Monday, February 28, 2011

Scattered thoughts on children and learning; or: "children are born to philosophize"

Children and how they learn is a subject much on my mind of late. Play being of the utmost importance. (Piaget looms in the background, inevitably.)

We've received a book by Vivian Gussin Paley called A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play. I've only just begun it, but it's got me thinking. The ways in which children use fantasy in order to explore certain issues, in order to become who they are, reminds me of what Chris Knight and his colleagues have said and written about the human revolution. Very loosely, how in a sense the ability to make believe is what makes us human. Language being the ability to use symbols that are not in fact what they refer to. The ability to hold ideas in our minds, which are in a sense, fantasies.

It is in this context, among others, that I've often felt, though I remain an atheist, that the so-called rational drive to ridicule or eradicate religious belief is remarkably misguided.

Which reminds me of something Sarah Blaffer Hrdy wrote towards the end of her book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, about epigenetics, in which she wondered, speculated, at the possibility that those of our genes that have evolved enabling us to understand each other, and cooperate, both being necessary components of our becoming human, might at some point stop being "expressed", given the drastically changed and changing environment in which they have to operate on us, or to emerge. Which makes me double-back and think of our closed-off spaces, the unavailability of room for children to roam; and the current testing mania, teaching to the test, No Child Left Behind. How misguided, short-sighted, unsupportable it all is.

And the emphasis on play further reminds me of Gabriel Josipovici's work, and I think that literature is not a trivial matter, though we treat it like it is, though at the same time we nonetheless take it too seriously, too solemnly, when we take it at all, and that the best of it so often seems to embody a sense of play. The plays within plays of Shakespeare. The playfulness of Beckett and of Kafka (both all too often seen as dour). Kafka's work, and Borges', not unlike fables in their own way, in a sense, not unlike tales told by children, without the self-importance of literariness. . .

And just the other day, Skholiast noted the passing of two philosophers, J.T. Fraser and Matthew Lipman, only the former of which I'd ever heard, which means nothing. Both seem interesting, but Lipman is most pertinent here. "Frustrated by the apparent incapacity of college students to engage in critical thinking", he, among other things, wrote a series of novels aimed at pre-teens, intended, I gather, to explore philosophical topics. I love how Skholiast ends his post: "as a teacher of school-children I can confirm what probably ought to be obvious to anyone who thinks about it: children are born to philosophize, and what's more, ask far more ambitious questions than most grad students."

And I think, not for the first time, with some despair, that all of the elements are available, are accessible, for us to be better, but we seem bound and determined not to attend to what we know. We really don't know what we're doing, do we?


Jim H. said...

On my aesthetics final in philosophy grad school, we had a question that went something like this:

A man goes to his psychoanalyst and resolves to fabricate the facts of his life completely and utterly. He keeps this up over the course of seven years. Question: Is it possible for the shrink, given this falsified information, nevertheless, to arrive at some psychological truth about the condition of his patient?

You have three hours.

Richard said...

That's interesting, Jim. Though I have to admit I'm not getting your point.

Ethan said...

We really don't know what we're doing, do we?

No, but unfortunately I think someone, or worse, an abstract aggregate of someones, knows what it's doing to us.

This is a fantastic post, Richard, and if I weren't so damn tired I would want to shoot off in nine hundred exploratory directions from it, but as it is, I'm just going to say that I'm glad to see my opinion of Kafka (and my opinion of others' opinions of him...) ratified here.

Richard said...

Thank you, Ethan.

"I would want to shoot off in nine hundred exploratory directions from it"

this is only appropriate, since the post is intended to point in directions for further discussion, exploration... when you are less tired, I'd love to see some of your nine hundred.

R J Keefe said...

Children are the natural philosophers. A handful of gifted kids (Parmenides, Plato, Descartes, Wittengstein) have refused to leave it behind — troublemakers on an heroic scale.