Agitate, America!: What today’s Republicans could learn from second-graders

Nancy Churchill

By Nancy Churchill
A Progressive Visionary

Professor Tom Wartenberg teaches philosophy to second-graders. More precisely, he teaches young teachers how to teach philosophy to second-graders through an award-winning program he founded, Teaching Children Philosophy (

As successful as it is revolutionary, Wartenberg’s program bucks about 2,000 years of philosophical tradition by crediting children with being “natural-born philosophers.” Listening to him lecture recently at Northern Illinois University about how second-graders learn to frame arguments and politely consider whether they agree with someone else’s position or not, Republican politicians who shut down the government came to mind. Seems to me those willing to hold the government hostage to get what they couldn’t in the last presidential election could learn a thing or two from a second-grade philosophy class.

Wartenberg provides a unique introduction to the philosophical ideas using children’s books as a starting point for valuable and engaging discussions between children and their parents, and as a means of helping both parents and children get more out of the books they read together,” says the jacket of his latest book, A Sneetch Is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries.

Take the case of Morris the Moose, by B. Wiseman, in which Morris insists a cow is a moose because she has four legs, a tail and horns. Under “Book Modules” of the website, when Morris insists that he knows the cow is a moose, despite her objections otherwise, children can be asked a series of questions, such as, “What’s wrong with Morris’ reasoning?” and “Is there more to knowledge than having reasons for a belief?”

Later in the story, a deer sees Morris with the cow and thinks they are both deer. “When Morris hears this,” the module says, “he gets angry and yells at the deer.” Questions to ask might be: “Does yelling make Morris right?” and “Why does he yell?”

I couldn’t help but think how useful it would be to ask such questions of Republicans who insist they know what is obviously false. But if they’re utterly convinced, how to budge them?

Alas, we learn, Morris, like our illogical Republican government-shutters-down, is caught in what philosopher C.S. Peirce called “the method of tenacity,” in which he is able to justify his beliefs in such a way that you cannot show him he is mistaken. “So long as Morris rejects the truth,” says Wartenberg, “the erroneous nature of his belief cannot be demonstrated to him.”

But, if second-graders can learn correct evaluation and critical thinking, why can’t Republicans? Looks like we should send them back to the second grade to learn a little philosophy, Wartenberg-style.

Education will not live up to its ideals until we make every student a philosopher,” says Wartenberg on his website. I dare say, our entire country could begin to live up to its ideals if every second-grader were taught philosophy. And we’d get there a lot quicker if we sent truth-deniers and government-shutters-down back to school.”

Nancy Churchill was raised in the D.R.C. (Congo), raced stock cars on short dirt tracks for 25 years, and is a proud, lifelong member of “We, the People.” She lives in Oregon, Ill.

From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2013, issue

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