The school of thought: Philosophy students expand the minds of high schoolers

A woman is hit by a car and paralyzed from the neck down, but her brain remains intact. Another woman has a healthy body, but is rendered brain dead by a separate accident. If the healthy mind of the first is transplanted into the healthy body of the second, who is the person?

The question is not your typical chicken-or-the-egg debate, but members of GW’s High School Philosophy Seminar want their teenage students to think about larger issues. Friday afternoon’s discussion at H-B Woodlawn High School in Arlington, Va., was about identity.

“If something not you is in you, is it you?” asked high school sophomore Elizabeth Mearing in response to the transplant scenario.

Four high school students and three HSPS members sat in a circle after school to discuss the matter at length. Tenth-grader Max Bolte, a newcomer to the seminar, rephrased his classmate’s question.

“Can God heat a burrito so hot that he can’t eat it?” Bolte proposed to the group. Everyone laughed.

HSPS is a 15-member organization, led entirely by undergraduate students, that brings philosophical discussions to high school students in the metropolitan area. The group is the brainchild of roommates David Backer and Steve Wood. Backer and Wood, both senior philosophy majors, began formulating the idea during the spring of their sophomore year.

“I was frustrated by my high school education,” said Wood, who attended public school near Boston. “I was sick of just memorizing facts.”

Backer and Wood said they believe that the critical thinking skills taught in college philosophy courses are useful for high school students. HSPS members do not lecture on the theories of great philosophers, but rather act as “conversation guiders,” putting ideas into practice, Wood said.

“We try to make the seminar very applicable to life,” Backer said. “Some of the most popular topics are those that are most relatable.”

HSPS discussions cover a wide range of issues, but Backer said the students get most passionate about the seminars on dreams, race, religion and death.

HSPS held its first classes last spring and is approved by the D.C. Public Schools Academic Services as an after-school program. HSPS is free and open to all interested students.

At first, high school students came to GW once a week to engage in philosophical dialogue with their peers, but now HSPS volunteers go to the high schools. H-B Woodlawn is the only school outside of D.C. where HSPS volunteers go. Two of the three D.C. public schools working with the group are charter schools, and all are in bad neighborhoods, Wood said.

Each of the D.C. public high schools affiliated with HSPS – Bell Multicultural, Banneker and Cesar Chavez high schools – has a metal detector at its entrance, Wood said. Some of the HSPS students have had friends fall victim to violence in the area, and the seminars have been a constructive outlet for them, Wood added.

“It’s not therapy, but it’s giving them a framework of general theories” that can help them cope, Wood said.

Most of the HSPS classes focus on philosophical issues, but the group spends some sessions answering questions about college life and advising students on the college application process.

“It’s a way for high school kids to interact with people in college,” HSPS co-founder Backer said.

Depending on the high school, HSPS has a student turnout anywhere from two to 13, Backer said. Though the group has seen an occasional eye roll from students, most of its feedback has been positive, he added.

Two weeks ago, while walking down the hallway with Wood, Backer said he was stopped by an eighth-grader who asked if he was the “philosophy guy.” The student presented Backer with an ethical dilemma: if a baby and friend are drowning, whom do you save?

“I told him my first instinct was the baby,” Backer said. “Then I started talking to him about theories of evolution and altruism.”

Some HSPS students have gone on to study philosophy in a more formal setting. Backer said one of his students, a high school senior named Jose, is taking philosophy classes at the University of the District of Columbia and hopes to start a philosophy radio talk show.

Another student, Ian, wrote his college application essays about his experience in HSPS, which impressed admissions counselors, Wood said.

“He did an interview with Princeton and talked about Kierkegaard. They loved it,” said Wood, referring to the 19th century Danish philosopher credited with early existentialist philosophy.

For other students, HSPS is not guiding them to a future career or college major, but providing them an outlet to explore their interests at the moment.

Eleventh-grader Jonah Feldman, who attended a seminar Friday, said that while philosophy is a “fascinating subject,” he does not plan to make a career out of it because he doesn’t “want to starve.”

Mahala Mitchell, a tenth-grader at B-H Longwood, has attended three classes and said her sessions with HSPS members have been “really inspiring.” Mitchell said she is very religious and that philosophy gives her a “better way of comprehending it.”

“Instead of just saying Jesus is the son of God you can think well, maybe he was something else too,” she said. “There’s lots to philosophize.”

Though a young organization, HSPS has gained national attention. Co-founders Backer and Wood recently gave a presentation at the American Philosophical Association’s annual meeting in December. Backer said the invitation was a “really big deal” because undergraduates are never asked to present at or attend the conference. APA members were “very impressed” by HSPS, Backer added.

When they are outside the classroom, HSPS sponsors philosophically themed events. Last spring, the group held a date auction where you could “buy philosophy majors,” Wood said. This semester, Wood said the group might hold another auction where the auctioned students would adopt the personas of famous philosophers.

“You could like buy a date with Friedrich Nietzsche,” Wood said.

Friday’s discussion began as an inquiry into personal identity. Although they never reached a consensus on the identity of the brain transplant recipient, during the 45-minute seminar the group talked about issues such as sexuality and prescription drugs, and told stories about the Cartoon Network and Napoleon.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.