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Philosophy for children (P4C), past, now and future

Interview with the successor of Matthew Lipman at Montclair State University

P4C practice
Maughn Rollins Gregory and Lukasz Krzywon at SOPHIA network meeting 2019 at NUI Galway

Tell us in a nutshell what you are currently doing?

I am a professor of the faculty of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University. I teach classes in philosophy of education, gender issues in education, education and democracy, and the ethics and politics of educational assessment. I also conduct research in these areas and I am the Director of the IAPC (Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children).

Is this the role you took after Matthew Lipman?

Exactly, since he retired in 2001. I started working at the university in 1997, but at the beginning I was not permitted to work directly in philosophy for children, because I was hired for other tasks. It was a few years before I was able to work closely with Mat Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp at the Institute, and then in 2001 I became director.

Why did you become interested in philosophy for children?

Since I was young I had many questions about life—mostly about the Mormon religion in which I was raised—and my mother, who is devout but also a questioner and a seeker, encouraged my questions and enjoyed discussing ideas with me. Sometimes, when we found ourselves deep in a theological perplexity, she would pick up the telephone and call a religious authority to get some guidance. She was also a schoolteacher, and I spent many summer afternoons with her, preparing her classroom for the new school year and talking about what and how she would be teaching. When I began to study philosophy in college, I recognized that I had been doing philosophy with my mother for many years. In those years, I often shared with my mother what I was reading or discussing in my philosophy courses and then discuss it further with her. While I was an undergraduate philosophy student my mother found an article about philosophy for children (P4C) in an education magazine and shared it with me. The description made the program seem congruent with the best of the seminar-style philosophy courses I had taken and with the Socratic discussions my mother conducted in her own classroom. After my undergraduate degree I took a detour from philosophy into law, which was excellent training for me, but I missed philosophy. After law school I clerked for a county judge for a few years, after which I decided to take a break from law to get a masters degree in philosophy. I went to the University of Hawaii, where I could study comparative Asian and western philosophy, and where they had a strong philosophy for children program directed by Dr. Thomas E. Jackson. I studied Sanskrit, Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, had wonderful seminars on medieval philosophy, aesthetics, and Kant, and fell in love with philosophy for children.

Surely you remember Lipman and Sharp well. What was it like to be a member of their team?

I met Mat Lipman and Ann Sharp in Mexico City, where I was studying for a PhD in Philosophy with a specialization in philosophy for children—the first program of that kind—at the Jesuit, Universidad Iberoamericana. Walter Kohan, Ji-Aeh Lee, Christine Gehrett, Gilbert Talbot, and Eduardo Rubio were in the doctoral cohort with me, and Teresa de la Garza was the program director. Mat and Ann were two of the professors who flew in from around the world to teach courses and advise students. A job came up at Montclair State University while I was writing my dissertation, and knowing that was where P4C began and that I wanted to be part of it, I applied.

It was an honor to work closely with Mat and Ann while they were both very active. David Kennedy and Mark Weinstein are also in the department. The University had masters degree programs in Critical Thinking and Philosophy for Children, and while I was there we created a doctoral program in pedagogy with a specialization in philosophy for children. We ran the IAPC workshops at Mendham twice a year for two weeks each time, and we had (and still have) a number of international visiting scholars study with us for weeks or months at a time. The IAPC published the journal Thinking (Kennedy eventually took over as chief editor in place of Lipman). We were all doing our own research, on philosophy of education as well as philosophy for children. And we worked with a small number of local schools, bringing graduate students in to do philosophy with children and to work with teachers in learning how to do that. In the years that I was at the IAPC, Mat didn’t travel a lot but Ann was constantly on the move, all over the world. I was able to travel with her a number of times, speaking at academic conferences and conducting P4C workshops.

P4C founder Ann Margaret Sharp philosopher
Ann Margaret Sharp and Maughn Rollins Gregory in 2008

What was the dynamics of work between Lipman and Sharp? It often happens that one side supports the other in what it is stronger. How was it in their case? Who did what in this duet?

This is an interesting question. I recently published a book with Megan Laverty on Ann’s scholarship, for which we researched her personal and professional life. Ann died before she managed to publish her own book based on all the articles and book chapters she had written. She was very generous and shared her texts at conferences so that they could be printed in local journals. So her work was spread all over the world, in different languages. Much of it is difficult to find, because her articles did not always appear in mainstream philosophical or educational journals. Our work consisted in finding many of these texts and translating them. We also invited contemporary scholars to write critical evaluations of her work. Another reason we put this book together has to do with the dynamic between her and Mat. Mat published much more than Ann, who spent so much time dealing with the dissemination of the method, conducting workshops, directing the degree programs at Montclair, and helping various people start their own P4C programs all over the world. In fact, since the book came out, many people have expressed surprise that Ann Sharp had written as much as she had (only a fraction of which was collected in the book). Mat was the official director of the IAPC, but he and Ann discussed every aspect of the Institute’s work together and made most administrative decisions together.

