What do we mean by philosophy with children?
Philosophy is a discipline with a particular kind of focus on thinking. It involves not only careful thinking, but also thinking about thinking to support children to acquire the kinds of mental habits that enrich conceptual development and promote better reasoning. These make children effective participants in their own intellectual development, and it is only by being involved in this way that children learn to think for themselves.
Why does Cambodia need a secular ethics and critical thinking programme?
The official religion in Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism, which is (supposedly) practiced by around 95% of the Cambodian population. It is said that Theravada promotes the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis." This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning, instead of by blind faith. In reality, however, the beliefs of Cambodian people stray from the traditional philosophy of Theravada Buddhism.
Behind the doors of Khmer Temples, there lies belief in superstitions, with rituals, spirits, ghosts, gods, and sorcerers, which, it can be argued, injects immeasurable stress and fear into the lives of most Cambodian men, women and children.
The reason for this is because Cambodia’s historical roots lie deep within the realms of animism. Animism is the belief in a unity of the physical and spiritual world. It encompasses the belief in the existence of spirits and souls, in living things as well as inanimate objects. Cambodia’s history with animism dates back to before the 12th century, when Buddhism replaced Hinduism as Cambodia’s dominant religion.
Superstition plays a significant role in the everyday lives of ordinary Khmers. People regularly consult fortunetellers and practitioners of magic to drive away evil spirits, make life decisions, and even cast spells on their enemies and love interests. The Buddhist temples have largely become vehicles to facilitate people’s beliefs in the supernatural.
These beliefs and the lack of critical thinking skills also make Cambodians vulnerable to being converted to other religions. A large portion of the expat community in Cambodia is comprised of Christian missionaries, who combine aid work with active proselytizing. For Cambodians, Christianity has the attraction of offering a less evil or threatening, and more ‘loving’ ghost to believe in. The Mormon Church in particular, now has a growing population in Cambodia. They currently have 15 congregations (12 Khmer language and 3 Vietnamese language) with more being built.
And in a country where corruption is widespread and pervades almost every sector of public life, and where 30% of the population live on less than $1.25 per day, it is vital that Cambodia’s children, its future leaders, learn how to think, how to reason and how to be ethical and moral citizens. The future of Cambodia depends on it.
Overview of the curriculum
With the assistance of volunteers with years of expertise, staff at CCT will work to develop a curriculum that is culturally appropriate for Cambodian children.
The programme will work with all children from 5 - 18yrs. The classes will introduce children to the concept of a ‘community of inquiry’. They will explore ethical dilemmas with the aim of developing skills to evaluate arguments and counter arguments, which will ultimately deepen their knowledge and understanding of the complexities they confront every day.
The subject matter will cover the common, central and contestable concepts that underpin both our experience of life, no matter what culture we live in. Examples of such concepts are:
Truth, reality, freedom, justice, faith versus fact, evidence, responsibility, rights, leadership, identity, fairness, beauty, God, thought, human nature, bravery, and goodness.
These concepts will be presented in a way that is easily understood by children, such as what is right or wrong? Should we ever steal? What is being fair? What is a friend? How should we treat others and how should we treat animals? Should we believe everything we’re told?
The classes also explore the interests of the children by encouraging them to ask questions that are important to them and central to their own lives.
Working as a 'community' the children learn to listen and respect a diverse range of views. Ultimately, the children who undertake this programme will become better thinkers and therefor e better students, improving their confidence and self-esteem.
It fosters and develops the natural curiosity and wonder in children and instills a deep empathy for others. A typical session will consist of a group reading of a source text, followed by the gathering of students’ questions that have been stimulated by the reading. These questions form the agenda for discussion.
The students’ collaborative inquiry will be facilitated by the use of appropriate discussion plans and exercises, which function to maintain focus and encourage depth of discussion.
Who will run the programme?
As philosophy, ethics and critical thinking are not subjects taught in Cambodia, the programme will be developed and taught by an overseas teacher. This person will be a teacher/trainer/tutor philosopher with experience working with children. The plan for the pilot project is to appoint a professional volunteer teacher for a period of 6 months. The teacher will remain in Cambodia to train Khmer staff who will ultimately be able to run the programme without assistance from a foreign teacher.
Who is this programme aimed at?
Initially the CCT Secular Ethics & Critical Thinking Programme will initially be aimed at the 46 children CCT has in residential care, as well as the 85+ street children who are a part of the community centre programmes. Classes will be held at the CCT premises in Battambang Province.
The vision is to eventually involve a number of schools and NGO organizations so that critical thinking and philosophizing becomes a regular practice in Cambodia.