“P4C, Children’s Literature, and Fanfiction by Kids”

by Kenneth Kidd

In 1970, with the help of an NEH grant, Lipman published a philosophical novel for children called Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, and then taught it as a field experiment in fifth and sixth-grade public school classrooms in Montclair, NJ. Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery runs about the length of a standard middle-grade novel. Published in stapled-cover format, the novel was reprinted but never picked up by a publishing house. Lipman believed in the Socratic dialogue as a pedagogical model, and Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery is a series of dialogues, ostensibly realistic and designed to inspire dialogue among real-world students. Harry and his friends are fifth graders pursuing philosophical questions in their daily lives, involving logic, epistemology, and ethics. The students with whom Lipman used the book apparently saw measurable gains in both reasoning and reading ability. Success with the book and the Lipman’s pilot P4C program helped lead to the 1974 establishment of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC). Under Lipman’s supervision, the IAPC produced pedagogical materials used widely in school settings, beginning with six additional novels plus accompanying teacher manuals. Lipman also wrote books about philosophy and/as education, designed graduate level programs in philosophy for children – P4C – and founded Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children. By 1976, P4C programs were in place in elementary schools in Newark, Baltimore, East Lansing, Denton, and Hastings-on-Hudson, and a number of universities developed P4C programs. Another influential figure in the early P4C movement was philosophy professor Gareth Matthews, who wrote extensively on childhood, education, and children’s literature. For P4C, to think philosophically involves both analysis and imagination, with “wonder” being both a foundation for and potential corrective to rationalism.

As an educational movement and a set of general principles, P4C has waxed and waned but now enjoys a global presence. The 2007 UNESCO report Philosophy, A School of Freedom identifies three levels of P4C institutionalization worldwide: cases where it has been promoted by authorities, as in France; cases where experiments have been conducted, as in Italy; and cases where P4C has been institutionalized and is part of the primary school curriculum, as in Australia. P4C is thriving especially in the UK, thanks to the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), which in 2016 alone trained some 4500 teachers in P4C. In addition, P4C has a presence in community education and homeschooling programs. The idea that philosophy might be “for” children – because children are natural/born philosophers – has met with considerable public as well as academic success.

For our roundtable, two general propositions. First, I suggest that P4C is an ideal if not necessary topic for childhood studies, both historically, in terms of how childhood studies has emerged, and strategically, in terms of persuasive arguments about children’s abilities and children’s rights. While sometimes looking like yet another version of progressive education, P4C does also take diverse forms, support children’s rights, and give priority to children’s literature. P4C gained momentum amid a vibrant 1970s dialogue on child agency and children’s rights, taking place in public forums and in publications such as Paul Adams et al, Children’s Rights: Toward the Liberation of the Child (1971), David Gottlieb, ed., Children’s Liberation (1973), Mark Gerzon, A Childhood for Every Child (1973), and Richard Farson’s Birthrights (1974). Granted, P4C privileges the liberation of the child’s mind rather than her body. That liberation can happen, according to its advocates, through a narrative-based community of inquiry, ideally one of peers but also often a Socratic community of adult mentor/child mentee. P4C kids do not take to the streets. But they do exercise independence of mind and will. P4C proposes that children are capable of interrogative thinking from a very young age. Contemporary P4C is now more typically understood as philosophy with children, or PwC, and even tends toward a posthumanist and intersectional understanding of both education and childhood (as especially with the influential work of Karin Murris). Contemporary PwC recognizes the child as a researcher, thinker, and even theorist, who sometimes operates independently and sometimes collaborates with adults. Moreover, gradually moving away from Lipman’s vision, P4C has increasingly recognized conventionally-published children’s literature as a domain of philosophical engagement all its own, such that P4C practitioners now incorporate children’s texts into their practice (picturebooks especially). This shift has helped authorize children’s authors as child advocates.

I want to keep children’s literature as a priority for childhood studies, and P4C encourages that commitment. Childhood studies, of course, has been interested in child-made materials – letters, diaries, various material objects – which brings me to my second general proposition: we might look to fanfiction as another form of children’s literature that is philosophical and theoretical, involving both analytical and imaginative work as well as community building. Kimberley Reynolds and Catherine Tosenberger have rightly argued that fanfiction isn’t just an interesting companion to children’s literature but can also be an exemplary form of such when produced and/or circulated by young people. It’s telling, too, that the largest two fandoms out there are the megafandoms of Harry Potter and Twilight, which means we’re talking about young people engaging with and remaking conventionally-published children’s literature. Fanfiction, of course, has its own complexities and problems, some reflecting the complexities and problems of source material, but fanfiction writers and scholars are energetically calling such out (see especially the work of Deborah Wanzo and Rukmini Pande) and exploring fanfiction’s more progressive possibilities. Fanfiction is often interrogative and very meta, reflecting not only on diverse source material but on interpretive and compositional practices both individual and collective. Put simply, fanfiction foregrounds the challenges of reading, thinking, writing, and revision – challenges that take place through and across multiple fandoms and multiple media/platforms. Fanfiction would certainly make an interesting curriculum for PwC. In any case, one “informal” and the other more institutional, fanfiction and P4C both have relevance for childhood studies and could be productively conjoined.

Kenneth Kidd is Professor of English at the University of Florida. He is the author of Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (2004), Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature (2011), and the forthcoming Theory for Beginners, or Children’s Literature Otherwise, with Fordham University Press. He has also co-edited four books, the most recent being Queer as Camp: Essays on Summer, Style, and Sexuality, also with Fordham UP. With Beth Marshall he is co-editor of the Routledge series on Children’s Literature and Culture.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.