thinking subject of the child. This being said, to reassure our readers, we may add that all educational and institutional activity is alienating in one way or another, since it pretends to root out the child from its natural state in order to initiate him to the human community. The purpose here is simply to become aware of the paradoxical pretentions of such an enterprise. It is even more pronounced in the French educational establishment, which is rather traditional. In the West, the French system is one of those who insists the most on that uprooting dimension of education, despite certain inflexions in primary education undertaken in the last decades. The whole issue is to what extent one can decide between a “naturalistic” vision, where the child is left to himself, where his natural tendencies must find their own expression, and a “classical” vision resting primarily on the transmission of values, knowledge, truths and so on. There is no readymade and perfect recipe able to guarantee the success of the enterprise. It is simply a matter of being aware of the tension through which operates all educational action. This is the only safeguard between Charybdis and Scylla.

    To be concrete, let’s describe two kinds of resistance to philosophical activity in class, be it in primary or in secondary school. First, the good student syndrome: this one will not commit himself unless he is certain to get the right answers. He knows that, when a question is being asked, a “right” answer or the way to find it has already been provided to him. If a question is asked while no help is provided to find the answer he remains silent. He won’t risk anything. He is usually very perceptive and able to guess the expectations of the adult. To model his behavior on those expectations does not cause him the least problem. In fact, he trusts the adult more than himself. He is generally a quite pleasant student and one would wish to have more like him since he is quite rewarding for the teacher. He is thus well schooled and appreciative of the established order, something which somewhat prevents him from being creative. He does not value the self, especially if he swears by the established order. In this sense, he does not allow himself to be who he is, since all his identity rests upon the institution’s sanction. He has no distance from external pressure.

    A mirror of “the good student”, the “duffer”, like any inversion, preserves in essence what he is opposed to. The second is the “cunning” version of the first. He is as equally aware of the institutional mechanisms in place at school as the first one, but he is much more cynical. Maybe he is so because he does not feel capable of playing the game, or maybe he simply does not feel like it. But he knows how to “play” in his way. He can consciously cheat. He must be in class while he would probably prefer to be somewhere else, so he learned how not to be there while pretending that he is. He knows very well what the limits not to be exceeded are and, even when he transgresses them, he knows that he does. He knows what should be done and that’s why he is not doing it. He places no trust in the adult, or very little. But he knows how to get what he wants, however destructive his “desires” might sometimes be.

    Why do we spend time on these “caricatures”? To give a negative sample of what we mean by “being oneself” in the philosophical practice. It means to take a personal risk in exposing oneself to judgement without having any certainty nor warranty regarding the correct answer; to risk oneself in confronting the other without knowing who is right. It means to accept that the other, our kin, might have something to teach us, and this without him having received any form of authority from some kind of institution. The hierarchical relation between the teacher and the student is here more or less dissolved. This might be problematic since, from then on, in the eyes of some, it is not obvious anymore whom or what to obey. Others might wonder what they should be resisting from. One is therefore left with the only option to get involved and to engage in the process, to risk making mistakes and shortcomings, to be oneself and to become aware of the limitations and weaknesses of our being. This must happen while avoiding both the complacencies of self-glorification and of self-contempt. We must help others.


Being and thinking together


The practice of philosophical discussion mainly boils down to connecting the student with the world he lives in, something that can be called a process of “socialization”. Here again could be argued that this process has nothing particularly special, since any school activity implies a dimension or another of socialization. On the other hand, one may wonder about the relationship between this socialization and philosophy. Let’s suggest the idea that the increased dramatization of the relation to another, a relation that is central to the functioning of our exercise, allows for the creation of a situation in which this relation becomes an object to itself. This can be explain from several viewpoints. First, the rules set out require everyone to stand out. Second, they imply to know the other, to know what he said. Third, they involve entering into a dialogue or to risk oneself in confrontation with the other. Fourth, they involve being able to change the other and to be changed by him. Fifth, they involve verbalizing these relations, to raise in conversation topics that usually remain in the shadow of the unspoken, or confine themselves to a mere alternation between reproach and reward. To turn the problem or difficulty into an object to be considered in itself, something to reflect on, is a specific feature of the philosophical practice, something that is called “problematization”. Problematization requires that the thinking process be caught in its flow, taken as it comes, as it is, and to work with that spontaneous reality instead of with some predefined theoretical ideas.

It would be possible to compare our practice with that of team sport, an important socialization factor for children. It is something that involves getting to know the other, what he does, how to act on him and confront him. This type of activity can be distinguished from classical intellectual activity, which generally occurs alone, even within a group; an intellectual individualism naturally encouraged by the school, often without the teachers fully noticing it. It is a tendency that gets exacerbated over the years. It causes many problems along the way, amplifying the “winner and loser” aspects of the game.

On the contrary, the philosophical practice that we are describing here encourages the “thinking together” dimension. It aims at introducing the idea that we are not thinking against the other or to defend ourselves from him, either because he scares us or because we are lock in a competition with him, but that we are thinking together with him, through him. On the one hand, it is such because the general reflective process evolves along the students’ contributions to the discussion. During the workshop, the teacher will have to periodically summarize the important contributions that gave the context to and formed the discussion. On the other hand, it is such because, while discussing with him, while changing our mind, or while changing his, instead of coldly clinging to our views, if not angrily, we learn to benefit from the other. There again, the fact that problem management difficulties arise, coming from a colleague or from the teacher, is part of the discussion and helps to defuse individual tensions. It encourages the child to reason instead of wanting to be right. Let us mention that this kind of fear, if left untreated, creates major difficulties, ever more visible as school years go by, and this goes without mentioning the impact on the adult to be. If a child learns to think in common at an early age, he learns both how to assume a singular thought, how to express it, and how to defend it. He learns to benefit from the ideas of others and to let others benefit from his. Thus, the philosophical dimension consists in making sure that the child is becoming aware of the processes of individual and collective thinking, that he notices the epistemological obstacles that constrain the thought process and its expression, and that he can verbalize these blockages and obstacles by raising them in conversation topics.

  A last argument in favor of this increased socialization process of thought is that inequalities among children appears very early on. Already in kindergarten one can see that some children are not accustomed at all to discussion. Regardless of the relative individual ease or difficulty to engage in discussion, the teacher realizes that some children are not surprised to see that we want to discuss with them, while others seem at lost to understand what is expected of them when they are invited to speak up. These behaviors are most likely linked with the familial context. For these reasons, speech, which should be a source of integration and socialization, becomes a source of segregation and exclusion.

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