UCI graduate student Kourosh Alizadeh
UCI graduate student Kourosh Alizadeh discusses philosophical concepts with fifth-graders at Irvine’s Canyon View Elementary School as part of the TH!NK program. Steve Zylius / UC Irvine

Canyon View Elementary School’s 134 fifth-grade students are getting an introduction to a subject many learners are only exposed to once they enter college. TH!NK is a four-week, 16-hour program developed by UC Irvine’s Department of Philosophy to familiarize students with philosophical thought and discourse. It presents philosophy as a skill rather than a subject matter, says Marcello Fiocco, associate professor of philosophy and TH!NK creator.

“Philosophy is more like reading or riding a bike than American history or psychology,” he explains. “Philosophy is critical thinking; it’s the skill of examining presuppositions, recognizing connections, seeking justification – all toward the end of providing insight into something of interest. The primary goal of TH!NK is to prepare young minds for future learning and reflective careers.”

On a recent afternoon, Fiocco and three graduate students in philosophy and one in logic & philosophy of science gathered in small groups with students at the Irvine school to read aloud short stories and then raise questions intended to illustrate the difference between obtaining information about a situation and critically engaging in it. The grad students focus on the latter, which is the basis of philosophical thought.

The literature ranged from The True Story of the Three Little Pigs to selections from the Tao Te Ching. “I wanted to use texts that students can return to indefinitely,” Fiocco says, “stories that have depth and can apply to different stages of their lives.”

Referring to philosophy as a “language and skill” that pertains to real-world situations, such as deciding what type of car to purchase or how to deal with family conflict, he hopes to inspire the next generation of philosophers – or at least demystify the subject for local students.

“Philosophy is not something that’s only for geniuses,” Fiocco says. “The field is directed at solving real-world problems. It’s for everybody, and chances are these students are already using it in their daily lives.”

The TH!NK program is coordinated by UCI’s Humanities Commons.