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The Flower Question

"Look, Auntie Gertie," shouted Freddie, as he walked past the hall table; those flowers have their heads bowed. Are they praying? Or have they died?"

Freddie and his family were just returning home from a four-day trip to the Lake District. His mother, his father, and his sister, Alice, were still getting their luggage out of the car. The chrysanthemums on the hall table had caught Freddie's attention as soon as he got through the front door. Instead of showing him their bright, yellow faced, as they had when he left, the flowers were indeed all bent over.

"Not to worry," said Aunt Gertie cheerfully; "they got very thirsty while we were gone. But a drink of cool water is all they need."

Aunt Gertie, who was the flower expert in the Davidson family, dropped her suitcase and walked straight into the kitchen. There she filled a small, red watering can and returned to give the chrysants a drink.

Freddie looked on thoughtfully. "I didn't know flowers get thirsty," he said.

`"Just like you," Aunt Gertie reassured him; "but they take a long, long drink. It will be tomorrow before their thirst is quenched and they're happy again."

The door burst open, revealing Alice, loaded down with blankets and stuffed toys, followed by Father and Mother. "It's certainly good to be home," sighed Father, "even if it is prettier in the Lake District and . . ."-he caught sight of the bowed chrysanthemums - "even if Gertie's flowers have dried up in our absence."

"They haven't dried up," explained Freddie; "they're just thirsty. Auntie Gertie is going to give them a long drink." "Flowers can't be thirsty," muttered Alice; "they haven't got tongues or throats." Luckily, no one heard her. Soon she and Freddie were safely tucked in bed and the grown-ups were relaxing over a cup of tea.

* * *

The next morning Freddie was wakened by the bark of a dog outside. For a moment he didn't know where he was; then he realized he was at home and it was his dog, Pepper, who was barking to be let in. The nextdoor neighbors, the Stewarts, had looked after Pepper while the Davidsons were away.

Sleepily Freddie stretched, got up, dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. At the foot of the stairs Freddie caught sight of the Chrysanthemums. Auntie Gertie was right. They had gone cheerful, just as she said they would. Their heads were no longer bowed. Their bright, yellow faces smiled at anybody who stopped to look at them.

"Morning, Mummy," said Freddie to his mother, who was putting an egg into boiling water over the stove. He gave her a hug as Pepper came yapping up excitedly. He patted and then hugged Pepper affectionately.

"Auntie Gertie's flowers are happy again," Freddie reported.

"Flowers can't be happy," scowled Alice, who was hunched over a bowl of cornflakes in the corner; "Auntie Gertie likes to talk about flowers as if they were people. But really they don't have any feelings. They can't be thirsty, or sad, or happy."

"Is that right, Mom?" asked Freddie in some disappointment.

"You'd better talk to your Aunt Gertie," said Mother; "she knows much more about flowers than any of the rest of us."

This is the story opening I wrote for a class of eight-and-a-half to eleven-year-olds in St. Mary's Music School in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1982. I had been given permission by the Headmaster of the school to conduct a philosophy class with those children for an hour or so every Wednesday afternoon during the 1982-83 school year.

Although I tried out a variety of techniques for doing philosophy with those children that year, the approach that seemed to work best was for me to write a story beginning, like the one above, and then ask the kids in the class how they story should go on. In this case, the question was 'What should Freddie conclude - was Alice right about flowers, or was Auntie Gertie right?' That is, can flowers really be thirsty and happy? Or do people like Aunt Gertie just talk as if they could.

The kids never had any trouble figuring out what the philosophical question was. Nor did they have any difficulty thinking up things to say that might help answer the question. I encouraged them to think about what Freddie should say to Aunt Gertie, or what Aunt Gertie should say to Freddie. I wanted them to make the philosophical problem their own.

Above all, I didn't want those kids to say to me at the end of the class, "Now tell us what the answer is." And, in fact, they never did that. I think that, by making the problem something that a child character in my story gave expression to, I encouraged them to think that the problem might have a solution, or at least some kind of resolution, they themselves were capable of coming up with.

I brought along a small tape-recorder to those classes. Then, during the week between class meetings, I would transcribe the discussion I had with the kids and, on the basis of that discussion, write up a continuation, and possibly a conclusion, to the story I had begun.

I would xerox the continuation of the story and take it to the class the next Wednesday afternoon. We would read the continuation together and the children would recognize their own comments from the week before, but put now in the mouth of Freddie, or Alice, or one of the other characters. "I said that," they would say, with some pride.

After we had read the continuation of the story, I would ask the kids if that settled the question, or whether we should discuss it further. Oftentimes they said that answered the question, or, anyway, that was the best they could do. But sometimes they wanted to discuss the question further. In that case there might be a further continuation of the story for the next week.

I wrote up my discussions with those kids in my book, Dialogues with Children (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984). You can read about the philosophical fun I had with those kids by reading that book. Here I will just give the conclusion to "The Flower Question" that I wrote up on the basis of the discussion I had with that class.

See one possible ending to the Flower Question.

Do you want to try out "The Flower Question" on kids in your family, or children in your class in school? If you do, you might try with them to write up a different ending to the story. If you come up with something different and you want to share it with me, please send your alternative ending, please send it to me, either by e-mail to matthews@philos.umass.edu, or by U.S. or international mail to Gareth B. Matthews, Philosophy Department, UMass, Amherst, MA 01003-0525, USA.