Education Funding

Philosophy Students Explore ‘Big Questions’

Summer program is part of a broader effort to expand school offerings.
By Mary Ann Zehr — August 05, 2009 6 min read
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At just 14 years old, Edward Gilliam has already decided he wants to major in philosophy when he goes to college.

He got interested in the subject when he took a philosophy class last summer—and he’s taking a second course, on ethics, this year—that inspired him to think deeply about life’s compelling questions.

“I like all the big questions—the questions most people don’t care about,” Mr. Gilliam said recently during a break from the class here developed by the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. “What is truth? What is right and wrong?”

Philosophy is not offered at the public high school that the freshman will attend starting this month in Raleigh, N.C. But a private foundation is trying to support the increase of philosophy offerings in high schools across the nation to expose youths to the subject without their having to attend a special program.

William McGeehan reviews directions for an exam he’s giving to a logic class the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University offers. Efforts are under way to expand philosophy classes nationwide.

“Some administrators are reluctant to offer it because if you offer a new course, you have to take another one away,” said Roberta Israeloff, the executive director of the Squire Family Foundation, established three years ago in East Northport, N.Y., to promote the expansion of philosophy and ethics classes at the precollegiate level. “We’re trying to show that kids who take philosophy do better on standardized tests because it improves critical thinking and creative thinking,” she said.

Questions and Answers

Mr. Gilliam and his classmates in the ethics class appear to have honed those thinking skills. After he expressed his view that philosophy is about finding answers to big questions, for example, some of the students who were listening to his remarks couldn’t resist challenging them.

“You think all of these questions have answers?” retorted Victoria Norman, who will be a 10th grader at the Byrn Mawr School, a private school in Baltimore.

“I think it’s more about the questions,” chimed in Stephen Cho, who is going into the 8th grade at John Ware Jr. High School in Calgary in Canada.

The summer course is part of a larger effort by the Johns Hopkins center. As a first step toward its goal, the Squire Foundation gave a $12,000 grant to the center to create a curriculum for an introductory philosophy class. The curriculum will be offered for free to schools later this coming school year on the foundation’s Web site.

The foundation is also collaborating with the American Philosophical Association, in Newark, Del., to set up a national network for high school philosophy teachers that will be rolled out early next year. The association, which has traditionally catered to college professors, is creating a new category of “associate members,” designed for high school teachers who already teach or want to teach philosophy.

The Center for Talented Youth provides philosophy classes—with subjects ranging from existentialism to mathematical logic—to about 1,000 middle and high school youths nationwide each summer, and enrollment is growing, according to Stuart Gluck, a senior program manager for the center’s summer academic programs. Another 8,600 students take other classes, offered at several sites across the country. Tuition for a three-week session costs $3,360 per student, which includes room and board.

Mr. Gluck, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, believes that educators underestimate the importance of the subject to adolescents.

“It teaches you how to think well. It teaches you how to learn other subjects well,” Mr. Gluck said. “People think it’s abstract, that it should be taught later, but you want students to get those reasoning skills early.”

The United States should follow the example of other countries, such as Colombia, which requires every high school student to take two years of philosophy, says Felipe De Brigard, a native of Colombia who is getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He taught an elective class in philosophy at Durham Academy in Durham, N.C., for two years as part of a university outreach program that brings philosophy classes to local private and public schools.

Mr. De Brigard said high school students have a “cognitive flexibility” that is conducive to philosophy that may be lost by the time some of them get to college.

“High school students make connections,” he said. “They try to think, as you American people say, ‘outside the box.’ They are trying to see, ‘How does this relate to my life, or a TV show, or something I studied in biology?’ ”

Contemplating Kant

The students in the summer program are particularly academically oriented, giving up three weeks of their break to live on a college campus and spend seven hours each day in class contemplating the ideas of people such as Immanuel Kant, the 18th-century German philosopher.

In a recent class session, they discussed Kant’s ideas. The teacher, Bekka Williams, who is working on a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that Kant believed that people were in a category different from animals or objects, and that one “should treat others always as an end and never as a means only.”

The students frequently volunteered comments or questions. One girl, for example, wanted to know why Kant got a whole chapter devoted to him in the textbook the class used. “He has a lot of followers,” replied Ms. Williams.

After class, the teacher said that the younger students seem more interested in the material than undergraduate students she’s taught.

Mr. Cho said he signed up for ethics because he wants to study law and thought the class would help him with that goal.

Ms. Norman is interested in a medical career and expected the class would prepare her to think through some of the ethical questions in that field, such as whether doctors should put pig hearts into humans. “You can get into really good discussions,” she said.

In a recent meeting of a logic class offered in the program, teacher William McGeehan directed two pairs of students to debate in front of their peers. The first pair considered whether fascination with celebrities is a “dangerous disease,” and the second disputed whether school uniforms are a good idea. Their classmates voted on the winners, and Mr. McGeehan, who has a master’s degree in philosophy, led a discussion to dissect the logic behind the students’ arguments.

He pointed out a “fallacy” in one argument and a “hasty generalization” in another. “Sometimes, less is more,” he noted. “You don’t want to lay down a string that can be shot down.”

Willa Nathan, 14, a student at the United Nations International School in New York City, had taken the side that a fascination with celebrities can be harmful. “Basically, we’re learning how to think,” she said after class. She enrolled in the logic class because “my dad majored in Chinese philosophy, and I wanted to hold up with him in an argument.”

She thinks the lessons will help her in English class, as well, to read for deep meaning in a text.

Mr. McGeehan has been including “small amounts” of logic while teaching persuasive writing at Adaire Elementary School in Philadelphia, where he teaches literacy and social studies. Even though many of the students in his summer classes are in middle school, he said it may only be realistic to expand philosophy offerings at the secondary level, given the difficulty schools have fitting required content into the school day.

But Mr. McGeehan believes philosophy could prove valuable for high school students. “One of the major problems is kids don’t know what to live for,” he said. “They don’t have a guiding set of principles. Philosophy can help you ask the right questions.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week

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