Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

It’s Never Too Early to Learn to Think

Full vitae thinking heads

Image: iStock

When Marcello Fiocco was in fourth grade, his teacher engaged his class in an offbeat exercise. She asked them to contemplate an object they saw every day — it might have been a table, he recalled, or a window — and see it anew. The moment stayed with him, and years later, it helped him decide to go to graduate school in philosophy.

Today Fiocco is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Irvine, where he tries to create such revelatory moments in his own classrooms. But he’s not just doing it for college students. He’s going into local elementary schools — and taking graduate students with him.

Fiocco’s project is called TH!NK. It’s a simple design: A philosopher visits the same group of grade-school students weekly for four weeks, for an hour or so each time. The philosopher reads a short piece aloud — usually a story — and then leads a philosophical discussion with the children based on the story. A typical question, Fiocco told me, might be, "Can we have shape without color?" Or, following from an excerpt from The Little Prince, the discussion leader might ask, "Could you own the moon?"

The children respond eagerly to these challenges. "They all seem so excited to provide answers or get to the bottom of debates, and it is a joy to see," Kourosh Alizadeh, a graduate student in philosophy, wrote in an email. "We keep pushing them," said Fiocco. "We keep asking them, ‘Why?’" Fiocco recalled one fifth grader exclaim, "I’m thinking so much my brain hurts!"

Fiocco designed the program to fit California’s primary-school curriculum — specifically to fulfill its California Common Core Standards for speaking and listening — which makes school principals more willing to participate. But the program also benefits the graduate students who teach in it.

"I work with TH!NK because I enjoy it," said Alizadeh, but it also "helps me when I teach undergraduates at the university," particularly in leading class discussions on campus. "If you can manage a group of fifth graders," he said, you can handle any class.

Funded by an intramural grant within Irvine, the program runs on the proverbial shoestring. Graduate students who take part in it receive stipends so modest as to be symbolic, and the children’s classroom teacher gets a small payment to be an engaged observer ("so they don’t sit in the corner grading papers," said Amanda Swain, executive director of Irvine’s Humanities Commons and an administrator of the program).

TH!NK brings philosophy to young people at a time when they can learn to appreciate its value in their work and play. Few fifth graders have even heard of "philosophy," but that doesn’t matter. Primary schoolers, said Fiocco, "start in the same place" as 18-year-olds. "They ask the same things. So if you get them earlier, they learn that asking these questions is OK."

Philosophy, Fiocco writes in a description of the program, is a "natural skill" of "the greatest practical importance" — and it’s open to everybody. He wants to push back against the idea that the field "is only for geniuses and sages." Put simply, it’s "critical thinking," which happens to be the phrase that defenders of the liberal arts invoke more often than any other.

We humanists in higher education could do with some critical thinking ourselves. In particular, we should pause to reflect on the success of a program like TH!NK. Colleges and universities need to keep our problems in front of us these days — we can’t afford to hide from them. The widespread perception that the humanities have no practical use is a big problem for all of higher education. Irvine’s program is helping to combat that perception from the bottom up.

The relationship between higher education and the general public is tattered: Try Googling "college is a scam" and see the millions of hits it gets. We’re the ones who have to start mending that relationship, and programs like TH!NK light one branch of the larger path we need to take.

That branch starts with students, but before they go to college. It has often been said — by me, anyway — that no industry treats its main supplier with greater indifference than higher education treats the K-12 school system. Anyone who works in academe knows that we care about what we do. But people outside of higher education don’t see it the same way. We can show our commitment if we reach out to the young people who will become our students, before they become convinced that their only way to success is to major in marketing or finance. (Not that there’s anything wrong with marketing or finance, but you can learn it later, on the job.)

Alizadeh sees myriad benefits for the elementary-school students he works with, starting with a "deeper appreciation for just how wild and complicated and open the world is." Philosophy shows you, he said, "how much of what you take for granted is really an option that you chose somewhere along the line." Philosophy "opens all those doors you had accidentally closed without even knowing you were closing them." If students can begin to acquire such awareness at age 10, it’s easy to imagine how it might affect their educational choices later on.

But it’s not just about what those students will do later on in college. TH!NK, says Alizadeh, helps children in "thinking about their own lives and the world around them. They ask more questions and try harder to fit ideas together." This capacity for reflection "enables them to make better and more rational decisions about how to live their lives."

You might say that the students are learning how to be members of a democracy while they’re in grade school — which is what we might hope they would learn there. Says Fiocco: "I’m reaching kids who are going to be my fellow citizens." And that’s what we all hope that the liberal arts can do for people.

My point is not that members of every discipline should march themselves into primary schools — though we could do a lot worse. More generally, TH!NK shows how we as academics can build a stronger relationship with the world outside our walls. All of us, inside and outside of the ivory tower, stand to gain if we do.

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