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What Bobolino Knew

by Anne Rockwell

Summary

What Bobolino Knew explores questions about the nature of wisdom and the importance of communication.

Bobolino is the son of a rich nobleman. Bobolino’s father sends him off to learn various languages. Bobolino comes back but has not learned how to speak Chinese or French. However, he has learned how to speak to animals. His father is displeased and locks him in the dungeon. Bobolino then escapes and has numerous adventures with the help of animals. Finally, he goes into a nearby town during a storm. By the time the storm ends, the whole town has heard of Bobolino’s good deeds and elects him as the new king.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Wisdom

What does it mean to be wise? Is a person wise because he compassionate? Or because he knows a lot? It is helpful to have the children think of people who they think are wise to help dive into these questions. More than just creating tangible examples of wisdom, this is an opportunity to ask the children why they think some people are wise. Write down some of the trends and adjectives that the children describe to make a bank of words that can be used to define “wisdom.” Then students can have a discussion about what makes Bobolino wise (if he is!). The discussion can then move away from people telling different personal stories and towards an assessment of wisdom in the book.

The next question, “Would Bobolino still be wise if the townspeople didn’t say he was wise?” gets the children thinking about whether wisdom is intrinsic or something defined by other people. Students can also be prompted to ask for clarification on whether wisdom is something that is learned over time or something people are born with. Recounting personal experiences with wisdom can easily get off-topic, so it is important to steer back by returning to questions like, “What exactly about that experience makes you think of wisdom, instead of intelligence?”

Finally, students are asked to discuss the value of wisdom. If other discussion has been lacking, this question has a lot of examples from within the book and it will be easy to point to specific pages that the children can discuss (such as Bobolino warning the fisherman or the shepherd). Finally, you might get the kids to reflect on the connection (if any) between wisdom and morality: are wise people always good? Or can someone be really wise but also really bad? And if not, does that show us that wisdom and intelligence are not the same things (since someone can be really intelligent and really bad)?

Valuing Communication

By talking to the animals, Bobolino is gaining access to an unheard group, and learning things he couldn’t learn from anyone else. The animals share practical information with him in the story, making it seem like this is the main benefit of talking to them. Learning languages is emphasized pretty heavily in the book. This opens up some questions about the importance of learning languages. Why do you value the ability to hear from others? Other than practicality, what reasons could there be to learn another language? To get the kids thinking about these questions, you should start by asking, “What good comes of Bobolino talking to animals?” and “Why does Bobolino talk to animals?” The first question is fairly straightforward, and you might expect kids to come up with plot-based answers, like saving the fishermen, helping the farmer, etc. The second question might seem the same at first: he talks with them to learn how to help the fishermen, the farmer, etc. However, it is important to push for more answers by returning to specific points in the story (such as when he was in the water with the fish) and asking what Bobolino might have been thinking. Could he really have expected the fish to tell him something useful? If not, why else might he have talked to the fish? The underlying question we are trying to get at is the value of communication. Is communication good because it helps us learn information about the world, or because it helps us make friends, or because it allows us to express ourselves, or something else? Is the value of listening to a different type than the value of speaking? It is important to be careful when you ask kids why they would want to talk to animals; it could be easy to get off-topic, fast. Be prepared to use directing questions like, “What exactly would make animals worth speaking to? If it turned out that animals don’t like people and you couldn’t become friends with them, would you still want to talk with them?”

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Wisdom

The townspeople want Bobolino to be king because he is wise.

  1. Many of the townspeople see Bobolino as wise. Whom do you see as wise, and what makes them that way?
  2. What makes Bobolino wise? Is it because he knows how to talk to animals? Or because he uses his knowledge to be helpful to others? Or something else?
  3. Would Bobolino still be wise if the townspeople didn’t say he was wise? Why?
  4. Would we still care if Bobolino was wise if he never became king? Why?
  5. Was Bobolino wise from the beginning, or did he become wise? (Is wisdom something you have from the time you’re born, or do you get it with time?)
  6. What are some times you feel wise, and not wise?
  7. How are the times you feel wise different from the times you feel smart?
  8. Why should we care about being wise? Is wisdom more important than intelligence?
  9. What if Bobolino didn’t help the townspeople? Or even did bad things like help steal the sheep? Would he still be wise? Or does one have to be nice to be wise?

The Value of Communication

Bobolino communicates with animals to help people.

  1. What good things happen because Bobolino is able to talk to animals?
  2. Why does Bobolino talk to the animals?
  3. Would it still be valuable for Bobolino to talk to the fish if the fish didn’t have helpful information?
  4. Pretend Bobolino had decided not to learn any languages but learned other useful skills–predicting storms, etc–and managed to save the townspeople without the help of animals. What would he have lost or gained by doing it on his own?
  5. If you could learn to talk to animals, would you? Why?
  6. Is there someone you don’t talk to much you think might have something helpful to say?
  7. Why do people care about communication? Should they?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Alyk Kenlan and Maya Ben-Shahar. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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