Philosophy in children’s tales

March 13, 2014 5:00 pm0 commentsViews: 3

Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg joined the Department of Philosophy of Mount Holyoke College in 1984. Wartenberg chose to specialize in Philosophy for children and the study of pop culture. His work in the Philosophy for Children has been featured in the likes of the Harvard Education Letter and The New York Times. Receiving the James and Helen Merritt Award for Distinguished Service to Philosophy of Education has only motivated volunteering to help students understand the world around them.
YUJIA GUAN: How do you make philosophy entertaining?
THOMAS WARTENBERG: What you are learning when you are taking a philosophy class is what philosophers have said about different issues. They [students] don’t know Kant, they don’t know who Descartes is and they don’t know Aristotle. What I want them to understand is the experience of thinking about something philosophically. So what we always do is read a children’s picture book. Picture books themselves raise philosophical issues. What we are interested in getting into are present arguments and counterexamples and having discussion. That’s a philosophical discussion when you are thinking how a philosopher thinks.
YG: How does philosophy teach critical thinking skills in a way that no other department does?
TW: What we do is choose books that raise philosophical issues. One we always start with is Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad – Dragons and Giants. The story of Dragon and Giant is about the nature of courage. That’s a philosophical question, can you be brave and scared at the same time? What’s distinctive about what we do is that you have to be able to recognize what a philosophical issue is. And when we read the kid’s books, we start out and ask the question. So, I think Dragons and Giants poses that question.Toad actually makes the debate that people are brave and never scared. And you see how they act. They go on this trip and you have a counterexample of that definition. So you get kids to think about that and deal with the definition. Do you think that [the definition] fits what the story shows us? That’s exactly like what philosophers do. [The thought process] requires critical thinking skills. Some people think philosophy is thinking about thinking. You are learning to be more self-reflective and critical.
YG: Could you talk a little bit about your interest in Film Studies?
TW: When I first started Philosophy for Children, [Philosophy of Film] was my main area. I had the crisis trying to figure out how to do both of them at the same time. But in our culture there is [an idea] that philosophy seems so remote. People are also aware of that, and so I’m really interested in trying to show that these areas of popular cultures are ways in which philosophical issues are being addressed by people. Now philosophers realize that one of the ways they can keep people engaged in the ideas of thinking of philosophy is sort of to show that there are philosophical issues on TV. So that’s really interesting to me and I really enjoy thinking about that. I have been working on that area for a long time and it’s also been very rewarding.
YG: What is your experience like teaching at Mount Holyoke College and teaching women philosophy?
TW: The first paper I published when I got here was “Teaching Women Philosophy.” I suddenly had to think about the fact that the people I was talking to were mostly women. A lot of texts in the history of philosophy are sexist. So before, I could say, “Yeah, they are sexist, do we know that? We know better now,” which I could sort of characterize as a typical “male attitude.”
But when I was thinking that people are going to read Aristotle saying: “If you are a woman and a child, you are an idiot. You are not a rational thinker,” I have to talk about that with them. It really had a big impact on me. I started to include women philosophers in my courses whenever I could. I want my students to read and see that there have been women in philosophy.