Interview: Author Linda Elder, PhD

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Kid Lit Reviews would like to welcome Dr. Linda Elder, author of .            .         Fairminded Fran and the Three Small Black Community Cats.   .            .              .         .       Read the Review HERE.

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Welcome, Linda. It is nice to have  you here.  Is Fairminded Fran’s Community Cats your first children’s book?  Your first book?  If no, what have you previously written?

Fairminded Fran’s Community Cats is one of a number of books and thinkers guides I have coauthored or authored, all integrally connected with critical thinking. Fairminded Fran and the three small black Community Cats is our first illustrated book for children. I have also written The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking for Children and Think About Fran and Sam: Which is Better at Thinking?  

Readers may be interested in these two books I have coauthored with my colleague Richard Paul: 30 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living Through Critical Thinking and Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life. http://www.criticalthinking.org/store/catalogs/books/214 . Both of these books introduce our approach to and conception of critical thinking.

The character Fairminded Fran was developed in the 1980’s by Richard Paul to introduce children to the concept of fairminded critical thinking. Paul is one of the leading authorities on critical thinking today and Founder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Fairminded Fran, Selfish Sam and Naïve Nancy play a prominent role in the Critical Thinking Handbook series, written for teachers, and available at our website. Elementary educators can read about these materials: http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/elementary-educators-4-6/809

Through Fairminded Fran’s Community Cats we deal, in terms of background logic, with an issue that affects everyone – that of feral cat overpopulation. We introduce TNR, which stands for Trap, Neuter, Return and refers to the process of trapping cats humanely, having them altered, and releasing them in the community, usually to a caregiver who feeds and watches over them. We introduce children (and their teachers and parents) to critical thinking. We reach across points of view, bringing together cat lovers with critical thinking enthusiasts and with environmentalists who are sensitive to the ethical dimensions of the feral cat overpopulation problem. We exemplify the need to think critically about the important issues now pressing down upon us as humans, issues we simply can no longer afford to ignore.

What is the purpose of the Foundation for Critical Thinking?

Our purpose is to advance a fairminded conception of critical thinking across all human societies, in every part of human life. Our work focuses primarily on illuminating foundations of critical thinking and contextualizing these foundations within domains of thought, and in reasoning through given issues. By foundations of critical thinking I mean concepts and principles embedded in and intimately connected with critical thinking.

Throughout our work we emphasize the importance of fostering a substantive conception of critical thinking, one that not only highlights the qualities of the educated person, but also implies the proper design of education. There are essential minimal conditions for cultivating educated minds. These entail instructional processes that cultivate the skills, abilities and traits of the educated person. They entail teaching that emphasizes the thinking embedded in content, that assesses thinking to improve thinking, that stresses the importance of adhering to intellectual standards in reasoning through issues and problems (standards like clarity, accuracy, logicalness, relevance, breadth, depth, significance, and fairness). I invite those interested in critical thinking to visit our website:  http://www.criticalthinking.org and become part of the critical thinking community.

Why did you write this book for children?

I conceptualized the idea for Fairminded Fran’s Community Cats after becoming involved with feral cats in my own neighborhood. Before I began educating myself about community cats, like many people I thought feral cats were fine living on their own. I had rarely noticed “stray” cats (which is how I would have conceptualized them then). Consequently, I had not thought much about the environmental impact of cat overpopulation. But in 2009 I spotted three small black feral cats at my local high school.

It was then that I began asking questions. What I uncovered, over time, was a whole nest of complex issues connected with this primary question: What are feral cats and how should we, as humans, relate to them ?

