Reviewed by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.
Contemporary pedagogy is brimming with admonishments about the importance of “critical thinking” from research based professional literature to mass-market curriculum guides, this message has become a universal mantra in K-12 education. Yet in the wake of certain other trends in public education we also find a curriculum largely bereft of the discipline, which may rightfully claim the most intimate and enduring ties to critical thinking. Philosophy is rarely taught in K-12 outside the sphere of exclusive private schools (or genuinely inspired gifted programs) yet it is an expected offering in all university liberal arts departments. Among other objections, the discipline has frequently been dismissed as too contentious and challenging for secondary students. The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids, written by Dr. David White, a distinguished philosophy professor and fifteen year veteran of the gifted classroom, provides a powerful reprisal for this perspective as his introduction illustrates why philosophy is a relevant and “teachable” subject for secondary students in general, as well as an ideal fit for the gifted classroom.
Following this introductory rationale Dr. White presents the reader with a three part text, incorporating a rich array of methods, suggestions and teaching examples to justify his claims about the potential efficacy of philosophy within the secondary curriculum. Part One consists of 10 teaching chapters, each of which opens with a primary source passage that briefly distills one of a given philosopher’s major ideas (such as Aristotle’s concept of friendship or Augustine’s notion of time) and includes detailed, creative and thoughtful suggestions about how to introduce, present and anticipate student responses to the material. Part Two offers a variety of well-articulated teaching activities that integrate essential philosophical pursuits and procedures with other curricular elements like Language Arts, Social Studies and Science. While Part One provides guidance for teaching the specific contents of passages selected from various philosophers Part Two extends the discussion by illustrating how to apply broader philosophical notions and general precepts of critical thinking to other disciplines via these very compelling and “user friendly” cross curricular exercises. Part Three is comprised of three intriguing and informative essays, which juxtapose the concerns of classical philosophy with pedagogical theory and the history of education, all within the context of giftedness. White’s prose is lively and his observations indicate fresh and authentic examinations of the issues at hand. Here he moves deftly from pondering such questions as what Plato might have been like as a child or how Dickens might have experienced school to what influential thinkers all along the historical continuum have asserted about the nature of children and how this has shaped our educational institutions.
While White’s text could easily be utilized in the Regular Ed classroom (grades 6-12) it might be even more suited to the gifted classroom or home school environment. A highly adaptable level of rigor is one of the most appealing features of this book. With minimal effort any one of these discussions / activities could be implemented at either the sixth grade or the college level. Moreover it is evident that the author has taken great care to select serious philosophical topics (friendship, social justice, freedom/responsibility) which also echo the recurring themes of childhood / adolescence. This same degree of care has also been applied in the interest of diversity yielding a range of sample reading, which begins with Aristotle and closes with such contemporary voices as Martin Luther King and bell hooks. However one note of caution might apply for the home school environment. In order to best use the discussion components in the text, some element of peer-to-peer (student) interaction would likely be more productive than attempting to hash out these complex and often contentious ideas in a one on one (parent and child) situation.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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