Edward D'Angelo

The Ideological Nature of Teaching Philosophy
to Children

In the 1970's, a movement started in the United States to teach philosophy to children. Although philosophy, as critical thinking or logic, was taught in the elementary schools by philosophers and philosophers of education prior to this time, it never gained any substantial momentum. The movement to teach philosophy to children began with the appearance of a newspaper article about Clyde Evans. [1] This article described Evans' work in teaching philosophy at the Hillside Elementary School, Hastings‑on‑Hudson, New York. Other newspaper articles also appeared describing the work of Matthew Lipman teaching philosophical reasoning to elementary school students in the New Jersey public schools. [2] Recently various philosophical journals [3] and organizations [4] were created in order to publish articles, establish forums, and conduct research on teaching pre‑college philosophy. The January, 1976, issue of the journal Metaphilosophy is devoted entirely to papers on philosophy for children.

At the first National Conference on Teaching Philosophy, a series of workshops were given on the teaching of philosophy to children. [5] The workshops were: Lipman's use of a novel he had written for fifth graders to teach philosophical thinking, Evans' discovery method of teaching moral reasoning, and D'Angelo's curriculum approach in the teaching of critical thinking. Each of these presentations represent different ideological characterizations of life. The purpose of this paper will be to trace the ideological implications of the different approaches of teaching philosophy to elementary school students.

Philosophy is concerned with ideas about the nature of man and his relationship to the world. The ideological aspect of ideas is that they reflect the interests of specific groups in society. When ideas serve the interest of a particular class, they become ideological. The conversion of ideas to social action is also ideological. They become programs of action for social change. According to Mannheim, an individual who professes certain beliefs and values is also representing certain social, economic, and political interests. [6]

Lipman has used his novel Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery to show how children can engage in different types of logical thinking. [7] This includes learning about immediate inferences, categorical syllogisms, and the philosophical aspects of beliefs. The ideological implications of Lipman's work are derived from the content and examples he uses to illustrate the teaching of logic.

Basically, the examples in this novel are nonpolitical. (All collies are animals, all minnows are sharks, all mammals are swift, all cats are animals, Fran is taller than Laura, New York is far from San Francisco.) This shows an indifference to social injustices as well as to a positive conception of political life. There is a significant difference between the statements Lipman uses and the following: all businessmen are enemies of working class people, all Puerto Ricans in New York are treated very poorly, and all citizens in socialist countries are given free medical care.

In the entire novel, there is only one example given of economic injustice. (In the United States there are lots of people who have plenty and lots of people starving.) This example does not specify what groups and classes are starving and which ones have plenty. Consequently, it does not attack the capitalist system directly. The few social and political examples in this book embrace unthinking nationalism (people should love their country, just like they should love their homes) and an over‑simplification of the multitude of societal problems that Black people face in the United States (I guess I am Black in the same way I am tall and skinny).

The attitudes toward communism are very interesting. (Is Mr. Bates a communist?) This question implies that it is undesirable to be a communist. The response given was that if all communists are people who help the poor, the converse is not true. Although this is logically accurate, it empirically implies the questionable belief that other economic systems help the poor. In one discussion, Mr. Stottlemeier said that in fighting against the North Koreans, he fought against them first and then got angry at them. He could not see much difference between the North and the South Koreans. It is the height of political indifference and stupidity to fight for the South Koreans and not be able to see much difference between these two political states. Getting angry at the North Koreans also establishes a bias against them prior to evaluating the political situation.

In discussing the existence of God, questions were asked about the cause of God, and also the meaning of something having a beginning. This abstract discussion of the existence of God does not criticize any specific religion. Therefore, it does not threaten established religions. A student maintained that saluting the flag involves idolatry, and that the Bible forbids idolatry. It was pointed out that this argument is based upon a particular interpretation of the Bible. This interpretation also refers to the position of an unnamed religious group that has very little political power. The beliefs of a major religious group, such as the Catholic Church, were not chosen nor was the validity of the Bible challenged.

Lipman's approach embraces a conservative ideology that does not threaten the status quo, enhances a nationalistic attitude, and neglects any references to revolutionary movements.

Evans' discovery method of teaching moral reasoning consists in confronting students with a series of moral problems. [8] The moral principles discussed included telling the truth, keeping promises, fairness, obeying rules, and property rights. The emphasis is placed on the process by which a decision is made and not the decision itself. The reasons given to support a certain conclusion are analyzed and students become aware of many positions that can be taken on a given issue.

The nature of the discovery method is to allow the student to analyze his own position without the teacher imposing his own analysis. The teacher acts as a guide in the discussion, pointing out alternatives and inconsistencies. As a guide, teachers are making suggestions. Consequently, they are not passive spectators, but active participants. This implies a liberal position that considers both students and teachers as jointly involved in the learning process. Evans is reluctant to state his own position to students until the end of the discussion.

