Magazine Feature

A Sense of Wonder

Young philosophers in San Francisco ponder age-old questions

It is Wednesday and our twice-weekly gang meeting begins at 2 p.m. sharp. I am with 21 fourth and fifth graders at César Chávez Elementary School, a brightly painted school in the heart of San Francisco's vibrant but impoverished Mission District. The children and I are in the school library seated on comfortable sofas. The library, in many ways, is an oasis from the outside world, where drug dealers abound and young toughs who belong to gangs with names like the Crips and the Bloods haunt nearby street corners.

Trained in a unique masters degree program in teaching philosophical inquiry to children, I have been a volunteer teacher at César Chávez for nearly three years now. When I first visited with these children, who live in an area with a school dropout rate that is woefully high, few had ever heard of the word "philosophy." Now most can't imagine life without it. We call our group the Philosophers Gang.

"We philosophers think up questions, so we can think up answers, so we can think up more questions" is how my friend Andrés, a 4th grader, describes the philosophical pursuit.

No one questions, no one wonders, no one examines like children. Children are young versions of that quintessential questioning philosopher from ancient Athens -- Socrates -- who cultivated his childlike, but by no means childish, questioning nature throughout his life.

Socratic dialogue compels participants to look at ideas, people and ourselves in ways we may at first resist. It frees our minds by expanding our intellectual and imaginative horizons. Socratic dialogue can be a fertile foundation upon which children can develop and hone their critical and creative thinking skills and learn to listen to and respect the ideas of others.


Freeing the Mind

The first time I visited the children of César Chávez Elementary to introduce them to philosophy, I started out by giving them my spiel that "Philosophy begins with a sense of wonder." One of the children quickly responded, "What is wonder?"

"What do you take it to mean?" I replied.

"Well, I can't tell you exactly what I take it to mean," he said, carefully choosing his words. "But I can tell you what I wonder about."

"That's probably a great way to find out something about what it means," I said.

He paused and then said, "I wonder what other kids think of me. I wonder what they see. I'm jealous of them because they can see my face and I'll never be able to, except in a mirror. So I need them, because they can see me in a way I can't. For me, this is wonder."

This was a striking revelation about how others can determine how we see ourselves. Their teacher, who was observing the session, clearly was amazed. She told me later that this child rarely said a word in class and never revealed anything about himself. I wanted to tell her, "But this is philosophy. Philosophy works wonders with kids, and kids work wonders with philosophy." But it seemed best to let her think about this for herself.

What makes philosophy and kids such a perfect match?

Consider one Philosophers Gang gathering in which the group discussed a question proposed by Nelson, a soft-spoken boy from Guatemala with penetrating, almond-shaped blue eyes.

Nelson asked, "What is silence?''

But then he amended this and said, "Well, actually, what I really want to know is, is it possible to be silent if everyone else around you is screaming?"

He could see that I was slow to the take, so he explained, "Even when I try to go to sleep at night, I hear screaming. I hear gangs outside screaming. I hear the neighbors screaming. So I can't be silent even if I'm silent."

After a pause, he said, "So, I guess what I'm really wondering is, if everyone around you is screaming, can you really be silent? Because you can still hear everybody else even if you plug up your ears."

"Let's experiment," I said. We took turns stopping up our ears while everyone else in the Philosophers Gang screamed. Sure enough, the screaming foiled our best attempts at creating a wall of silence around us. So, we collectively concluded, it is, in fact, not possible to "be" silent, to be in a state of silence, with everyone screaming around us.

But then Edwin, who is from Peru and is the other usually "silent" member of our group, said, "Even if it is possible for someone to block out all the noise around him, it's still impossible for him to be silent. You can't be silent to yourself, even if you are silent to everyone else. I may not talk out loud, but I still talk to myself. I can't turn off the voices in my head. So that's not being silent at all. Is it?"

Socratic dialogue can be a fertile foundation upon which children can develop and hone their critical and creative thinking skills and learn to listen to and respect the ideas of others.

We again experimented. We all tried to be completely silent to ourselves, to "turn off" the voices in our minds. Each of us found it an impossible feat.

We fell outwardly quiet, ruminating with our voice within. What seemed like minutes passed. "You can be silent but not completely silent," Andrés, a special education student from Mexico, said finally.

"How so?" I asked.

"Well, we've been silent on the outside, but not inside our heads," he said. "So we have been silent. Just not completely silent."

