'Your Stomach Can't Digest Itself'

Students in a third-grade class at the Efrata Orthodox public school in Jerusalem sat in pairs. The instructor in their new philosophy program, Ayelet Lerman, had given them the assignment of imitating each other's movements, as a prelude for a discussion of the boundaries of conceptions of reality.

One child raised his hands in the air, another made a face. "Is there something you can't do for yourself," asked Lerman.

"If you tickle yourself, you don't laugh," another child said, and his friend added, "your stomach can't digest itself. To do that, you'd need another stomach."

The program is now operating in five Jerusalem-area elementary schools, including the girls school in the Arab neighborhood of Isawiyah. Some high schools students do a matriculation exam in philosophy, but this year is the year that an organized program is being offered, in cooperation with the Israeli Center of Philosophy for Children and the School of Education and the philosophy department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The course, which is given once a week, usually by instructors who have studied philosophy at the university level, keeps the academic terminology to a minimum, as it attempts to raise questions and create an "inquiring community."

The program, which has been adopted in 70 countries, was developed by Professor Matthew Lipman of the United States. The Israeli team translated one of Lipman's books, the heroine of which is Nur, who shows great curiosity about herself and the world. The weekly lessons revolve around a chapter in the book, as well as subjects of the children's choosing, under the instructor's direction. For example, Nur says she had chosen her name herself, and that it is not the one her parents had given her. A discussion arises as to whether something can exist in the world without having a name.

"Philosophy lessons open the mind and allow students to learn from each other," Efrata third-grader Nadav Milo says. "I used to think my thoughts were only mine, because they came from my mind, but now I understand they also come from other people or from reality."

Nadav especially likes lessons about moral problems. "They have a lot of implications, and most of the kids take part in the discussion," he adds.

Teachers say they notice changes in the students. "In the past a good number of the kids would make do with yes or no answers. Now they have begun to give reasons and express themselves."

In Lerman's class, the question of how to respond to violence came up. "I used the idea of Kant's categorical imperative," she said. "I told the students that they should do whatever they want, on condition that they be prepared for their response to become a general rule." Lerman says the children very quickly decided that it was best to act fairly with each other.

At Efrata, some of the discussions stem from the children's Orthodox background. In the discussion of the stomach, one child said "God would not allow" two stomachs. "Many children use the religious argument not because they were thinking about it," says Lerman, "but because it is immediate and allows them to participate immediately."

Similar responses can be seen in the Isawiyah school. According to instructor Denise Hadad, the most common answer to the question about what a real thing is, was that if God made it, it was real. "The next stage in the discussion was whether God is a real thing."

The Israeli Center of Philosophy for Children is a member of the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children, whose annual conference, attended by 80 scholars, ended in Jerusalem last night.