Oregon fourth graders wax philosophical about nature of work
Students in a fourth grade classroom in Eugene, Ore. are tackling tough questions about the ethics and values of work in discussions led by University of Oregon philosophy students.
The fourth-grade students in Jenny Vondracek's class are wrestling with a thorny question — the nature of work.Skip to next paragraph
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To prime the discussion, the Edison Elementary School students have read a story, "Frederick" by Leo Lionni, about a community of mice.
The mice spend the summer gathering and storing food for the winter, except for Frederick, a poet who just sits around observing the natural world, storing up images in his mind. When winter comes and the mice run out of food, they turn to Frederick, who warms and entertains them with reminders of the sun and tales of beauty.
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The question for the fourth-graders: Is Frederick working in the same way as the mice who gather food?
Under the guidance of University of Oregon philosophy student Kevin Keitner, Vondracek's 28 students have pushed their desks out of the way and sit in a big circle, ready to jump right in to the discussion.
"He worked hard by thinking," Lucas Scott says of Frederick. "The others worked hard by carrying things."
Classmate Trevor Veillette offers a comparison as a way of coming to grips with it.
"Studying hard for a geography test would be different than, like, training for a triathlon," he says.
Jarrett Bryant has his own perspective.
"I don't think that mouse was working hard. He was just sitting out there," he says.
For one hour each week, Eugene fourth- and fifth-graders at a handful of schools are tackling philosophy, thanks to a joint effort between the university and the Eugene School District.
University students lead the discussions in classrooms at Adams, Camas Ridge, Chavez, Family and Edison elementary schools.
This is not philosophy with a capital P — your Platonism, Marxism, Kantian or existentialism schools of thought.
This is intended to be real-life stuff, the lively dinner-table conversation that almost no one can step away from.
What does it mean to be brave? What is friendship? Can we evaluate good and bad art? Is lying always wrong? Do animals have rights?
And yes, says Paul Bodin, the instructor in the UO's education department who dreamed up the program, kids are totally up to the conversation.
Bodin talked the UO philosophy department into offering a class to encompass the project, and letting him teach it, after stumbling on a book, "Big Ideas for Little Kids" by Mount Holyoke College philosophy Professor Thomas Wartenberg.
It was the fifth session in the series for Vondracek's class at Edison on Tuesday, and the students needed only occasional prompting from Keitner and Bodin to explore the idea.