I think my favorite age-group of students to do philosophy with is middle-schoolers.
There’s just something about those young people whose minds and bodies are busting out all over that leads to really lively and fascinating discussions. The kids are still young enough to be pretty willing to try out new ideas, but they’re also sophisticated enough to have surprising ways of looking at the world.
I also recall pretty clearly my sixth through eighth grade years which were, in many ways, the most influential in all my years of education; I’m sure, for instance, that my interest in philosophy stems from questions I asked—and usually didn’t get answered—at the time.
So I really enjoyed my couple of hours today with two different groups of sixth to eighth graders in the Alki program at Reeves Middle School in Olympia, WA. I took the bus down in a pouring rain this morning, thinking all the while, “Why am I doing this? I could be home, warm and dry.”
But as soon as I got to the school and the kids showed up after lunch and we started wondering together about what is philosophy and whether they themselves were philosophers, I was delighted I’d made the trek.
We pondered together what it means to think and to think about thinking. I asked the first group to think of the biggest thought they could think of. This led to a discussion about whether thoughts come in different sizes. One girl made an excellent distinction between the thing you’re thinking of and the thought that you’re thinking: “When I think of a star,” she said, “I’m thinking of something big; but that’s different than when I think of something big, like what I’m going to do with my life.”
Somebody mentioned that they “thought to themselves,” and then we started wondering whether it’s possible to think to someone else. Are all our thoughts though to ourselves?
In both classes, we segued into a thought experiment. In the first, we pondered the classic mind/body switch between two people; a consensus sort of emerged that personal identity is a mix between the mind and the body.
In the second, we talked about pain and where it is felt: is it in the head or in the body? I asked students to ask themselves which of these two they would choose: having a tooth removed with anesthesia for $1000 or having it removed for $5.00 if they were given a pill that would make them immediately forget the pain they experienced during the operation. They were pretty split and a couple even said that what they would prefer would be experience the pain AND remember it afterwards.
That’s the kind of answer you only get from middle-school students.