Evans' approach supports an individualistic and anti‑authoritarian ideology that stresses the importance for students to discover truth free from the imposition of the teacher. It also implies that one viewpoint is not better than another. All positions have legitimacy, and the important issues relate to the reasons given to justify these positions. This point of view accepts a system of inquiry for all sides regardless of the political structure of society. John Stuart Mill stated this belief in his celebrated essay "On Liberty". This position would conflict with the radical philosophy of Marcuse and others who maintain that beliefs stating or implying inhumane treatment should be suppressed because power groups may use them to further their own ends, e.g., Nazism and racism. Philosophical inquiry takes place within a political structure, and it is wishful thinking to believe that political groups will not use a structure of "legitimacy of all positions" as a means of furthering their own goals or of obtaining power. It is imperative to examine the history of a particular position just as well as the reasons given to justify it.

The specific examples used to engage students in moral reasoning were: a girl who wanted to climb a tree to save a kitten's life, after she promised her father not to climb trees; a girl who wanted to join an all‑boys baseball team; and a girl who lied about her age so that she would only pay half‑fare to enter the carnival. These problems are concerned with the issue of sexism in the United States, the welfare of kittens, and the effects of cheating carnival owners. One of the students was worried that the carnival might not make a profit and the possibility of it going into bankruptcy. This attitude reinforces the profit motive in economics as well as the capitalist system.

Evans' method of teaching philosophy to children incorporates a liberal ideological framework. There is an avoidance of using political examples and there is only one social injustice mentioned. A noninternationalistic attitude permeates this presentation.

D'Angelo's approach utilizes the actual curriculum in the classroom as a means of teaching philosophy to children. [9] The contention is that, since students and teachers operate within a curriculum, the most effective method of teaching logical skills to children is in relation to the subject matter taught in the schools. Critical thinking skills can be developed in language arts, reading, social studies, science, mathematics and other areas of learning, e.g., recognizing and evaluating assumptions in a fourth grade reader. The teaching of philosophy to children is not a separate activity done periodically in the classroom. It is an integral part of the learning experience in tile school.

The ideological characteristics of D'Angelo's curriculum approach are derived from the examples lie uses to illustrate the application of critical thinking. There is a definite attempt in this presentation to expose students to social and political misconceptions about women, different nationalities, races, loyalty, and communism. Some examples are: all beautiful women are not intelligent, all Jewish businessmen cannot be trusted, all Irishmen are alcoholics, Indian Joe possessed Indian blood, my country right or wrong, all communist causes are unjust, and there is no freedom in a communist nation. This indicates a sympathetic attitude toward the groups being attacked.

History presents situations that can be used to promulgate an ideological position. Was John Brown justified in attacking Harper's Ferry? Was it right for the colonists to destroy English property during the Boston Tea Party? Was President Andrew Jackson right in refusing to enforce the Supreme Court decision ordering the State of Georgia to return certain lands to the Cherokee Indians? The first and the second question suggest that violence may be justified in fighting against injustice. The last question show how Supreme Court decisions favoring minority groups are not always enforced by the President of the United States. It signifies the limitations of a political democracy operating within a capitalist system.

The political concerns used to develop, critical thoughts were: examining the various meanings of "civil disobedience", "Black power", and "law and order", evaluating different accounts of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago; and judging whether the Soviet Union's interference with the internal policies of other nations is significantly different than the international policies of the United States. The major political interest was with the student movement. Some examples used were: the fallacy of equating student rebels with anarchists, the misconceptions of the public about radical students occupying a college building, and the moral issues concerning the violent actions of students in a political democracy. These examples indicate a support of the New Left, an aversion to anarchism and conservatism, and a consideration of using violence as a means of correcting social and political injustices.

D'Angelo's ideology is supportive of radical leftist movements. However, its focus is primarily with the New Left and there is insufficient attention given to other leftist groups. References to third world movements, and the positive features of a political, economic. and social revolutionary philosophy are needed to supplement this approach.

Any system of teaching philosophy to children contains implicitly a particular ideological structure. [10] Philosophers need to be aware of how the methodology, content, examples, and criticisms used to foster critical thinking reflect ideological features of life.

University of Bridgeport


1. New York Times, January 20,1974.

2. New York Times, October 20, 1974; January 12, 1975; November 30, 1975.

3. Teaching Philosophy and the Journal of Pre‑College Philosophy.

4. Sub‑Committee on Pre‑College Philosophy of the American Philosophical Association; National Forum for Philosophical Reasoning in the Schools; Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.

5. The National Conference on Teaching Philosophy was held at Union College, Schenectady, New York, from August 8‑13, 1976.

6. K. Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1936), p. 50.

7. M. Lipman, Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery. Montclair, New Jersey: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, 1974.

8. C. Evans, "Philosophy with Children: Some Experience and Reflections," Metaphilosophy, January, 1976, pp. 53-69.

9. E. D'Angelo, The Teaching of Critical Thinking (Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner, 1971). This approach has been used in the Kansas City, Missouri, Wyandanch, New York, and Norwalk, Connecticut public school systems from 1968 to 1976.

10. The criticisms of the various approaches of teaching philosophy to children are also based upon the current ideological position of the author.

©1978, 2005 Edward D'Angelo. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of the author.

SOURCE: D'Angelo, Edward. "The Ideological Nature of Teaching Philosophy to Children," Revolutionary World, vol. 26, 1978, pp. 58-59.

"Education and Revolutionary Change" by Edward D’Angelo

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