This article originally appeared on July 19, 2013 in the Book Bag section of the Daily Hampshire Gazette. The Springfield Republican also published a Lifestyle cover story about Wartenberg's book on July 22, 2013.
By Steve Pfarrer
A Sneetch Is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries: Finding Wisdom
in Children's Literature
John Wiley & Sons/Wiley-Blackwell
Thomas Wartenberg, a professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, has spent a good part of his career examining the connections between philosophy and popular culture, from movies to literature to art. He is also the creator of a website, teachingchildrenphilosophy.org, that’s dedicated to helping adults discuss philosophical questions with young children.
In his latest book, A Sneetch Is a Sneetch and Other Philosophical Discoveries, he looks at the surprisingly profound thoughts and questions that can be raised in children’s literature, even for very young readers. Drawing from 16 picture books, including the classic Dr. Seuss story “The Sneetches,” Wartenberg offers a basic primer on philosophical issues that parents and children can examine together.
In the Dr. Seuss story, for instance, a group of creatures discriminates against another group that is virtually identical, except for the fact that the first group has small stars on their bellies and the second does not. Wartenberg uses the tale to examine the implications of discrimination, particularly the difference between its immorality and its irrationality, with suggestions on how to frame a discussion with children.
Wartenberg also looks at stories such as William Steig’s “Shrek,” later adapted for a sequence of popular animated films, and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a tale that delves into the issue of environmental ethics. Throughout the book, he also offers text blocks that discuss specific philosophical ideas in more depth, and he includes short profiles of notable philosophers.
His overall intent, he says, is to show that philosophy is not as abstract as one might think—and that young children’s endless questions might mean more than a harried parent realizes.
“Kids and philosophers seem determined to place obstacles in our way,” he writes. “[But] the reason they both keep asking ‘Why?’ is that they refuse to skip over those confounding aspects of reality that most of us ignore as we attend to our everyday concerns.”