As I began learning about feral cats, the problem of cat overpopulation quickly became clear. I began to study what appeared as the most progressive ways of dealing with it. I looked at the literature on TNR. I considered its objectors. I looked at the scientific evidence. As I distilled this research, I came to view TNR as the most humane way to effectively deal with the feral cat overpopulation problem (as a rule). It seemed to me our best hope for achieving a world, eventually, of no more homeless cats. More immediately, I wondered how many feral cats were in my neighborhood that needed altering. Who was feeding? How many cats were there? Finding that there was no concerted effort in my neighborhood to deal with the cat population problem, I posted signs  to locate the cat communities  through their  feeders. I worked with Marin Friends of Ferals to trap, neuter and return cats within my neighborhood (most of my education on TNR I learned from Marin Friends of Ferals). My efforts went primarily into organizing the process, finding the colonies with feeders, and talking to people about the needs (as I understood them) of community cats. Marin Friends of Ferals did almost all the trapping. The Marin Humane Society supported the process with low cost altering and housing for the cats before and after surgery.

Increasingly, I began to study the life conditions of feral cats. I met cat lovers, relieved to finally have help with altering their cat friends (who were continually breeding). I found feral cats on our own property, just old enough not to be adoptable (right at 13 weeks old). I spent a week trapping them and now they are almost domesticated inside cats. I observed savvy mother cats (who avoided our traps) living in semi-starvation as they had litter after litter. I helped trap 23 cats at a farm in which 1/3 had to be euthanized due to anemia. (They were  rarely fed because they were expected to be mousers.) I trapped numerous cats  that were sick from previous injuries (mainly due to fighting, given that they were  unaltered).

Over time, I came gradually to see that the life of a feral cat can be very difficult, and that if an organized, diligent effort were made to alter cats, we could stop the breeding. I came to believe that cats should not be left to fend for themselves, and hence that we need a world with no more homeless cats. I began to see the political dimensions in the issue, that there were, for instance, many cat lovers who (like me  prior) were unaware of the importance of altering feral cats. I came to see that environmentalists were, rightly in my view, concerned about the invasive nature of the feline species. The cat overpopulation problem was becoming crystalized in my mind, while at the same time I was learning how to best interact with and care for feral cats. I could see that we had to stop the breeding. I could also see an ethical dimension to the problem, and hence, that we couldn’t just kill cats to reduce their numbers. Cats, like all mammals and perhaps many more creatures, are sentient creatures. They have feelings just as do humans. Cats are somewhat like 2-year-olds – mischievous, impish, farcical. They communicate with their human partners in intriguing ways. They are fearful when insecure. Because of the sentient nature of cats, then, in dealing with the cat overpopulation problem we cannot in clear conscience ignore its ethical dimensions.

The story of Fairminded Fran is somewhat autobiographical in that it roughly traces my own development in understanding the needs of feral cats. Once I began to educate myself about feral cats, I was frankly surprised at my own ignorance on the subject. I wondered why I had never learned about feral cats in school, or anywhere along the way, for that matter. I researched the literature and found very few books extant for children, or even adults, on this important topic. And so I thought I would write a book for children that educates them about feral cats and introduces TNR as an important part of the solution. Naturally, I needed to introduce these ideas through the lens of critical thinking.

How is critical thinking used in the book?

Where critical thinking is most illuminated in this story is in helping readers understand that in each of us are tendencies and capacities represented in the three characters of Fairminded Fran, Selfish Sam and Naïve Nancy. Within each of us is the fair person who wants to pursue her goals while also considering the rights and needs of others, the selfish person who wants to use her best thinking to serve her selfish interests, and the naive person who doesn’t want to get involved in complex or difficult issues. The story implicitly asks the reader to decide which role he or she will get behind, or support:

In this situation, would you help? Would you be like Fran and try to figure out what makes most sense to do, given all the variables and relevant viewpoints?  Would you be like Sam and argue the cats’ feelings aren’t relevant? Do you see an ethical dimension to the problem? Would you be like Nancy and say, “Oh let’s not worry our little heads over it?” (let the wind blow us where it may).

