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The Philosophy of Children

January 18, 2022

By João Bettencourt

“I think colleges are basically for fun and to prove you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.” This is what Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk said at the Satellite 2020 Conference. He continued: “I want to make sure Tesla’s recruiting does not have anything that says ‘requires university’ because that’s absurd.” As most of Musk’s popular quotes, usually posted off context, we may assume that he was not being literal but provocative – to stir things up as he often does. What is college education adding to this generation that has unlimited access to all kinds of information? What do we actually learn from it? And where do we really find the most valuable learnings throughout our lifetime?

Keeping things light, as I’m sure Musk was doing when he said this, I would add that school, in general, is helpful in one very important aspect: you might just cross paths with people who impact you for life. People who say or do something that sticks with you and keeps coming back in your head. 

My tough high school Philosophy teacher left me with one sentence I carry until this day: “The purest Philosophy comes from children”. The two other things I remember about her are: she once wrecked her car by starting it on “reverse”, and the fact that scoring “Average” on her class was almost as difficult as designing the world’s first electric car. Let’s focus on the first memory…

A lot has been said about the reflections that these strange times have stirred up, but perhaps the most important one – which includes all the others – is: we had some time to think. Not thinking about what will happen to the world and how we will cope specifically, but deeply thinking about the primordial curiosity for the truth that makes us ask and ponder on the universal questions of our lives: “Where am I going”, “What am I’m doing here”, “What does it all mean”. These are the purest interrogations historically tackled by philosophers across lifetimes, and… they are also the same you often hear from children. 

In the most innocent and naive phase of our lives, we are already asking the right questions and we have already figured out what is actually important. This is the realization that struck me on that day in high school.

The most fascinating CEOs, world leaders, artists or personalities have some sense of fun and often a playful nature. They seem to have a deep understanding of how their world works and all their enlightened conclusions address some sort of solution to universal questions. Elon Musk is trying to “do good things for people”; Salvador Dali wanted us to focus on the beauty that exists even in bad dreams; Bill Gates convinced a lot of wealthy people to donate their money to solve the world’s problems. They all keep in mind the meaning of what they are doing. What else could be driving them once they achieved everything?  

Responsible leadership, sustainability as an obligation, the rising of inclusivity and a deeper reflection on the way we live our lives, are all a result of a renewed pursuit for basic human ideals that have been forgotten by modern societies blinded by things that don’t teach us where we are going, what are we supposed to do, or what actually has true meaning. As we all ponder on new beginnings, we should always start with the question “Where am I going?”.

Children don’t look at social networks to answer their deepest questions. They look at us.