I was once a great believer in philosophy for children. I’d read a class of children the wonderful chapter from Winnie the Pooh, ‘Eeyore’s Birthday’ in which Pooh wants to give Eeyore a pot of honey but eats the honey, and Piglet has a balloon for Eeyore, but it bursts. So Eeyore ends up with a burst balloon and an empty pot, but he’s delighted, he can put the burst balloon into the pot and take it out again. He’s happy. Then, of course, the children can discuss happiness and what it is and what it means, and how it happens. The wordy, confident pupils usually dominate the discussion, sometimes offering insight, often demonstrating some sort of philosophical approach. “It depends what you mean by happiness,” one will say, and I will be delighted.
The quieter children will still be thinking about the story, or are lost somewhere along the way, maybe stalled at the point where Piglet falls on the balloon and thinks he’s dead. But, you know, we have to move things along, get to the philosophy bit.
Except the other day a wordy confident child asked me if I knew what E=MC2 meant. Well, I said, I do, sort of, but I can’t really explain it beyond the most superficial outline. I did my best and he said he understood it. I explained that Einstein had one of his first major breakthroughs when he thought of someone falling. A person falling for long enough would achieve weightlessness.
I asked the wordy, confident boy to imagine he was in a lift, holding a pen, and then the cable broke and the lift fell, and kept falling until he was weightless. Imagine, I said, you then let go the pen. What happens to it?
Wordy boy mimicked the pen shooting up out of his hand. And then, from behind him, I noticed a girl who had said nothing, but who was listening intently, suddenly leaning forward. She was staring at me and her eyes were bright.
“It would stay there,” she said. “The pen would just stay there.” She nodded to herself as if confirming her idea, and sat back, resuming her silent rumination.
These silent children, these children who don’t shine or sparkle, or who fail to make any early impression on the world, I am convinced their thoughts are quietly gestating. Their minds are finding new ways to reimagine the world. The wordy, confident ones, the brilliant academic children who fly through exams, they have often matured early, they know to repeat what they’ve been told, adding some calculated sparkle for good measure.
Here’s an example of a test question that so infuriated me I set fire to it and let it float, a fiery cloud, over the silent fields of my suppressed rage. It asked pupils to read a text and then describe what a character was ‘feeling’. In order to do this, it seems, a pupil scours the page for synonyms of the word ‘feel’ and then quotes these phrases. ‘He sensed doubt’ ‘His worries compounded’ and so on. Yet throughout the passage there were louring skies, distant cries, a current in a pool eddies and swirls, all these things externalising the protagonists fears. Yet none of these were acceptable. The limits of what the text could do had been set in stone by some evil test setter.
Education rewards the wordy group, and more and more, demoralises the others. The winners go on to become evil test setters. And things like ‘Philosophy for Children’ just exacerbate it. The quieter pupils allow images to rise and fall, let them simmer and settle. The wordy ones want to pin them down as soon as possible, try and articulate something immediately.
But literature is not a science, and art cannot have such simplistic one to one relationships. A single word is a trove of associations, a text is a universe, and there is far too much to be found to expect everyone to discover the same things.