FACETIME- Playing with Plato: McCarty guides little philosophers

Plato, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant. They're great thinkers, and their complex works fill college course syllabi. But Marietta McCarty says there's no need to wait for adulthood to begin considering the great questions of existence.

"If you ask a child a question about an idea, and you listen attentively to the answer and respect it, she can become a philosopher," says McCarty, a PVCC philosophy professor whose new book, Little Big Minds, although in bookstores only since January, is already generating a buzz.

It will be featured in the March/April edition of Teacher Magazine, and McCarty will be a guest on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm Show on February 15. And teachers are already responding.

"I can't put it down," says Elana Divine, teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Maryland. "The kids love it and participate a lot more."

Broken up into the topics that most frequently arise in her elementary school seminars, McCarty's book includes chapters on, among other things, evil, courage, prejudice, and, of course, death. Discussion questions and activities are suggested throughout.

Children, McCarty says, are eager to discuss these concepts, but often have had little opportunity to do so at home or in traditional school settings.

"I've never been in a classroom when children did not want to talk about death," says McCarty, who stresses that she does not approach the subject from a religious point of view.

"It isn't that I have the answers for them," she says. "It's that they want to express how they feel."

Recently, McCarty brought a photograph of one of her childhood friends who died last year to start the conversation. Sometimes she leads with John Donne's poem "Death Be Not Proud" before asking the children to pen their own Donne-inspired literary work, humorously titled "Death, You are a Real Loser."

"If you can talk about it and think about it," she says, "it ceases to be a preoccupation, and you can get on with the business of living."

Having taught philosophy to pre-schoolers for nearly a decade (in addition to her fulltime teaching at PVCC since 1988), she'll give two seminars at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March– one for adults and one for parents and their children.

While children are universally drawn to asking questions and pondering answers, McCarty says that parents sometimes worry the topics may be too mature or that religious beliefs may be threatened. Nonetheless, aside from a few comments from concerned parents over the years, she has never faced any serious complaint about the content of her classes– one of which covers the subject of compassion.

"It's hard to be against that," she says. "When your mind expands, your heart can't stay closed; it opens."

Marietta McCarty