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The Importance of Philosophy

by Sharon Kaye

Philosophy is the story of brave thinkers who can change the world.

Here’s a question for you: What is your touchstone book? The book that changed your life. The book that made you realize who you are and what you stand for. You may not have fully realized it when you read it, but looking back, you know now what it was.

Mine is a book called Summerhill by the twentieth-century educator A.S. Neill. It’s about the world’s first children’s democracy. Neill founded the experimental boarding school called Summerhill in England in 1921. It still exists today, run by his daughter. In the book—a runaway hit in 1960s counterculture America—Neill described his philosophy and his experiences of trying to put it into practice. He wrote:

“A child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.”

I read this thesis some twenty-five years ago as a college student. It stopped me in my tracks because “wise” and “realistic” are the exact opposite of what children are supposed to be. I was intrigued. Could this thesis be true? I have young children of my own now, and I know that it is.

The whole problem, in Neill’s view, is that children are not left to themselves. In fact, they are subject to adult suggestion of every kind—from what they should eat to what they should wear, what they should do, and what they should believe. At Summerhill, Neill aimed to create a bubble, insulated from what his predecessor Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the “evil influences of civilization.”

Creating a bubble is one way to protect your child. But civilization has so much to offer in addition to its evils. Even as I carried around my beat-up paperback copy of Summerhill, I suspected that there must be a way to foster a child’s innate wisdom within the world of adult suggestion.

I myself learned how to confront and disarm the adult suggestions that tyrannized my life through philosophy. Philosophy is the history of intellectual rebellion. It tells the story of brave thinkers, from Plato to Simone de Beauvoir, who dared to question societal expectation. It gives you the tools you need to think for yourself: doubt, hypothesis, argument, objection, response. It shows that you can disagree respectfully, that you can come up with better alternatives, that you can change the world.

Sadly, I had to wait until I was eighteen years old and in college to study philosophy. By that time in one’s life, it is often too little too late. As a university professor of philosophy, I see that in so many of my students. They become deer in the headlights: Are you kidding me? I’m here to get a career. I have a million things on my mind, and I just don’t care anymore whether time travel might be possible. Perhaps what saved me is that I had been a part of an experimental group in fifth grade that got to read and discuss Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. At any rate, philosophy felt strangely familiar as I sat in PL101—like an old friend I wished I had spent more time with while growing up.

I want philosophy to be a lifelong friend for my children—and for all of their friends, and for all of their friends’ friends, and for the whole next generation. As they venture into civilization, philosophy will be their defense against me and all of the teachers, role models, bosses, and societal influences who, well-meaning or not, give too many suggestions and with too heavy a hand.

I was so happy to find in Royal Fireworks Press a publisher that is willing to take a chance on philosophy for kids. Philosophy needs to be a standard part of primary education. To do math and science and literature without philosophy is like trying to run with one leg. Philosophy is the mother of all academic disciplines, and it will always be a part of them, inspiring the ever-greater reach of the human mind.

Two years ago, I contacted Dr. Tom Kemnitz (president of Royal Fireworks Press) about writing a version of Plato’s Republic for children. I could practically hear him wrinkle his nose. “You know, to a kid,” he said, “Plato is a really boring old guy.” I almost felt for a moment that I was speaking to A.S. Neill himself, who wrote: “at Summerhill, we had one main idea: to make the school fit the child—instead of making the child fit the school.” Suddenly, the idea of making the book fit the child instead of making the child fit the book started snapping into place. Soon, with much guidance and encouragement from Tom, the book Question Mark was born. We hope that this curriculum series validates children’s innate wisdom and helps philosophy to become a welcome and integral part of their adventures in learning.

Dr. Sharon Kaye is Professor of Philosophy at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, she was a Killam postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since then, she has published numerous articles and books. Her works have been translated into Japanese, Greek, Turkish, Spanish, Portuguese, and Slovak.

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