The ideas in this story are relevant to all people who strive to develop as reasonable persons. These ideas are among the most transformative ideas in human life, if understood deeply and taken seriously. Each of us is sometimes fair, sometimes selfish, sometimes naïve. Sometimes we think critically; often we fail to. Sometimes we use our critical thinking in unethical ways. Often we call on ourselves to reach higher and to place other’s needs and desires alongside (or ahead of) our own. Throughout life we are continually faced with choices that require both empathy and criticality. When faced with ethical  problems that seem beyond our purview, or that seem not to “require” our compassion, it is an intrinsic part of our nature to ignore those problems. But we can ask more of ourselves. We can throw our best thinking into the problem, consider all relevant viewpoints, and figure out what seems most reasonable in context (even if we have to personally give up something in the process, like our time and energy to help someone in need). These are among the important critical thinking ideas illuminated in this story.

This book serves two primary purposes then: 1) to introduce children, adults and parents to community cats as an issue we need to be concerned with, and TNR as an important part of the solution; and 2) to introduce children to some primary concepts in critical thinking and encourage them to think empathically for sentient creatures.

Some few have argued that the critical thinking has been “taken out” of the story, since the problem is “solved” for the children through TNR. Some have argued that I lack neutrality or objectivity because, in their view, TNR is a questionable method for reducing cat overpopulation. I can understand this view, and I might have written a different story, or might write one in the future, that asks children to figure out for themselves how to best deal with this problem. The issues surrounding community cats are complex and hence, the solutions require that we deal with these complexities as an interwoven process. A story for older children would be a nice follow-up to this story, one that deals with these complexities.

But we also should connect the web of the issues within the feral cat overpopulation problem with larger, more comprehensive (webs of) issues connected with animal rights, the health of our ecosystems, the loss of natural habitat and the imbalances of nature we are experiencing across the planet, the introduction of non-native plants, the use of croplands for “livestock” raising, the human overpopulation problem, and so on. When humans begin to see complex issues existing in complex webs connected with different but interrelated questions (with their own webs), we can then make real progress toward a more fair and just world, and toward a healthier planet. When we use a substantive conception of critical thinking to guide us in reasoning through complex issues, we have a systematic approach that can be roughly replicated across domains (and hence webs) of thought.

How do you explain critical thinking to children so they understand and can apply it daily?

Because there is no way to foster critical thinking in human thought, there is no easy way to foster critical thinking in children. Every human is a mixture of egocentric thought (more for me!), sociocentric thought (more for our group!), and rational (or reasonable) thought. To take command of one’s own mind is to commit oneself to understanding human thought and reasoning, to investigating how it goes wrong, and to developing intellectual tools useful for intervention when it does go wrong. It entails, to quote Richard Paul, “… an abiding interest in the problematics in thinking.” If children are to learn critical thinking, deeply and permanently, it must become an explicit part of their educational experience over many years and they must then embrace it throughout life.

Very few people embrace critical thinking in this deep way because very few have an explicit, systematic conception of it. Unfortunately the same is true for teachers, which is why critical thinking is so little fostered in schooling today. To cultivate critical thinking in student thought requires that teachers themselves think critically and have command of essential critical thinking concepts and principles. It requires that teachers think critically about the concept of education, the educated person, the fairminded intellectual. In today’s schools, colleges and universities, such an emphasis is still largely missing.

If someone were to find a feral cat, or a community of cats, what is the best thing they can do?

The first thing to do is to figure out if anyone is feeding the cat or cats. If there is no feeder, they should immediately feed and provide water in a safe place every day while figuring out what to do next. Then they should seek a local rescue group for help. This isn’t always possible since in many counties there are no rescue organizations with a progressive view toward feral cats. Contacting the humane societies in nearby communities may help, if support is unavailable locally. People can also contact a national feral cat rescue organization such as Neighborhood Cats, Alley Cat Allies, or Best Friends Society for advice.

