Here’s a Q&A that will get you thinking.
Norwegian philosopher for children and TEDx Transmedia 2012 speaker, Øyvind Olsholt, is approaching the event from a very different angle from everyone else. We had the pleasure of catching up with him and learning about his philosophical practice, his thoughts on what adults and kids can learn from one another and the importance of philosophy in life.
Register for TEDx Transmedia 2012 to see Øyvind live.
Hi Øyvind, what do you think of the term Transmedia?
I hadn’t heard about Transmedia until Nicoletta invited me to this conference. It qualifies the concept ‘media’ in a way that is ambiguous. ‘Trans’ can mean across, beyond, through, change etc. The term probably has clearer denotations in professional contexts. For me as a lay person it just means ‘a plurality of media.’
Since 1997, you’ve worked full-time with philosophy for children. How did you get involved in philosophy for children? What do you do and why is philosophy for children important?
My wife, Ariane Schjelderup, and I are both philosophers with Masters degrees from the University of Oslo. When we first began, we didn’t know very much about the international movement called P4C—Philosophy for Children. At the time we were using philosophical dialogues as a technique to help children talk about philosophical questions that mattered to them. But we sensed already back then that there is more to philosophy than technique and method—as there is more to dialogue than words.
Many people today are quite convinced that their children are philosophical, or at least that they can be, if stimulated in the right way. Most parents and teachers today know that their child is a virtual goldmine of fundamental questions, philosophical wonderment and innocent originality. So when a brand-new method enters the scene promising to detect and reveal these hidden, philosophical qualities in the child—just like the Philosophy for Children-programme promises to do—it is usually met with unanimous, and mostly uncritical, approval.
But the uncritical embracing of any method may function as a comfortable safeguard against a closer focus on ourselves and our role as parents and educators. Clinging too strongly to a method makes it very easy to forget about ourselves, makes it very easy to leave out the questioning of paradigms and prejudices unconsciously underpinning our adult lives.
We feel insecure and incapable without a celebrated method to lean on and rely on. And quite naturally we don’t want this insecurity to show, especially not in front of children (perhaps). But in our opinion it would be far better if we dared to be more honest in this respect, if we engaged more in the demanding and challenging philosophy itself than in the method of how to utilise philosophy, if we were more concerned with the child staring at us in the front row than the prospect of it’s future intellectual achievements promised by the method. It is much more difficult of course, but also much more rewarding in the end.
We believe that philosophy must therefore become a way of life, a continuous belief in the puzzling nature of human life—a belief that involves the adult’s life too! Then we would perhaps finally grasp the underlying identity between adult and child: that we are all truth-seeking human beings. Then we would perhaps realise that openness, questioning and wonder—the cornerstones of philosophical dialogue—ultimately spring from the Socratic insight: I know that I know nothing—and not from any pedagogical programme. Like Socrates we would have understood that our questioning and wonder is a way to seek the truth itself, and that we seek the truth itself because we know that we can never really possess the truth.
Existentially speaking there’s no difference between children and adults: we are all ignorant and therefore in search of the truth about our lives. If we’re not in search of this truth, it is generally not because we have found the truth, but because we have forgotten about our ignorance. This often happens with adults, but seldom with children.
It isn’t quite enough to learn about philosophy or to learn how to be a philosophical catalyst in a pedagogical context. Rather we must ourselves become philosophers in our own life. And as philosophers we should of course not pretend that we know what we don’t know, nor pretend that we do not know what we actually do know. And what then does a philosopher really know? In the end only this (not surprisingly): that he—like Socrates—doesn’t know anything!
When we talk with children, there are certain principles or rules that we try to observe. And not only observe: ideally these principles ought to be an integral part of our whole personality. They shouldn’t just be a mask we put on before a session. They are 1) Seeking the universal 2) Equality of contributions and 3) Voluntary participation.
Are children receptive to philosophy? Is it important for their development in life?
