Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Philosophical Places

There has been a burgeoning of interest in philosophy for children in recent years, all part of the process of seeking to develop children’s thinking skills. Many of its advocates have argued for a fourth ‘R’ in the school curriculum in which Reasoning is taught alongside Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

Stories are an important device for engaging children, not only do they provide enjoyment they also help children to begin enquiring and exploring philosophical ideas.

As a secondary school teacher I run a philosophy club and my group of philosophers all of whom started in Year 7, aged 11, seem to have grown up very quickly. Too young for Gaarder’s brilliant Sophie’s World and too old perhaps for the philosophical stories for children, Bernard Beckett’s Genesis and August are possibly the answer to my question of what can they read?

Genesis takes the reader to Plato’s Republic -- a post-cataclysmic world isolated away from the rest of humanity -- and puts them into a Socratic dialogue between a board of examiners and a young student - Anaximander. In the claustrophobic context of the examination, Anaximander questions the official history of the Republic and the role of her long-dead hero, the philosopher-soldier Adam Forde.

August puts the reader into a different philosophical rule, that of St Augustine’s City of God in another post-cataclysmic world. This time the dialogue is between Tristan, a philosopher struggling with questions of freewill, and Grace, a street prostitute, whose life is more of a question of survival. Trapped upside down in a car wreck, alone, hours away from daybreak and the chance of a rescue, August’s dialogue tells the alternating stories of their lives.

It is tempting to brand Genesis and August as ‘Philosophy for Teenagers’, but there is a subtle difference in resisting this and identifying these books as Young Adult Philosophy. The books are written to be accessible to teenagers, with the length of story and the choice of language. The dialogical format of the books and the pace of the story however requires a more patient reader and at times, important passages need to be re-read. In fact I want to re-read Genesis and August and refresh my knowledge of Plato’s Republic and St Augustine’s City of God to fully appreciate the subtly of the books. The philosophy is the foundations upon which the story is written, shaping the story rather than it being a story with some philosophical insights. Moreover the books, particularly August, include more adult content.

Unfortunately I do not have my answer for my teenage philosophy group. Some members I can identify as having the maturity to read and fully engage with Genesis and August. Others may not. Perhaps I am missing the point. Whether you are a child, teenager, young adult or adult, the joy of philosophy is always to read a story and ponder for any amount of time, whatever philosophical musing it stirs, great or small.

Genesis and August by Bernard Beckett are both published by Quercus.

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