So she was involved in “apostolic” work?

Exactly. Mat wrote his philosophical novels for children alone, but the teacher manuals for their use were written along with others, mainly Ann. Later, she also wrote her own novels for children. Also, Mat usually only taught one or two courses a year for Montclair, but Ann typically taught two or three per semester. That’s around 100 students a year, to assess and oversee their progress.

You’ve been in the P4C environment for two decades. We meet in Europe, where things have started to live their lives. What has changed over the years? This was the subject of many conversations during this year’s SOPHIA meeting. What is your reflection?

It’s an interesting topic. Recently I’ve been researching the history of the movement. It is interesting how the understanding of children’s philosophical practice has changed over the years. For example, Lipman and Sharp’s first book explaining philosophy for children did not contain any mention of the community of inquiry, for which they later became so famous. Another example is how Mat’s theory of thinking evolved. His first edition of Thinking in Education was only on critical and creative thinking, which he described as “higher-order thinking.” Later, he and Ann he developed the idea of caring thinking. I think the way that the theory of P4C developed at the IAPC in conjunction with the practice of doing philosophy in schools, with giving so many workshops for teachers and philosophers, and with exchanging ideas with colleagues from so many parts of the world, is important. I believe the strength, richness and longevity of the IAPC approach to P4C is a result of this multifaceted development. It was neither a case of developing theory first and then simply applying it, or of developing a practice and then theorizing about it. Each of those aspects informed the other. And the geographical, cultural, philosophical, disciplinary, and age diversity of people involved in the work provided a necessary depth. In one of the last talks Ann gave before her death, she emphasized the need for P4C to remain current by continually learning from and contributing to new developments in philosophy, education, and social movements. Not that this development has been smooth, by any means! I’ve seen and taken part in quite a few heated disagreements about the materials, methods, and grounding theories of just the IAPC approach to P4C! To say nothing of what is now a global phenomenon of branding of different approaches.

And what has changed since Lipman and Sharp are gone?

At the IAPC we have been paying more attention to the so-called “Arc of Inquiry”—the trajectory from a problem or question, through various avenues of generating and testing possible responses, toward narrowing down on what is most reasonable or meaningful or satisfying. This understanding of inquiry as something that begins in problematic experience and aims for improved experience originates in pragmatism, of course, but the IAPC approach to philosophical dialogue doesn’t depend on anyone being a pragmatist! But this is the way we now conduct our workshops. This is not a big change, but it is a kind of an evolution of the Lipman/Sharp method.

And in practice, the functioning of universities in the US has also changed, which are more and more similar to the corporate and business model. The government is less and less supporting higher education, including our university, so programs and faculties like ours have to find the money to support ourselves. In the past, the IAPC had four full-time employees and three permanent lecturers, who were able to release part of their working hours to the Institute. That’s very much in the past. We used to have a whole building, which was later reduced to a suite of offices, and then to part of a storage room. In addition, there are changes in the education system at every level that work against doing philosophy in schools the way we conceive it: a high-accountability model, standardized testing, pay problems, and the assessment of teachers and schools based on student test scores.

It sounds like things are going down a bit. It’s a bit worrying. We in Europe are also striving for more philosophy in education. Many good initiatives appear here and there. What, then, do you see for us in the near future? What can we do?

In fact, philosophy in the United States has never had it easy. It has never been widely recognized as part of our cultural heritage. There have been many important US philosophers, but philosophy has never been a required course of study in secondary education in any state. So from the very beginning it was a difficult task. The IAPC program developed much faster in other parts of the world than locally, in the US. In the near future, it is promising that various approaches to doing philosophy with children in schools have been developed, in the United States and around the world. People no longer think that the IAPC approach is the only good approach—in fact, many are quite critical of it. Perhaps Ann and Mat thought about their work in this way. Today those of us working at the IAPC believe our approach is good and well-researched, but we never thought it was the only way to do philosophy with children. A new P4C program at the University of Texas A&M, and a new masters program in P4C at the University of Washington are good signs that the movement is growing again in the US. And the organization PLATO: Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization in the United States acts as a network, focusing on different approaches and organizing conferences. Their activities are characterized by a spirit of cooperation and sharing, where people learn from each other. This seems to be very promising.

