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Childism and Ancient Philosophy

Updated: May 1, 2021

Susanna Saracco

You cannot defend the rights of someone that you do not know. Otherwise, you would impose your idea of what is necessary in a paternalistic attempt to help. Childism champions children’s rights and is thus antithetical to paternalism as an imposition of the point of view of someone who is supposed to be superior on someone who is supposed to be inferior.

A significant help in better knowing children can come from philosophy. Philosophy raises questions rather than providing answers. Even when a philosophical system is proposed, its elaboration is the answer of a thinker who is not content with the idea of the world as it is generally understood and accepted. Thus, philosophy can sharpen the critical skills of children, offering them at the same time an occasion to make us know who they are.

I have studied Plato for many years and I have noticed that in his thought this critical drive is particularly evident. I explored this aspect of Plato’s thought in my book, Plato and Intellectual Development (Saracco, Susanna. 2017. Plato and Intellectual Development: A New Theoretical Framework Emphasising the Higher-Order Pedagogy of the Platonic Dialogues. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan). Plato chose to convey his thinking exclusively by writing dialogues. This is not a mere formal choice but a philosophical decision. It is a request for collaboration from the writer to his reader. Plato’s words are aimed, not at conveying a static description of how things are, but at creating cognitive stimulations for readers. Plato has created texts that call out for the readers’ own active contributions. Plato with his dialogues offers his readers an occasion to develop intellectually, through a kind of higher-order pedagogy, in which the reader-student is a not a mere learner and the thinker-teacher is not the depository of the truth. The dialogical interaction allows the comparison between your point of view and different others. The exposition to rational diversity is crucial for individual intellectual progress.

These aspects of Plato’s philosophy are part of a project that I have devised for students from 8 to 12 years of age. This project, Journey to Critical Inquiry: Students’ Analyses of Scenarios Designed to Promote Collaborative Decision Making, is focused on learning units that are based on quotations taken from Plato’s dialogues accompanied by concrete everyday examples. The questions presented in the units will make the dialogical interaction among the students start. Supported by tailor-made software, students who live in under-resourced communities and students who attend schools in more privileged communities, will participate in intensive dialogues online. Both the content and the order of the units is not rigidly predetermined. The units provide guidance to the students in the acquisition of the routine of thinking critically, favouring at the same time the transfer of this routine to the children’s everyday lives. The routine introduced in this way aids diversification by enabling students to experience the precious resource that different points of view are able to bring to complex decisions, recognizing at the same time their culture-dependent blind spots.

To acquire a better sense of how the project is devised, I present one unit of the project below. The unit, taken from an article in Metaphilosophy (Saracco, Susanna. 2016. “Difference as a Resource for Thinking: An Online Dialogue Showing the Role Played by Difference in Problem Solving and Decision Making.” Metaphilosophy, 47 (3)), can be used for children of any age. This unit is based on an excerpt taken from Plato’s Republic (Republic, I 339 a).


“…justice is…the advantage of the stronger

In a class there is a student who is physically very strong, and he

constantly beats another student to steal his snacks. He thinks that

it is very advantageous having all those snacks for free, and you

think that it is very advantageous for you to help him to steal the

snacks of the weak student. That way you keep on the good side of

the bully. But one day both of you discover that the weak student is

very strong in science, but, of course, he will never help the two of

you to understand that subject, and you constantly get Fs.

Do you think that it is always easy to distinguish what is advantageous

from what is bad for you or who is stronger from who is

weaker? It can happen, as in the situation I have just described, that

what seemed advantageous turns out to be bad for you, and the person

who seemed very weak has his own type of strength. What is

your opinion? Do you think that we can always know what is

advantageous for us or who is weak?

A classroom activity like the one that I have just sketched gives children the chance to realize the possibilities that their minds offer them. Concurrently, it creates an occasion for adults to learn from children’s thinking and to remove the obstacles which force their ideas to be suppressed.

Childism should contribute to creating a new horizon for children, to giving them the strength to renovate every day that appreciation for active dialogue which is the premise of a critically thoughtful society.

Susanna Saracco is a post-doctoral researcher, having received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Sydney, Australia. She has studied Philosophy of Technology at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver and she holds a MA in Ancient Philosophy from the University of Turin, Italy. Her research is centred on the interpretation of Plato's words as cognitive stimulations of the readers. She develops her work using an interdisciplinary methodology, relying on philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of science and the learning sciences. She is the author of Plato and Intellectual Development: A New Theoretical Framework Emphasising the Higher-Order Pedagogy of the Platonic Dialogues (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Her pieces have been published in Metaphilosophy, International Journal for Transformative Research, Philosophia: Philosophical Quarterly of Israel, Athens Journal of Humanities and Arts [Special Issue on ‘Ideas of Plato in the Philosophy of the 21st century’], Humanities Bulletin and Plato Journal.

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5 Kommentare

Walter Kohan
Walter Kohan
30. Apr. 2021

Thanks for this, John! I agree so much that the key is the question rather than the answer. And in that respect, I would state a key question as how to empower children and childhood. (to include childhood as a non aged category and leave more open the how of the empowerment). Regards

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John Wall
John Wall
29. Apr. 2021

Agreed! Calls for less paternalism can be paternalistic, for sure. It is possible for childism to be paternalistic too (as indeed I have argue that previous concepts of childism have been). However, like with feminism, why not try to improve on it? What is the better alternative? They key to me is the question rather than the answer, the question of how to empower children by changing norms.

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Walter Kohan
Walter Kohan
29. Apr. 2021

Thanks, John... who is making those assumptions? I do not find my words on them. Maybe you also do not find yours. Then, which words assume those words? Cannot calls for less paternatistic practices be paternalistic? Cannot the recognition of diversity be stated from contestable epistemological, ontological and political assumptions? Why not consider them? Why not open childism assumptions to open-ended curiosity? Which are childism assumptions? Cannot childism be paternalistic in its antipaternalistic claims? Has childism emerged from children? has children asked for chidism? What do children ask for? Thank you.

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Walter Kohan
Walter Kohan
27. Apr. 2021

I find the post surprisingly adult centric, if I may, and taking the risk of being myself adult centric... I will just give a short example and I hope it might be understood as an invitation to think... let's take the first sentence: "You cannot defend the rights of someone that you do not know." Seems so unchildhike... What child (of whatever age) would need to know someone to defend her rights (if she would think in terms of rights)? The "otherwise..." that follows seems to reinforce one form of, what seems to me, a very dangerous paternalism, trying to confront it: "if you do not know someone you'll impose your idea of what is necessary"... but what does …

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John Wall
John Wall
28. Apr. 2021
Antwort an

Hi Walter,

I'm not sure how philosophical dialogue of this kind can be called "adult centric" or "unchildlike." What assumptions have to be made about children to make such a claim? That children feel rather than think, don't know others through dialogue, don't think in terms of rights, have a certain kind of sensitivity? I don't see a binary opposition of children and adults here, but rather a call for less paternalistic practices of philosophical discourse, ones that do not impose teachings but recognize the diversity of points of view and the importance of open-ended curiosity. Childism in my view is not about adults adopting supposedly child-like ways of being in the world, just as feminism is not about men…

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