Does size really matter?;Children's books;Arts

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
THE SMALL BOOK OF BIG QUESTIONS. By Jackie French. Puffin. pound;3.99.

Not in this tiny tome that encourages children to find their own answers, writes Julian Baggini.

If Isaiah Berlin was right about philosophers being "adults who persist in asking childish questions", children will take to Jackie French's The Small Book of Big Questions like fish to water. It takes a brave adult to encourage children to ask questions to which they have no answers. French relishes the challenge, discussing subjects from the scientific to the philosophical via the theological - How did the universe begin? What is life? Can machines think? Why is life unfair?

With its chatty style and witty cartoons, the book is something of a sugared pill. It may be aimed at children but it is really a kind of pre-initiation to adulthood, introducing the complexities and uncertainties of the real world. "What do you think?" French frequently asks, encouraging readers to take the responsibility for their opinions that many grown-ups refuse to take.

On issues such as life after death and morality, French risks upsetting some parents. The fact that her approach is too secular for the religiously devout, yet allows religious views an airing where they seem least respectable, suggests she has got the balance about right. For example, her treatments of the origins of life and the universe rightly dwell on the big bang and evolution, but also give room and respect to creationism.

The real issue is whether or not this kind of book is a good idea at all. Since Plato, many people have argued that children should be instructed in some certainties before being encouraged to question too much. But uncontested sources of authority are in short supply. French's book is an admirable attempt to equip young people to make sense of the competing values and opinions they will encounter, and sooner rather than later.

The book raises many questions, and a curious child will want to follow some of them up. That most adults will find themselves struggling to help is evidence enough that there has been too little, not too much, thinking about the kind of big questions contained in this small but rich book.

But the question of how children - or indeed adults - are supposed to address the issues French raises is left unanswered. The trouble is that for far too long Britain has neglected the discipline that most effectively deals with life's imponderables - philosophy.

French's book may be aimed at a younger readership, but that doesn't mean 17-year-olds are any better equipped than the pre-teens to rise to its challenges. Worse, our ignoble tradition of philosophical neglect may also leave many teachers struggling to find the appropriate intellectual tools to clear the dust the book raises.

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