Commentary: Five-year-olds taught philosophy

Here's a really exciting story from the BBC for all parents: It offers a rare reminder of something that western society used to be well aware of: That life is much easier and much better if we know why we want to do the things we want to do!

Everybody agrees that the word Philosophy refers to the reasons behind actions. We get into trouble these days with the word for our intentional actions: it's the dreaded four letter R word: Religion.

Historically, the word religion was understood to refer to our behavior; the things we do - not the things that we don't think about (like bad habits) but rather the things that we do on purpose. It has always been understood that we do what we do for a reason and - if we know and understand the reasoning in advance - it's much easier to figure out what we want to do.

The concept comes from periods in history where people were able to spend some time thinking about their lives. This is a particularly facinating topic these days because we are in that situation again right now: we ask ourselves constantly about what we are doing, about the pains that we endure; we sing songs to one another about the common problems we all recognize and we ask all kinds of questions about our lives.

The main question is always: "What should I do to have a good life?" or, as the ancient philosophers used to put it, "What is The Way of Life that leads to happiness and prosperity?" They were always looking for The Way - a philosophy of life that, if put into practice Religiously - intentionally and with understanding - would lead to peace, happiness and prosperity.

Some heard about Buddha and thought he had some great insight into the reality of life - so they tried to live their lives according to his philosophy. They call themselves Buddhists and they try to do the things that Buddha said he found to be condusive to a good life. They also try not to do the things that Buddha said are damaging. Some heard about Jesus Christ and thought He was on to something (capital H because I agree.) They call themselves Christians.

Unfortunately, most of us are born to Christian parents but never learn anything about Christ. We live our lives (in my case until I was in my early thirties,) not knowing anything about His philosophy - but acting on all the crazy things that people say about His way of life.

If you say you have no religion you are really saying that you have no action plan for your life - you are not leaning on the accumulated understanding of anybody in particular. Perhaps you are willing to repeat the mistakes of the past - happy to find out about life entirely on your own. Or, perhaps you rely on a few books that you've found to be helpful in life - in which case the truth is that you've cobbled together a religion of your own. Perhaps you don't want to think about it at all - so you convince yourself that everything is random and meaningless. Perhaps you met some crazy Bible-Thumper at some point in the past and now you insist that anybody with a religion is dangerous.

It certanly is true that some philosophies are dangerous when put into action: The denial of religion is just another religion. If you believe in your heart that religion is bad you can be sure that you are absolutely right - at least as far as your life is concerned. Your personal beliefs are preventing you from finding out about all kinds of interesting and potentially useful stuff!

This becomes a problem because, when you are on the spot and you need to make a decision quickly, you don't have a reliable framework to guide you.

Once when I was in high-school, one of my teachers asked every student in the class to write down what we wanted people to engrave on our tomb stones at the end of our lives. I answered, "He tried to be helpful." As I was growing up I remembered that day in school on many occasions. Often when I was in a bad situation, uncertain what to do, I remembered that day. So I would ask myself, "How can I be helpful in this situation?"

This one little bit of philosophy that I got at an early age had a dramatic impact on my life: When I wasn't sure what to do, I took a moment to think of something worth doing (well, I tried... I hope more often than not.) Most important: I had a simple plan that helped me think in the right direction.

I found out later in life that the above is a standard management training excercise - one of many useful ways to encourage and develop positive and beneficial behavior.

The highlighted article describes an entire school full of people who got the same idea - and experienced dramatic benefits when they tried it:

Head teacher Paul Jackson said: "Nearly all the children who came to our school did so because they had failed at their previous schools. They, and their parents, were disillusioned with the concept of education."

But a marked change was seen since the introduction of the P4C course, said teacher Lisa Naylor.

She said initially with her Year 4 class she faced a lot of disruption and many spent "several days a week in a Pupil Support Unit for behavioural issues".

"Within a few months, my class's ability to listen and respond appropriately improved almost beyond belief. [They were] able to challenge each other's ideas in an assertive and non-aggressive way.

"Original thoughts began to be expressed more in the sessions and the children began to demonstrate judgements based on reason."

Nawal, aged 10, said: "Philosophy's changed my lifestyle. Now I know that I can listen to other people's opinions, and I can say what I believe."

BBC News


Dr Michael Hand, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at University of London said: "A systematic review of this research in 2004 concluded that 'children can gain significantly in measurable terms both academically and socially' from P4C programmes.

"No subject more effectively improves the clarity and rigour of their [the children's] thinking."

BBC News