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Understanding and Empathy 41

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

One of the great pleasures of teaching or parenting in 2016 is that the breadth and quality of children's literature has blossomed so beautifully in recent years. Young children love to listen to and follow along with stories, and as they get older their literacy becomes an important foundation of their learning. "Children's books are amazingly flexible teaching tools," explains Byrd Pinkerton in an interview on Boston's own WBUR. "They help millions of kids learn to read and write, of course. But we can also use them to teach kids — and adults — ideas that might otherwise seem overwhelming. Want to teach philosophy? Use Harold and the Purple Crayon. Financial literacy? The Berenstain Bears. Even math is a little easier with help from Pete the Cat."

As the summer draws to a close and we scramble to catch up on our long list of unread books, we can take heart in the fact that some of the world's most profound truths may be revealed in the most accessible of picture books. Take Shrek, for example, a crowd-pleaser for children of all ages. Not only can he be viewed as "an ogre who relishes putrid stews but runs scared from adorable children," he is also a cipher for potentially deeper truths. Pinkerton calls attention to a Professor of Philosophy at Mt. Holyoke College, Tom Wartenberg, in whose class (Philosopy 280: Philosophy for Children) a parallel is drawn between the lessons of Shrek and the complexity of Immanuel Kant. Confession: when I struggled as an undergraduate with Kant's philosophy, I did not realize that some of these mysteries might be revealed through the simplicity and straightforwardness of children's literature. Either way it is inspiring to realize that powerful adults ideas may be formed through direct exposure to compelling, if not silly, literature.