The great Greek philosophers, like Plato and Aristotle, believed children weren’t capable of thinking about thinking. In 1933, Jean Piaget’s theory on cognitive development suggested that most kids under the age of 11 hadn’t attained the intelligence and experience levels to grasp deep thoughts. A vast amount of contemporary research, however, suggests that adolescents can understand, apply, and enjoy philosophical contemplation, says Ruben Rabinsky, a philosophy professor at the University of Miami.
In his study “Philosophy for Children,” Michael Pritchard describes children who exhibit a sense of philosophical thought, from a kid who wonders if life is a dream, to another who ponders the concept of time. From his findings, Pritchard believes that children have the cognitive ability to understand and appreciate philosophy.
Your child may not learn about Socrates, Zen Buddhism, or nihilism in her middle or high school curriculum. But philosophical concepts breathe life in today’s popular culture, with movies like Star Wars introducing the Chinese concept of Tao by way of the Jedi force, and underground hip hop artists spitting truth into a mic with stream-of-consciousness lyrics. And believe it or not, the TV show Lost presents ideas like time and destiny; even its characters – from John Locke to Desmond Hume to Danielle Rousseau – are named after famous thinkers.
Toni Morrison’s picture book, The Big Box, addresses happiness and freedom to readers as young as four, while The Golden Compass introduces ideas as mature and profound as anti-theism – or the opposition to belief in a god – to middle schoolers. Ages-old philosophical concepts are embedded in books, films, music, TV shows, comics, and video games, and can add meaning to stories in popular culture.
Want to get your child interested in philosophical thought, using pop culture as a guide? Check out this list of concepts from various systems of thought, examples of how they’re explored in our media, and activities to pique your child’s mind:
Every person is distinct from another, with unique thoughts and actions and a conscious, reflective personality, all of which define the self. Today’s iGeneration toys with this idea of the self: your teen’s Facebook profile and Twitter account act as portals to her identity, while her avatar, or photo icon, signifies her virtual persona. Your child updates her profile to best reflect herself, illustrating the knowledge she has of her existence in the world. Philosophers throughout time have grappled with concepts of self-knowledge and the ego. Your child grows up in an image-conscious society where technology allows her to “update” her identity on a daily basis.
Analyze: Peruse profiles on Facebook or MySpace not simply as a friend, but as a researcher: what do the photos, fonts, colors, and overall design and template of a user’s profile imply about the other’s personality?
The Tao, or “Way of Nature,” is a flow of energy in the form of two forces: yin and yang. In Star Wars, the Tao is expressed as the Jedi force, and Obi-Wan Kenobi teaches Luke and Anakin Skywalker how to harness it positively. The Jedi Way is a mix of Eastern religions or philosophies, says Chris Sunami, a writer and philosopher of social change – including Taoism, in which finding balance in oneself and harmony with nature is a primary goal.
Watch: Scan a handful of scenes of one of the Star Wars films. What is required to properly channel the Jedi force? Can the protagonist control it for both good and evil?
Truth, having no single definition, remains one of the central subjects in philosophy, says UC Davis professor Michael Glanzberg. Various major theories of truth exist, including the correspondence theory, as old as the ancient Greeks, which states that true thoughts or statements correspond to actual things and objects. Basically, something is true if it conforms to physical reality, as Thomas Aquinas said.
Less-commercial hip hop artists, from Mos Def to Talib Kweli, use their gifts of gab to disseminate messages about politics, empty consumerism, and challenging the status quo. “Many underground artists dare to engage the totality of repressed information and knowledge,” writes Anthony Damico, who studies the shamanic journey of hip hop artists and their ability to open the eyes of youth. They address everything from war and race to poverty, engaging a crowd in a pure, spontaneous “flow” of lyrics to a beat.
Hear: Surf the radio. Listen for independent and university radio stations that feature local and non-commercial hip hop music. Pay attention to lyrics in a few songs. How does the music instill a listener to seek truth? How does the artist define truth? What is truth to you?
Enlightenment is a state of profound wisdom and understanding of one’s nature and, in Eastern systems of thought such as Buddhism or Hinduism, translates to bliss and self-realization (or nirvana). The protagonist of Lost, John Locke – named after the 17th-century philosopher – wanders the terrain in search of the meaning of the island – and the purpose of his existence.
Draw: The lotus flower and Buddha are popular symbols of enlightenment. Can you think of other images that represent this state of mind? On a piece of paper, design your own representation of enlightenment.
In many stories, your child encounters a character of extraordinary abilities: Spiderman or Mr. Incredible, for example. Video game and comic characters and superheroes illustrate Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the idea that a few humans are innately superior to others, intellectually or physically, which often drives them to act above the law, like the dark knight, Batman. It's his destiny is to dominate his society, says Sunami, yet the jealousy of the lesser beings force him to squander his potential anonymously.
Brainstorm: Think of the characters in your favorite comics, video games, and movies. Who else embodies this concept? What drives them to act heroic, vigilant, or arrogant?
Destiny, related to fate, refers to an inevitable course of events, like the future of an individual. Greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex show that outwitting destiny is impossible. Movies like The Matrix and shows like Heroes play with this idea; in The Matrix, for instance, Neo journeyed down a path and was told by an oracle, a source of prophecy, that he wasn’t “the one,” or the individual who’d save the world from destruction.
Ponder: Contemplate fate: Have you ever felt that your life is planned out? Considering things like school, family, friends, or hobbies, what do you feel you have control over? Alternatively, what seems to be in the hands of destiny, or even luck?
The connections to philosophy run deep in popular culture. So, remind your child to keep her eyes and ears open: she will stumble upon these thought-provoking ideas, and many others, when she doesn’t expect it!