In the end, people may find that they need to start their own feral cat TNR group because there is little or no local help available. For TNR to work as it is capable of working, all communities need to get involved. All neighborhoods need to plan and spearhead a concerted effort to identify community cats, to learn who is feeding them, to see if the cats have been altered. Once all community cats have been altered, people then need to keep their eyes open for new cats coming into the neighborhood. Owners may have dumped these cats. The cats might have been run off from a neighboring community by other cats. They might be lost. By carefully observing cats in the community, identifying new ones that need to be altered or may be adoptable, we can keep the population down and eventually see a true decline in the feral cat population. And we can care for the cats  that need our help.

One of our goals must be to develop a web of organizations and helpful people who work together to make TNR work. This is being done in many communities across the country and beyond. Cat rescue groups have been working for years to understand and improve the practice of TNR. A wealth of information is available online about these practices, including how to build cat shelters, how to humanely trap cats, and how to care for them. One of the best resources for TNR is http://www.neighborhoodcats.org/uploads/File/Resources/TNR%20Handbook_low%20res_2.pdf developed by  Neighborhood Cats.

How did you prepare to write for children?

All of my writing is intimately connected with my understanding of critical thinking and how it can help people illuminate, and better reason through, the important problems in human life. I have been studying critical thinking for many years, thinking about problems in human thought, writing about these problems and exploring how best to reach people with what to me are essential understandings for all educated persons. I believe that the best writing comes from the best thinking. The best thinking comes from the deepest and most serious study of ideas. It entails connecting these ideas with other important ideas and to the important problems in life. To me, the best writing comes from reading and articulating transformative ideas orally and in writing, rereading and rearticulating these ideas both orally and in writing, clarifying and deepening understandings, writing and reading what has been written, editing and reediting the work, and so on.

Good writing is complex, and there are many ways to learn how to write well. But first you need important ideas to convey. When you are passionate about those ideas and work to develop your ability to write about them, you can create important works worth reading; you can develop works that stand the long test of time, that contribute in a significant way to the literature, to human understanding and to life.

Were there any difficult moments while writing Fairminded Fran’s Community Cats? Did you run into problems or areas where help was needed?

Because I had developed the background logic behind the story and knew the primary information I needed to highlight, once I began to conceive the story, it flowed quite naturally. Most importantly, I knew how to approach the content through a substantive critical thinking perspective. I could readily see how to  introduce Selfish Sam and Naïve Nancy. Intellectual empathy was, from the first, an organizing idea for the story.

I had, myself, done most of the things Fran did in the story as I learned about community cats. I had located a doghouse and filled it with straw. I had sought and found someone at the high school to feed the cats (Dan the maintenance man). I had educated myself through resources at Marin Friends of Ferals. So I had clearly in mind the key details for the story.

I also wanted to include important feral cat facts at the back of the book so that older readers, teachers, and parents could go deeper into the issues. I wanted, and want, the book to educate all interested persons about community cats, the importance of TNR, and the importance of intellectual empathy in understanding community cats (and innocent creatures, more generally).

There are many illustrations in your book.  How did you choose an illustrator?

One of the most important things about this book is its wonderful illustrations. Once I had written the story, I wanted the highest level of artist I could possibly find (so it would be more widely read). With a very limited budget, I knew we could not afford the level of illustrator this book needed. Then I remembered that my good friend from years past, Kathy Abney, was a fine illustrator. We had been out of touch for years, but I had her number. I called and told her what I was doing, that I wanted the book to be received widely, and that I needed a top notch illustrator but had limited funds. She said she wanted to do it and was excited to contribute to the project. Kathy and I have always enjoyed working together. Kathy has two big dogs, so the first cat food cans she drew were the size of dog food cans. She also drew a cone on the head of the cat after surgery (we had a great laugh over this). Like me, Kathy was appalled at her own lack of knowledge about feral cats, and therefore increasingly educated herself about cats and specifically feral cats. She visited a local animal shelter to learn more about cats, to look at them, to study them for illustration purposes. The book could never reach its potential without its magnificent illustrative nature, all due to Kathy Abney.

What is next for Linda Elder? Do you plan to write another children’s book?

At the moment I am working to complete a book on the problem of sociocentric thought that I have been working on for several years – The Emancipated Mind, which is due for release this year.