During conversations with other participants of SOPHIA, I heard an interesting remark that, for example in the UK, the most interesting and creative ideas most often come from outside the main SAPERE organization, which continues Lipman’s work. Something like this often happens to established traditions, when routine begins to enter into the life of certain ideas.

I agree. But I would like to add something here. Personally, I think that there is a connection between creativity—the need to rethink certain things—and a return to one’s roots. When I attend conferences such as this (SOPHIA) or even bigger ones (ICPIC), people present their innovative ideas, and I see that many of them have already been developed by others over the past 40 years. That’s ok, of course, but this movement will be stronger, the more we are willing and able to collaborate across approaches and locations. Studying what’s been done in the past is part of the work of every academic and technical discipline. We can’t be afraid that doing a proper review of published research literature on a topic of interest to us will somehow limit our creativity or our ability to make an original contribution to the topic. The opposite is true, in fact. This is why I’m so excited about the new opportunity to share research publications in P4C in the database. It’s also why I’m spending so much of my own research time looking into the history of the movement. I think that hardly anyone reads Lipman’s work today, let alone Sharp’s, or even that of Gareth Matthews. It is not that they must do so, but I believe it would be instructive—and corrective against some of the misapprehensions of those earlier scholar’s ideas that I frequently come across.

For this reason, I enjoyed the “Dialoguing Democracy” Symposium held in conjunction with the SOPHIA conference, where I’ve had the opportunity to talk to you, Catherine McCall and Joe Oyler, who are respectable elders in our community. Meeting with your knowledge and experience. When we reach for the roots, we can see if the problems we can deal with have not been resolved before. Why commit mistakes that have already been made and have been learned from? When there are no elders among us and we do not go back to the past, to tradition, to learn, we lose a lot.

There is a tradition and there are new generations. There are many interesting lessons in the past that maybe beginners are not aware of and that is why I would like to make them more accessible through my work. As I’ve written about with Jen Glaser, a tradition only remains vibrant, in good order, if it gets reconstructed through the new needs and interests of the next generation. But that can only happen if the next generation sees that the tradition can still give meaning to their work and their lives.

Please, tell us where we can learn more about the IAPC’s work. About what you are doing now. You mentioned earlier during the conference about your annual workshops.

Every year during the first week of August, a summer seminar takes place in Mendham, New Jersey. A version of this seminar has been happening since the very beginning of the IAPC in the early 1970s, and it has run continuously at Mendham since 1985. During the seminar we introduce the participants to the IAPC approach to philosophy for children, using the Lipman / Sharp materials and methods. It is an intense, residential course with an international character. We live and philosophize and eat and hike together for eight days, so in effect we create an intentional community. It’s something I look forward to every year. We also have two or three visiting scholars come to study with us at Montclair every year for a few weeks or months, or even for the entire academic year. And of course, each of us still conducts our own research.

You also mentioned something about an internet library …

Yes. This idea arose from a certain need. Due to my position in IAPC, I receive hundreds of emails with questions like: Do you know someone who published a work on P4C in a primary school related to mathematics or literature? I have created thematic bibliographies over the years but when was founded I thought it would be the ideal venue for sharing research in P4C. I wrote to them and after about two years of negotiations they agreed on an additional category of Philosohpy for Children with a number of subcategories, each edited by an expert in that sub-field. This database now contains publications on various approaches to philosophizing with children, as well as the philosophy of childhood and education.

Great. What are the conditions for adding works to this collection? How is the content of this work monitored?

It must be a peer-reviewed, academic work such as a journal article, book chapter or book, rather than piece of curriculum. If you own the copyright, you can upload the full text by yourself to the platform; otherwise, you can provide a link to where the work is published. You should provide the abstract and key words, and you can nominate each work for up to three thematic categories in the PhilPapers taxonomy.

June 2, 2019, Galway, Ireland

Maughn Rollins Gregoryis professor of educational foundations at Montclair State University (USA), where he replaced Matthew Lipman as director ofIAPC(Institute of Progress of Philosophy for Children)in 2001. He publishes and teaches in the field of philosophy of education, children’s philosophy, pragmatism, gender and education, Socratic pedagogy and contemplative pedagogy. He is a co-editor of theRoutledge International Handbook of Philosophy for Children(2018) and has edited a number of specialist journal issues devoted to philosophy for children. He is currently working as the inaugural research coordinator atICPIC(The International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children)


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