2009 12 29
Recently read: Two books on philosophy and children

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Gareth B. Matthews. Philosophy and the Young Child

Gareth B. Matthews. Dialogues with Children

Gareth B. Matthews is a professional philosopher well-known for his work on Ancient and Medieval philosophy. He has also had a long-standing (and often related) interest in pedagogy. These two books of his on philosophy and children, both from the early 1980s, are wonderful, and deserve a much wider audience than they probably currently enjoy.

Neither book aims to offer a “how-to” for engaging children in philosophical dialogue, though they are brimming with examples. One of their main virtues, besides simply offering clear accounts of interesting philosophical issues, is the spirit in which they approach philosophical conversation with children. Here is a nice statement of Matthews’ approach, from Philosophy and the Young Child:

The combination of assets and liabilities that an adult brings to a philosophical encounter with a child makes for a very special relationship. The adult has a better command of the language than the child and, latently at least, a surer command of the concepts expressed in the language. It is the child, however, who has fresh eyes and ears for perplexity and incongruity. Children also have, typically, a degree of candor and spontaneity that is difficult for an adult to match. Because each party has something important to contribute, the inquiry can easily become a genuinely joint venture, something otherwise quite rare in encounters between adults and children.

In the wrong hands, it’s easy to imagine this slipping into an unrealistic, naive or romantic view of children, and indeed, without further discussion, it’s exactly what I would have imagined. But it’s very clear from the dialogues that he produces that Matthews really does succeed in pulling off some wonderful conversations.

Both books are also interesting because they offer a forceful challenge to prior work (Piaget is a special target) on children, philosophy and cognitive development. Matthews argues that researchers are often too quick to try to cram interesting questions and thoughts into unhelpful developmental stages, often misunderstanding the relevant philosophical issues along the way. Chapter 4 (“Piaget”) of Philosophy and the Young Child is especially focused on this issue, and it’s refreshing to see a philosophically sophisticated defense of a child’s end of a conversation with the famous psychologist.

Although Matthews’ focus throughout both of these books is the young child, educators at any level could read them with profit. They’re informed by a genuine love of interesting philosophical questions, and I could imagine myself dipping into them for inspiration as I planned a first year introduction to philosophy class, just as readily as I will in fact be dipping into them again when I am thinking about philosophy with my (due in April) son, when he is old enough to talk philosophy with his Dad.

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2009 12 07
Recently read: Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Posted by in: Books, children, Psychology

Lise Eliot. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain is about gender differences and their causes. The main outlines of the book can be summarized fairly quickly: Much popular journalism about gender differences is really awful. Journalists often present the conclusions of poorly designed studies about gender differences as fact; misrepresent good studies; or represent good studies well, but without noting the existence of conflicting evidence in the scientific literature. Eliot, a professor of neuroscience, is able to pick her way through this terrain in a surer way. She examines the biological roots of the predispositions that do tend to differ in males and females, pausing frequently to discuss the scientific evidence supporting her claims. The differences are sometimes real. But Eliot argues that they’re often much smaller than you would think on the basis of popular reporting.

Small original differences, however, can lead to large gaps at the end of a process of development, partly because of the influence of culture, and partly because real innate dispositions, even weak ones, shape behaviour. The remarkable plasticity of the developing brain means that spending a lot of time engaged in certain kinds of activities shapes further development along the same lines. A slight predisposition to engage in games that are especially effective at developing a facility with spatial concepts, for example, can have a big influence on performance in math class years later.

Boys and girls can be disadvantaged in different ways by this, since it leads many individuals of each sex to under-develop important cognitive and emotional skills at a time in their lives when their brains are most able to absorb new skills. The good news, however, is that parents and teachers can intervene in all sorts of ways to correct for this. Eliot’s eminently sensible goal is adults who have a decent blend of traits that are stereotypical for each sex: assertiveness, empathy, etc. Her book has good practical advice about this, and an interesting, readable discussion of the science underpinning those recommendations.

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2009 11 10
Recently read: The Philosophical Baby

Posted by in: Books, children, Philosophy

Alison Gopnik. The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life

I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here yet that Yoon is (19 weeks and one day) pregnant. I’ll try not to turn this into an awful baby blog, but the fact that I’m going to be spending a significant amount of time in the company of an infant come the Spring has got me interested in reading about babies.

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik (sister of the New Yorker’s Gopnik) tackles some really interesting questions: What is it like to be a baby? How do young children think, experience the world, view moral issues? Gopnik is pretty effective at challenging the classic view of children as cognitively defective adults. When you consider just how much children are absorbing, and how quickly, they start to seem anything but cognitively defective. Gopnik proves a thoughtful and engaging guide through some recent work by cognitive psychologists on these issues.

I thought the least effective part of the book was Gopnik’s discussion of morality and moral intuitions in children. Gopnik at least avoids confusing altruism and morality—they’re really completely different, the former being a kind of motivation, and the latter having to do with what we owe one another—as some writers sometimes do. But the connection between them seemed to me somehow muddled in parts of her discussion, as betrayed by a proliferation of vague expressions connecting them. I also noticed that her discussion of morality treated it as entirely concerned with what we owe other people. But that’s only half of it! Morality is also about what they owe us, and that side of it is important to understanding essentially moral emotions like indignation, to give just one example. It seems to me that there are also fairly rich and interesting connections between self-conception and morality (“Am I that sort of person?”) that would have served Gopnik better for reflection than the trolley problem, to which her discussion failed to add much.

But that’s just quibbling from a grad school drop out. This is a fun book, and people interested in kids and how they see the world will probably find lots here to enjoy.

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