I came across online the other day a beautiful feature, written a good while ago, about my labor of love with these kids in the vibrant but poor Mission District of San Francisco in the SF Chronicle (which today has sadly been gentrified beyond recognition).
As the reporter aptly put it, in our Philosophers’ Club gatherings at the school, both during and after the school days, “smart kids with poor skills have a chance to realize how bright they are as they chew over the big questions: What is silence? What is existence? What is wisdom?”
But the headline composed to accompany the San Francisco Chronicle feature claims I taught the children to listen. I did no such thing. Rather, I created an environment that enabled them to do what comes naturally to them, if given have a chance — to listen. (I recently wrote a blog about kids and their exceptional listening skills that come to the fore, when given half a chance).
And what is one of the natural outcomes of being a peerless listener, as kids are?
Or more than that — they don’t just tolerate varying views, no matter how much at odds with their own, they relish the opportunity to consider bracingly new and unfamiliar perspectives.
Kids have natural born ability to be tolerant (I penned for Teaching Tolerance Magazine an article about my inaugural group of Philosophers’ Club kids, which appeared in somewhat different form in my first book, Socrates Cafe. I’ll write my next blog on ‘wonder and tolerance.’)
You see, kids don’t look at others as ‘the other’ as we adults d. They see others, no matter how unfamiliar or alien their views, with great fellow feeling.
Children and youth model and teach me, not the other way ’round. They teach me better to listen, to learn, to slow down and absorb what they are saying — and to consider that what they are saying can be mind- and world-altering.
How and why is this so? Why is it that they are such exceptional thinkers, epistemological explorers?
In a nutshell, because they think in a dazzling array of colors — and what this means is that they live on, feed on, invite a plethora of perspectives. The more the merrier.
This is in stark counterpart to the approach to ‘inquiry’ of most adults, who tend to think in stark black and white terms — and even those noted folks like Martha Nussbaum who claim to employ the Socratic Method tend only to ballyhood argument-counterargument, rather than the way kids do it, shunning debate and instead investigating a wide range of perspectives, looking deeply at which speaks for and against each one.
If kids had a chance to develop the educational curricula that they are subjected to, they would steer of much of the adult-inflicted approach — of debate, forensics, persuasion – and focus primarily on exploration, inquiry, and…. listening. Because you can’t inquire well, as they can instruct you if you’d listen to them, if you don’t listen to others with all you’ve got.
Of course, I love the publication Teaching Tolerance.
But here again, if it were kid-directed, it would be called Unlearning Intolerance.
Because kids are practitioners of tolerance, by and large — enthusiastic tolerance in philosophical, political, existential, religious thinking, you name it.
Until they unlearn this natural quality by the practice of adults in their orbit.
At a time when polarization is rife among adults, from those who consider themselves progressive to those who are more fundamentalist, and all those in between outside this spectrum; and when our new President all too often is an abysmal poster adult of this deliberate practice of intolerance, kids show us the way out of this morass.
It is so much harder to unlearn destructive practices like black and white thinking and the intolerance that it breeds than never to learn it in the first place.
But if we adults could ever agree to foster a climate that made sure that from now on, we no longer infected kids with this harsh and deleterious habitual practice of ours, we just might, at long last, quit turning on the news each evening and reading the latest acts of intolerance-precipitated hate and violence.
We just might. But we’d have to accept that rather than ‘teaching’ kids to be tolerant, we nee to unteach them to be intolerant.
The United Nations once had a conference on the theme ‘Unlearning Intolerance.‘ They even offered a “Master Class.” Totally adult-run of course. There was not a kid in sight.
I’m not surprised. Every time I suggest gently to even the most supposedly liberal/progressive civic leader, including those who do outreach with our youth, that we need to join forces with kids and work with them as equals to make our society more open, connected, lovable and livable — that we need to recognize and tap into and celebrate their unique strengths and gifts, if we all are to be all we can be, at every age and stage of life — I either get ignored or, more typically, I get removed from their Twitter feed.
And of course, not even the most progressive media will consider my suggestion that ‘childkind’ and ‘youthkind’ need to be made part of Jefferson’s notion that “all men (all humans) are created equal.” Yet they are by far our greatest bloc of marginalized citizens.
It’s happened again and again.