Education may be the kindling of a flame and not the filling of a vessel, but it is useless and possibly harmful to encourage young green limbs to burn before they dry and brown with age and training. I was reminded of the importance of training when I stumbled upon this 2010 article from The New York Times. It discusses a program of undergraduate philosophy students using children’s books to direct philosophical discussions among second graders.

The book featured in the article is Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree;” while the discussion that followed, directed by the undergraduates, focused on environmental ethics, or “how we should treat natural objects”:

“Most of the young philosophers had no problem with the boy using the tree’s shade. But they were divided on the apples, which the boy sold, the branches, which he used to build a house, and the trunk, which he carved into a boat. ‘It’s only a tree,’ Justin said with a shrug. The tree has feelings!’ Keyshawn replied. Some reasoned that even if the tree wanted the boy to have its apples and branches, there might be unforeseen consequences. ‘If they take the tree’s trunk, um, the tree’s not going to live,’ said Nyasia. Isaiah was among only a few pupils who said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend. ‘Say me and a rock was a friend,’ he said. ‘It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.’ This gave his classmates pause.”
The concept of philosophical debate among elementary students is interesting but premature. Their taste should not be consulted at such a young age; their taste is being formed. Further, using “The Giving Tree” to talk about the modern fad of environmental ethics undermines this classic children’s book which perfectly illustrates sacrificial and enduring love, compassion, and the dignity of service and generosity. Since these are concepts that likely will not occur to a second grader without habituation, these are exactly the concepts parents and educators have a duty to instill in the children.

That the undergraduate students passed up the opportunity to discuss enduring questions of sacrifice and generosity to focus on a periphery environmental question—one which Mr. Silverstein likely did not even have in mind—is disappointing. Those young students may come away from the lesson assured of the good of not stepping on a flower but unaware of the selfishness in demanding that someone else tend to their garden.

The undergraduate students passed over the enduring for the immediate concerns of their day, bringing to mind Flannery O’Connor’s comments on a historical and liberal view of education and literature:

“The fact that these works do not present [the student] with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them […] many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable.”

The “philosophical discussion” in the NYT article appears to be the blind leading the blind: modern, rootless undergraduates leading unprepared and impressionable second graders, with little critical thinking along the way.