I have thought that, at some point, I might develop the Fairminded Fran series to open up conversations with upper middle school children on important issues of relevance today. If I write another children’s book, it will likely target fundamental animal rights issues, with a title like: Fairminded Fran Learns That All Animals Have Feelings. In this book, I would target the problem of animal experimentation, the raising of animals for food, the breeding of animals for pets (among other significant topics), all in connection with the question: What rights should animals have, given their sentient nature?

Is there anything you would like to say to the kids that read your book?   To adults?

The best way to understand Fair Frans Community Cats is in connection with the question: how should we live so as to take into account the needs and desires of all feeling creatures, of the health of the earth, and of all humans across the globe, while also pursuing our own needs and desires? How we treat community cats is one tiny slice of this question. But if we can think well about one set of complex questions, and we know why we think well about them, we can then think well about other sets of complex questions. We want to look for universal understandings, such as intellectual empathy and fairminded critical thought(both of which are highlighted in Fair Frans Community Cats), that we can use in potentially all parts of our lives. We want to develop a rich conception of the ethical critical thinker that Fran is trying to be in this book. We want to reach for this ideal in the way we live every/day. To learn to think at this level takes deep and long-term commitment to intellectual development.

I invite all readers to visit our websites:

www.Fairfranscommunitycats.org

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FairmindedFransCommunityCats?fref=ts

To learn about our approach to critical thinking, visit: www.criticalthinking.org

Is there anything at all you would like to add?

Humans have fundamentally caused the problem of cat overpopulation. The cats we call “feral” cats or “community” cats are actually “domesticated” cats that have been “let out” onto the planet to fend for themselves. These creatures are intimately connected with humans because we have domesticated them (over thousands of years). Through our interactions with cats over these thousands of years we have, it seems, “created” a genetic predisposition in them to want and seek (if not need) human contact or connection. Over these thousands of years we have developed a language of communication with these creatures, primitive though it will naturally be. All of this, I believe, places on us a special level of responsibility to feral cats. But even were we not responsible for the problem, we are still responsible to solve it. We can do this only when we think critically about it.

There has been considerable discussion (and dissention) about the number of wild animals killed by community cats (apparently in the billions). Some environmentalists argue that killing these cats is the best way to save this wildlife, especially, it seem, birds. I agree that the cat overpopulation problem causes destruction to wildlife (though the issue is complex). Mainly, I am concerned to find solutions among the logical possibilities. It seems that merely killing cats doesn’t work, due to the well-documented vacuum effect. But even if it did, again, it seems to me that we must ask: Are we justified in killing cats merely to get rid of them? This question seems similar to the question: Would we be justified in systematically killing “excess” people because of human overpopulation? If not, what makes this case different? How can we justify (to reduce their numbers) the massive killing of individuals of any species, individuals who feel the same kinds of emotions we ourselves feel? Because humans tend to be speciescentric, to see ourselves as the best, the most deserving species, it is difficult for us to appreciate this comparison. For my part, I don’t see how it can be ignored.

Thank you Linda for answering a few questions about Fairminded Fran and the Three Small Black Community Cats, the Foundation for Critical Thinking, and, most importantly, about feral or community cats.

To read a review of Linda’s children’s book, Fairminded Fran and the Three Small Black Community Cats, click HERE.

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3 thoughts on “Interview: Author Linda Elder, PhD

  1. Pingback: review – Fairminded Fran and the Three Small Black Community Cats by Dr. Linda Elder | Kid Lit Reviews

    • Wow! You Are the only one to comment. It is a difficult interview. Many times the actual question was not answered. Did all of it make sense to you Erik, or did you find it hard to read the entire interview? Just curious.

      I was enthused when I read the title. It is good. The writing is much different than that in the interview. The author did a good job writing for children. It is a nice story with lots of information. Would be a good choice if doing a book report on feral cats or rescue groups.

      Thanks for commenting. grin:

      Like

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