Yes, kids are very receptive to thinking. And of course, they don’t need to “receive” the thinking, they are perfectly able to think for themselves. But not all thinking is philosophical thinking. Kids have lots of opinions and they love to express themselves but they are somewhat less keen on a time-consuming examination of the ideas. That’s why it is important to introduce them to the exercise of philosophy, the sooner the better, to make them acquainted with a reflective way of life. Philosophical practice is in many respects a play, similar to chess or football, and as such it has an appeal to kids as well.
What do you think adults can learn from children?
Spontaneity and a sense of here-and-now. But the reverse question should always be asked along with the first one: what can children learn from adults?
What can children learn from adults?
A lot, for instance patience and self-discipline. And the interesting thing is that philosophy for kids, which is a practice based on the assumption that kids are autonomous and independent thinkers, fosters not only creativity, a willingness to change outlook and the like, but also what seems to be opposite qualities: perseverance, endurance, tenacity etc. Many, not all, adults have learned to combine these different qualities and through philosophical practice kids can experience for themselves how the two can go together.
Nowadays, kids wake up and reach for their phone to check their emails, Twitter, Facebook and messages in bed. Is this a good thing?
If the reaching out for these gadgets in the morning means that they have become the most important things in their life I think it has gone too far (not a good thing).
What is the impact of growing up completely immersed in digital technology?
Who knows? And the fact that nobody really knows should make us go forward cautiously and prudently. We should not overdo things even if everything, at the moment, seems to work satisfactorily, indeed, even if the technology gives us the greatest pleasure here and now.
How significant is your Norwegian heritage in your work?
You mean the skeptical, pessimistic, puritanical outlook on life and people? It’s there I guess.
What did you want to be as a kid? What were your dreams and aspirations?
I wanted to be a concert pianist. And here I am today: a mere philosopher. So much for dreams and aspirations. :)
Many people find philosophy on one hand inspiring and on the other hand esoteric and hard to grapple with and understand. Do you think philosophy should be more accessible?
Not really. Rather, people should be taught how not to flee from challenges and difficulties, intellectual or otherwise. The words of philosopher T. W. Adorno are interesting here: retention of strangeness is the only antidote to estrangement.
What inspires you?
That which burns with an inner, invisible flame, or rather, the flame itself.
The theme of this year’s TEDx Transmedia, WEKids, is about harnessing child-like wonder and courage to make meaningful media that has a social impact. Do you see potential in that approach?
I rather like the idea that harnessing is a necessary ingredient in order to create meaning. But I don’t understand why something that is meaningful must also have a social impact. Isn’t a meaningful experience enough in itself?
The subheading is Dreamers, Geeks, Mindshifters; which do you most identify with and why?
Well, what do I come across as so far?
I’m not sure but I think Mindshifter? Am I wrong?
Nicoletta, having read my presentation, put me in the Dreamer category right away. I guess I am a bit of both. After all, if one is a dreamer and one’s dreams are strong and appear convincing it is only natural to wish to share them with others. That does not mean that one tries to shift other people’s minds but still, when sharing a dream it is unavoidable to influence others in one way or another.
TEDTalks are renowned for their inspiration, energy and focus on the personal. Can you give us a taster of what you want to bring to Rome?
Do you mean a taster of what I am going to say or how I am going to say it? The former is work in progress and the latter is difficult to show in writing. But I can promise you one thing: I will not focus on the personal.
What do you see as the future of Transmedia storytelling? What possibilities are there in a networked world?
Philosophers deal with arguments, definitions, examples, counterexamples and the like. They are not into storytelling. On the other hand, a clear and controversial analysis can be as great and exciting as any story.
What in your life are you most passionate about?
Oh, the invisible flame that just keeps burning - unchanged by circumstance.
And something a bit more personal (if you don’t mind?), what do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I still play the piano. At the moment I am rehearsing the Swan Lake for my little daughter who is an aspiring ballet dancer.
Interview by Hannah Wood