Andrés' teacher's aide, who was sitting in on this particular discussion, took me aside after the gathering came to an end and said, "I didn't think Andrés was capable of thinking things like that."

"I appreciate your honesty," I told him. At least he admitted that he had stereotyped this child. Andrés may have learning deficiencies, but he and his classmates seem to have few limitations in their ability to transcend them. While in some cases their skills in the three R's may be below par, their ability in what I call "the fourth R" -- the ability to reason -- is extraordinary.

What's more, the Philosophers Gang members do not merely acknowledge one another's diverse views, they embrace them. For instance, at one meeting, I started out by slowly tearing a sheet of white paper in two. And then I asked them, "Was what I just did a violent act?"

Everyone said no. Except Jessica. "You're disrespecting the piece of paper," she said.

"But is that violence?" Carlos asked her.

"I think disrespect -- whether to a piece of paper or to a person or to anything else -- is a form of violence," she replied to him.

But Rosa disagreed. "If there is violence, there has to be screaming," she said.

"Screaming, huh?" I said. "Well, let's see ... ." And then I tore the paper again, but this time with much more vigor and with a sustained grimace on my face.

"Did I commit violence that time?"

This time every single person said I had.

"What's the difference if the result was the same?" I asked.

This gave them pause. Again it was Jessica who broke the silence. "There is no difference. Violence is violence, no matter what kind of look you have on your face, or whether you scream, or how fast or slow you tear the piece of paper."

"She's right," Carlos said, won over to her point of view. "I heard that those kids in Arkansas who opened fire on their classmates and teachers didn't yell or look mean. I heard they were cool and calm while they were shooting." His brow deeply furrowed, he then said, "To me, I think it's even scarier when they're that way than when they're screaming and making mean faces."

"Is all violence bad?" Rocio then asked.

They considered her question silently for quite some time. Finally Andrés said, "I kill germs when I wash my hands with hot water and soap. That's violence, right? I mean, I'm killing something."

"Yeah, but you have to do that to keep from getting sick yourself," said Emilio.

"I know that," said Andrés. "But it's still violence. It's violence ... it's good violence."

By the end of this discussion, virtually all of us looked at violence in a new way. We no longer viewed violence as something that is inherently evil. Instead, we saw it as something that can be good, bad and many things in between these extremes. And with this newly adapted perspective, the initially narrow view toward the concept of violence that some of us harbored had been unshackled.

This exhilarating discussion by the Philosophers Gang typifies how the children respect one another's viewpoints and allow each other to push their creative and critical thinking so they can see in ever-new ways. All of us older folks can learn a great deal from them.


Never Too Curious

I never fail to come away from a session with the Philosophers Gang in which I do not feel exhilarated by the new imaginative and intellectual horizons they reveal. For instance, at another gathering, I asked my fellow gang members to suggest questions for discussion. They came up with a bunch of promising candidates: What is right? What is old? What is young? What is?

"Why is there such a thing as a question?" I asked. "What's the reason for having the question in the first place?"

"Wonder," Nelson said.

"Knowledge," said Emilio.

"Curiosity," said Vanessa.

"Observation," Edwin said.

"What would life be without questions?" I asked.

"Boring," said Gabriela.

"Nothing," said Jetzabel.

"Impossible," said Andrés.

Rosa looked perplexed by these answers. "But what about that saying 'Curiosity killed the cat'?" she asked.

"Did you notice, though, that you are asking about that saying?" I inquired.

"Maybe it's a question we shouldn't try to answer," she said. But then she quickly added, "But I can't help it. If someone asks me a question, or if I think up a question, I feel like I have to try to answer it. I'm too curious!"

"Too curious?" Andrés said, looking at Rosa with a wide grin, his temples crinkling. "Never!"

I think of Socrates, who had one of the most insatiably curious and questioning minds of all time. He would rather have died than to live without the question.

Too curious? Never.

As I write this, I see Andrés bursting out of his chair, unable to contain his excitement over his latest philosophical finding. I see his hands kneading his furrowed brow, massaging his mind, as he thinks. I see him leaning forward over the table, smiling, wanting to speak but choosing not to, not just yet, as he still formulates the words and concepts that are spilling over one another in his mind. I see the look of peace envelop him as he puts them in place and then slowly articulates his thoughts out loud.

I see Socrates.

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