Everyday Abstractions: Children and Concrete Value

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This summer, I had a wonderful opportunity in teaching a free enrichment course in philosophy to a group of sixth graders at Sacred Heart Community Service’s Summer Academy. Working with younger students, I knew that I would have to represent the more abstract philosophical ideas with concrete examples. Even though I was aware of this, the examples that these students responded to gave me some insight into the abstract concepts we deal with on an everyday basis.

While introducing these young students to various ethical dilemmas, such as the classic trolley problem, I was surprised by the aspects of these dilemmas that they latched onto. Their answers would change drastically when we switched up the scenario and added a family member into the equation. Now, this seems fairly obvious; people love their family members deeply, and that emotional attachment is what makes the difference. However, their reactions weren’t as simple as that. Some of those same students, whose minds changed when a family member was involved, did not change their minds when their closest friend was involved. The reason that this interests me is that it seems to indicate that there is something special about the relationship between a person and their family member that these young students can intuitively identify. The relationships between family members, especially the relationship between parent and child, is special. Within these relationships, family members have duties and obligations to each other. Children have a duty to respect and honor their parents, a concept often known as filial piety. In a similar manner, siblings have a duty to protect and care for each other. These relationships are special precisely because those duties and obligations are packaged within them. Children don’t often think about these relationships expressly in the context of duty; nevertheless, they understand this context to some extent. The somewhat abstract concept of special duty and obligation stemming from a unique position finds concrete representation in our everyday interactions with our family members.

As I taught the students about ethical theories, I asked them to think of a person whom they thought was a very good person as a warmup exercise. Many of them came up with historical figures, and one of the popular ones was Martin Luther King, Jr. In order to make them think a bit, I asked them why these people were good. Strangely enough, even though these students readily identified these people as good, many didn’t have a clear understanding of what these people did in their lives. This might seem relatively simple; the students were young, and it would be very unusual for them to be intricately acquainted with history. However, that’s not what intrigues me about this situation. It made me realize that in many cases, children learn a conception of the “good” by example. These students had heard countless times that Martin Luther King, Jr. from older people who were aware of his actions. From there, they begin to associate the things that MLK did as good things. The vital thing to notice here is that it seems younger students associate the concept of “good” with people before actions. They first learn which people are described as good, and then they associate the actions of those people with this concept of good. Every historical figure that is commonly described as a morally good person is another opportunity for children to interact with this abstract concept of the good in a concrete way.

Noticing these things, I ended up having to modify my curriculum as I went through each day of teaching, finding more concrete examples and true stories that illustrated the complex concepts I was talking about. In doing this, I was reminded of just how often I actually engage with the abstract ideas that I spend so much time thinking about. I was reminded that the themes of philosophy don’t exist solely in a vacuous world of vague values. In fact, so many philosophers over the course of centuries have studied these concepts precisely because they manifest themselves in our everyday interactions with the world around us.