For 20 years, Christopher Phillips has inspired grown-ups to gather in coffee shops, libraries and school cafeterias to mine a limitless list of profound and confounding questions: Who owns human life? What is a good war? What am I capable of?
Phillips is founder of the Socrates Cafe — periodic gatherings of people of all political and religious stripes engaging in conversations using the Socratic method. In an homage to the fifth-century B.C. Greek philosopher, participants respectfully challenge opinions, not people. They seek “good” questions. They understand that consensus is not expected. Since the first meeting in 1996, more than 600 cafes have spring up around the world, including at least nine in Minnesota.
Over the years, Phillips has become convinced that one demographic in particular embraces Socratic concepts with enviable ease. He believes it’s time we learned from them — as soon as they get home from school.
“I have to say, in my long experience, and without romanticizing or idealizing, children and adolescents are far better at this kind of inquiry than adults,” Phillips said. “It’s second nature to them.
“And adults are more adept at it, open to it, latch onto it, if there’s at least a few children and youth participating.”
Phillips was in the Twin Cities in June to promote his new book, “The Philosophy of Childing: Unlocking Creativity, Curiosity, and Reason Through the Wisdom of Our Youngest.”
Phillips first heard the word “childing” when a girl at one of his youth-focused Philosophers’ Clubs told him that, since “parenting” is a word, “childing” should be, too. Her parents told her all the time that she was raising them.
Phillips was amused, then enlightened. Turns out the word “childing” has been around since at least 1250 A.D., with a variety of definitions, from “being pregnant” to “birthing” to the one description that resonated most with him:
“Bearing a cluster of newer blossoms around an older blossom.”
In other words, we shouldn’t shed, or put away, childish things as we age. If we’re smart, we build upon those things.
Abundant research, Phillips said, shows that children are adept at logical thinking. Their play activities are exercises in deep exploration. They can understand cause and effect, entertain the perspectives of others and adapt to unforeseen events and new information. They are natural empathizers.
And they sure know how to ask “the good question.”
Phillips remembers one discussion after the second Iraqi incursion, during which adults were “jumping down each other’s throats” in an alarmingly un-Socratic way. A 10-year-old boy in the group calmed everyone down.
“What is a good war?” he asked.
But far from tapping into those gifts, we too often ignore children, Phillips said, or dismiss them. They make up a word and we (well-meaningly, of course) correct them.
Eventually, kids learn to shutter their innate inquisitiveness and sense of wonder. We cheat them, and we cheat ourselves.
“Children and adults,” said Phillips, “need each other’s talents and skills equally if each is to develop to the fullest.”
Hence, Phillips, a married father of two young daughters, is single-handedly working to “bring childing back.”
Childing, of sorts, began at home for him. When the Virginia-born Phillips was 12, his Greek “yaya” (grandmother), Kalliope Casavarakis Philipou, gave him a handsome, leather-bound English translation of Plato’s Socratic dialogues.
She told him he had “the blood of Socrates.” Phillips read the book many times, never tiring of it.
Socrates’ “notion that each of us could and should become our own best questioners and thinkers spoke to me,” said the soft-spoken Phillips, who holds a doctorate and three master’s degrees, including one in teaching philosophy to children. He’s also written several books, including the bestselling “Socrates Cafe,” and has served as a fellow at Harvard University and the National Constitution Center.
Today he, wife Ceci (whom he met at a Socrates Cafe) and their girls divide their time between the East Coast and Mexico. He travels five days a week, from California to Texas to Minnesota — which he calls his “second home” — encouraging his expanding number of followers to “bring children into our orbit” and let them lead us, at least part of the time.
“If we can let go a little bit and raise one another,” he said, “we wouldn’t make so many adult-created catastrophes.”