A few days ago a teacher called us to tell us a Wonder Ponder anecdote from her school in Madrid.
A few weeks before, she had taken I, Person to class and the kids had really enjoyed it, she said. They had spent an hour talking about just one of the cards, chosen by the group, and when time was up, they didn't want it to end. Earlier, in the staff room, a fellow teacher and the Head of the school had seen it and muttered, without paying much attention, 'oh, visual philosophy for children, that looks interesting,'
A few weeks later, she took her students Cruelty Bites. Now that they were familiar with the idea and the way Wonder Ponder worked, it didn't take long for a keen dialogue to get started. They chose the card which is also the cover of the book, where a family is sitting at the table about to tuck into a cat stew.
This time, because the previous session had seemed too short to them, the teacher decided to spend virtually the entire afternoon wonderpondering, finishing with a group mural with their own drawings and questions. At the end of the day, they hung the mural on the wall of a corridor and all went home, teacher included.
The following day when she got to school, several teachers were hanging around in the hall. They greeted her with a mix of anxiety and excitement and pointed to the Head's office. 'What exactly was the philosophy thing you were doing with the kids the other day?', asked one of her colleagues. 'A bit too much, don't you think?', another one chipped in. The teacher tried to explain what the idea was: it was about establishing a dialogue and exploring points of view, giving reasons and evaluating arguments, etc. But her fellow teachers didn't seem too sure about it and let her know that the Head was expecting her in his office.
As soon as she walked into his office, she understood what had happened. It would seem that the mural had fallen off the wall and someone had picked it up and looked at it. If that hadn't happened it is more than likely that nobody would have paid any attention whatsoever. But the accident had made the Head and a few colleagues take a closer look.
The Head said he thought the philosophy part and the dialogue part was great, but suggested there may be some questions it is better not to ask children. Such as? The one that really got him was the following:
For you to eat chicken, someone needs to kill it. Is eating chicken the same as killing chicken?
This was one of the questions the kids had found most interesting and had wanted it to feature on the mural. The Head asked the teacher to erase it from the mural.
The teacher asked why he thought that question specifically was problematic and his answer was simple: he wanted to prevent families from revolting, 'because just imagine if all the kids go home and say they never want to eat chicken again...'. The teacher laughed and said none of the kids had reached that conclusion, although if any of them had done so, or at least pondered it, she wouldn't have thought it was a problem.
She told him that the dialogue had actually focused on the definition of killing, on the difference between killing and ordering to kill, for example. The idea had come up that perhaps buying meat at the butcher or in a supermarket already cut up in nice little steaks might be closer to the behaviour of a scavenger to that of a hunter.
The Head tried to smile but it came out crooked. 'Oh, very interesting. Don't get me wrong, I think the project is great, but please erase that question from the mural".
The teacher told him that another big part of the dialogue, where they had all had a lot of fun, was the part about what things they would never ever ever eat. The explosion of imagination where things that had started off as absolutely inedible appeared as actual possibilities for a meal had made them enjoy thinking of the most absurd things possible, but then focus and narrow down the reasons why we might consider something to be edible or not.
The Head put an end to the conversation; 'I think it's very interesting, I really do, but my request for you to erase it still stands".
So the teacher erased the question from the mural.
What is the idea behind this desire to constrain children's thinking? Do we think that by censoring certain questions we'll prevent them from ever thinking about them? Is it rather inconvenient for adults for kids to think about certain questions, build their own ideas and support them with arguments? Is an unthinking child a more obedient child?
We are just now finishing work on our up and coming title, Whatever You Want, where we invite readers to explore the idea of freedom, and this anecdote made us think. What does this attitude imply in terms of children's freedom of thought? In one of the scenes of our new book-in-a-box we show a "thought-reader" which a mother uses to control the thoughts of her son. We assume that the Head of this school would not even believe it was necessary because he seems to think that by avoiding the question and thus avoiding the dialogue, the very possibility of thought is avoided. Easy! Why would we need censorship when we can simply prevent thought from occurring?