Little Big Minds


words  At a certain point in my adult life, I decided to give myself a crash course in philosophy. Sure, I’d learned plenty of details in college, but they had gotten lost in the day-to-day drama of making a living. It was time to start over completely. The process went something like this: 1) severe incomprehension, as if I was reading a personal computer manual written in Japanese; 2) the feeling that I had stumbled out of Plato’s cave—only to be greeted by a pitch black night; 3) the feeling that searchlights were gradually zeroing in on me; 4) glorious comprehension, whether I was reading the convoluted sentences of Heidegger or the god-awful prose of Hegel.

I’m certain I would have had an easier time of it had I been exposed long ago to Marietta McCarty’s methods of teaching philosophy to children. A professor at Piedmont Virginia Community College, McCarty believes that children are naturally disposed to wonder about difficult concepts without feeling defeated by them. To prove her theory, she’s traveled all over, introducing groups of kids to famous philosophers and classic philosophical concepts, and sparking discussion. Little Big Minds documents some of the amazing responses she’s received, as well as offers tips to educators and parents about how to start their own programs.

Kids K-8 discussing Kierkegaard? The Danish philosopher’s passion for personal identity strikes a chord with young minds, according to McCarty. “They vividly recall being part of a ‘million people at the mall,’ being ‘pushed in line’ for a popular ride at an amusement park…” All this is infused with a certain simplicity, but the concept that McCarty sets before the kids—that individual consciousness is as powerful as a collective, blinding consciousness—is an invaluable beginning to a life of thinking.

To name just a few of McCarty’s other methods: using the plot of Albert Camus’ novel The Plague to hash out the nature of responsibility; considering a child’s sense of timelessness through St. Augustine’s ruminations about God’s essence and the concept of human free will; tackling the nature of courage by way of Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist writings; using Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay “Portrait of the Anti-Semite” to wonder about the origins of prejudice, and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity to talk about the relationship between values and freedom.

Despite a few weaknesses (philosophy buffs will have to endure reading a lot of facts that they already know about famous thinkers; McCarty makes the teaching process sound too easy and doesn’t spend enough time discussing potential roadblocks), Little Big Minds is a wonderful book that will convince you of Bertrand Russell’s maxim that the study of philosophy can fill “the individual…with love of mankind.”