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Taking Plato to the Prom

Philosophy is virtually nonexistent in high school. A program in south King County aims to change that.

“Are we always the same person, or are we different people in different places?”

Sitting at a lunch table, a high school student poses this question to his fellow students—members of a new club—while wondering about his identity as the child of divorced parents.

Our heads are filled with questions like these, and centuries of philosophical thought have attempted to answer them, providing guidance in how to think and work with abstract concepts. But if philosophy is our attempt to address important questions, why then has it been removed from public education?

Currently, philosophy is not a requirement for United States high schools. As schools become increasingly focused on standardized testing, curriculum deemed “unnecessary” is eliminated. Unquantifiable and abstract, philosophy often finds itself on the chopping block.

But this year an outreach program sponsored by a Humanities Washington Spark grant is bringing philosophy programming back into local high schools. Achieved through a collaborative effort between faculty at Green River College, Pacific Lutheran University, the University of Washington, and high schools in the Kent and Tacoma school districts, Philosophers In Training (PIT) seeks to engage students with philosophy before college.

Because there are few opportunities for these students to become familiar with philosophy, PIT gives students the chance to regularly discuss philosophical concepts. Students meet as a club once a week after school or during lunch hour to discuss topics like truth, fairness, and empathy with their peers, as well as talk with philosophy faculty from local colleges and universities.

“Those who had heard of philosophy prior to joining thought it was abstract and irrelevant to their lives, something which drastically changed after their involvement.”

When the club was implemented in the fall of 2015, students at Kentlake High School and Stadium High School appeared to have little familiarity with philosophy. “Those who had heard of philosophy prior to joining thought it was abstract and irrelevant to their lives, something which drastically changed after their involvement,” said Rebeka Ferreira, director of PIT and a philosophy instructor at Green River College.

Both a conduit for discussion and an opportunity to practice critical thinking, PIT opens up a space for students to demystify philosophy, and build confidence in their own voices. “Now I see that [philosophy] still applies to the world today,” said one student. “Things like how time flows to what choices are morally right. It is also very helpful when thinking about things with a different perspective.”

Approaching philosophy can be intimidating for some students, at least initially, says Sergia Hay, a professor of philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University and the club’s project scholar.

“Many of the students are afraid to engage in these topics because they feel they will not be able to support an argument, and [in high school] there are not a lot of opportunities for them to practice these conversations,” She said. Though these discussions can be difficult, says Hay, “that’s all the more reason why faculty need to be willing to take those risks, so that these uncomfortable topics can open students up to thinking about what kind of people they should be.”

Teachers in the PIT program ignited these debates by posing questions from literature. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird could be used to open up dialogues about racism and ethics.

“[We had] in-depth discussions on race and religion, and racism and stereotypes, and students who participated in PIT led these discussions and were natural moderators,” said Erica Smith, a World History teacher at participating Kentlake High School. Research backs this up, suggesting that debating about curriculum aids students in understanding it.

This goes for both liberal arts curriculum and mathematics. An English study measuring students’ progress in both literacy and math skills over a two year period showed that students who participated in philosophy courses progressed at a faster rate in both. The study also noted that the majority of the students in the philosophy course gained self-esteem, grew more confident in speaking, and were more adept at listening to their peers.

“There seemed to be a direct correlation between their participation and their performance in class,” said Smith of the PIT students. “Critical thinking skills seemed to develop faster for these students when compared to their peers.”

With a more casual setting than a collegiate philosophy class, Hay says that students “aren’t under pressure with grades. They can say what they want, practice, explore, and try new things.” This relaxed setting allows students to present their thoughts and opinions to a small group, testing the philosophical waters. Over the course of the club, which is set to continue and expand next fall, “students had begun asking for reading lists on the topics that they had been discussing,” bringing the club’s lessons home with them.

PIT’s creation has led to students finding an interest in philosophy beyond club membership, thinking ahead to college. According to Hay, graduating seniors in PIT have expressed interest in minoring in philosophy and are “interested particularly in applied ethics courses, environmental ethics, and biomedical ethics.” Even for students who are not pursing philosophy in college, Ferreira says, they will still benefit from philosophy’s lessons.

“By making critical discourse the norm in high school while these students are developing their identities, they will feel much more comfortable encountering different people and viewpoints as they get older; rather than fearing change, they will embrace it as a new learning opportunity.”

Asking tough questions and introducing more nuanced thinking in schools teaches students to think clearly and compromise. In today’s political and social climate, philosophy’s core lessons can help us engage with opposing viewpoints productively, debating rationally to find useful solutions. When given an impossible situation, we can create an atmosphere of fruitful struggle for a solution, rooted in collaboration. Classrooms are a perfect setting for grappling with these issues, allowing students to undertake one of the oldest exercises in thought.

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