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Dr. Thomas Wartenberg, Mount Holyoke College – Philosophy of Children’s Books

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Thomas Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College reveals the philosophical thought that exists in children’s picture books. 

Thomas Wartenberg is a professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College where he specializes in the philosophy of film, social and political philosophy, and philosophy for children. He is the author or editor of a number of books including A Sneetch is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries, Big Ideas for Little Kids, and Philosophy in Schools. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh.

About Dr. Wartenberg

Dr. Thomas Wartenberg – Philosophy of Children’s Books

When you think of philosophy, what comes to mind might be something like the grand old men of Greek philosophy talking to one another on the steps of the Acropolis just like Raphael painted them doing in his masterpiece, The School of Athens.  It’s unlikely that you picture a group of six year olds talking to one another about whether Frog and Toad really are brave.

But for myself and the students in my philosophy for children class at Mount Holyoke College, those intensely engaged young kids are a model of what philosophy should be:  a serious but respectful discussion of issues that matter.  So we spend a semester in a local elementary school helping second graders discover their inner philosopher.

We do this by getting them to discuss issues raised by children’s picture books.  Take Arnold Lobel’s wonderful story “Dragons and Giants.”  After reading a book of fairy tales, Toad states that the heroes he has read about are brave because they are never afraid.  Is that an adequate definition of bravery?  What about the fact that Frog and Toad overcome dangers that leave them shaking with fear on their hike up a mountain?  Weren’t they brave nonetheless?

In my work with young children and picture books, I’ve discovered two things.  First, picture books deserve to be taken more seriously than most people do.  Although the illustrations in picture books are now often considered to be real art, the stories themselves do more than simply delight us.  Second, young children deserve to be taken more seriously as thinkers than they generally are.  If you take the time to discuss with them the issues raised by a picture book, like my own college students, you may find yourself thinking that young children really are naturally born philosophers.


Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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