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Philosophy for primary pupils

Philosophy PhD student Kate Nave shares her experience as a philosopher-in-residence at an Edinburgh primary school

“On this island,” Khalid* declares. “Eevees are banned.”

An Eevee, for those not familiar, is a particularly adorable variety of Pokémon. Specifically, they are Eilidh‘s favourite Pokémon. Unsurprisingly, Khalid’s declaration causes an uproar among the Primary 3 class of Abbeyhill Primary School, who are currently engaged in a philosophical enquiry to decide upon the laws that will govern the new nation they’re building together. Each of them gets to propose one rule, and Khalid is adamant that this will be his.

“Should Khalid be able to ban Eevees?”

The class is divided. Khalid is a popular kid and manages to get a number of the other boys onside. Jess suggests dividing the island and only banning Eevees on one half of it. But now others are starting to contest all the previous rules too and we’re rapidly moving towards the establishment of thirty little micro-nations of one.

As Tom sagely points out, there doesn’t seem much point having rules just for yourself.

“We should vote,” he suggests.

So, we start back at the top of our list and this goes ok, at first. The relatively uncontroversial proposals such as “no bullying,” and “share food and water,’ pass with minimal fuss. But when we get back to Khalid’s all-out Eevee ban we don’t even get to a vote.

“It’s not fair,” Eilidh protests.

Tears seem imminent, but you can’t help but feel that she’s got a point. Khalid clearly cares less about the presence of Eevees than the prospect of winding up Eilidh. Even if most people vote for his rule, is that enough to make it a good one?

Potential waterworks aside, this is a pretty typical Philosophy for Children (P4C) session. As Abbeyhill’s ‘Philosophers-in-Residence’, myself and a fellow philosophy PhD student, Luke Kersten, have run weekly enquiries throughout the Spring and Summer term. This time, we’ve been discussing the nature of justice, and when it’s legitimate to constrain the freedom of others – though, good luck asking a group of thirty 7-year-olds what they think about that.

Instead, we set a scene. They’re a group of sailors who became trapped in a storm and washed up upon a completely deserted island. The captain and other officers are all lost at sea –there’s no one left to tell them what to do. This they are going to have to decide for themselves. It seems like every kid’s dream: ‘no parents!’ ‘no bedtime!’ ‘swimming straight after eating!’ But, like all good philosophical discussion, it quickly gets complicated.

When it comes to the question of Khalid’s Eevee ban – or, as it’s more familiar to undergraduate philosophy students, to John Stewart Mill’s problem of the tyranny of the majority – it turns out that Jack has concerns that run a little closer to home. His uncle recently married another man, and Jack does not at all like the fact that people are able to vote to prevent this from happening. Now P3 have started to think about other stuff that shouldn’t be banned just because the majority disapprove, and it turns out there are quite a few things they’re not altogether pleased about. 

Boys not being allowed to wear make-up, for instance. We skim over the fact that this is not actually illegal, leaving the notion of ‘de facto prohibitions’ for a future session. Instead, J.S Mill makes another incognito appearance. This time Alex is our medium, reviving the harm principle by pointing out that boys wearing make-up doesn’t hurt anyone, and so there’s no justification for banning it.

Unfortunately, at that, we’re out of time.

In previous sessions, we’ve discussed the problem of self-identity in body swaps, what counts as art, and the difference between animals and persons. While the names ‘Christine Korsgaard’ and ‘John Locke’ made no appearance – their ideas did. The ability of a bunch of five-year-olds to spontaneously reconstruct some of the central intellectual moves in a two-millennia-old discussion is both impressive and a tad humbling.

Equally surprising: Primary 3’s continual defiance of philosophical stereotypes about common sense and folk intuition. They do not all naturally assume that the mind is separate from the body, and opinions on whether our choices are pre-determined were evenly split. 

Advocates of P4C typically praise its ability to develop critical and engaged future citizens, capable of considering other perspectives and the reasons for their own views. In just a few months with Primary 3, we’ve already seen improvements in the way they respond to each other’s points, and provide reasons for their disagreement.

Perhaps also of importance, however, is the benefits of these sessions for us as critical, engaged philosophers, in developing an awareness of problems and perspectives from beyond narrow disciplinary concerns. At the very least, as a guard against idle declarations about what ‘the folk’ pre-theoretically believe.

In the first session, we asked P3 what they thought ‘Philosophy’ is. They didn’t know the answer – but then many established philosophers seem to be unsure about it too. In a later session, we tried again and converged on what is now my favourite way of defining it. “Philosophy is about finding out what other people think, and why they think it. And it’s about finding out why you think what you think too.”

*names changed

Philosophy and Education Project

Philosophy lecturers Dave Ward, Alix Cohen and Elinor Mason coordinate the University of Edinburgh Philosophy and Education Project, an initiative designed to bring the benefits of philosophical thinking to children in Edinburgh schools.

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