Hegel, Heidegger and The Giving Tree


In an April 8th article in the New York Times, Abby Goodnough talks about a second grade class at a charter school in Springfield, Mass. where Professor Thomas Wartenberg of Mt. Holyoke has been using classics in children’s literature to bring up philosophical questions and, instead of answering them, has been listening to the kids themselves wrestle with them.


Her article quotes from the children’s discussion of the question of how we should treat natural objects, as raised by Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and discusses whether kids really can do this, given that Piaget says that prior to 12 or so kids reasoning is not yet at an abstract level.

Fascinating on a number of levels. One is that neither the children nor the philosopher discuss at all that on the relatively obvious metaphorical level the tree is a parent, giving unconditionally all that it has to (thoughtless, ungrateful) child/man. I always put that book in the same category as I’ll Love You Forever, as books for parents in disguise as kid’s books.

But of course that gives the discussion itself a metaphorical level–“Is the child right to take so much from the tree?” becomes “Is the child right to take so much from the parent (without giving back)? (Though in the end the old man comes back and sits on the stump and they get each other’s companionship at the end of life).

She quotes Matthew Lipman, who founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University and believes that young kids are capable of abstract thought, and should be encouraged. I think that the capability of children to think abstractly at a conscious, verbal level lags far behind their ability to grasp abstract concepts presented to them at an unconscious level, as evidenced by the effect that good (i.e. subversive) children’s literature (and fairy tales and folk tales) have on children, where stories with obvious surface morals go largely into the wastebin of history.

Still, it never hurts to ask questions of a child about the stories he hears as long as you don’t play the grand inquisitor, and as long as you listen respectfully and realize that there are no wrong answers (and no right ones).


One Response to “Hegel, Heidegger and The Giving Tree”

  1. Hi,

    I left a comment yesterday, but it seems to have gotten lost. While you’re on a parenting kick, check out Coraline. Gaiman has been quoted that it’s a novel that children read as an adventure story; it’s the parents that have nightmares. I recommend reading it with an 8-10 year old and see what happens.


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