High School Philosophy Club: A Place to Be Real?

Guest blogger Andrew Chirdon writes on the Philosophy Club at downtown Manhattan’s Elisabeth Irwin High School, which has been flourishing since PhD Student Yoshi Nakazawa brought it into being five years ago. Though the club now functions independently of outreach volunteers, the club president is eager to schedule visits from philosophy graduate students in the Fall of 2014.

For local high school students, philosophy club is a space to have fun as well as a space to explore ideas unable to be expressed in class.  This atmosphere has kept students like the Club President, Emmett, attending every Friday for four years to discuss a variety of topics. What about philosophical discussion – apart from it being fun and free of restrictions – is so rewarding? According to Emmett the answer has to do with philosophy’s ability to generate a wealth of conversation, or what others might call rich and meaningful conversation.

Perhaps for this reason, Emmett believes the club can mostly run on its own. There is little need to poke and prod or to fret; students’ natural interest draws them back. Since Emmett was a freshman, the club’s average attendance has ranged between 15 to 20. The true challenge for the club is not keeping students once they have come, it is to have them come in the first place. Every Friday the last period of the day is reserved as time for students to attend a club of their choosing, and with nearly 15 to choose from, philosophy can be lost in the shuffle. Emmett did not seem dismayed at the competition for student’s attention – in fact he seemed pleased with it – but he did acknowledge that it makes attendance lighter at times.

Nevertheless, the tempting glitz and glam of other clubs does little to sidetrack the philosophy club’s core of students. As Emmett put it, describing other classes, “When there is a lesson, you have to do the lesson.” “It is nice to have a period where the point is just to talk.” The allure of developing often unvoiced ideas discovered in other classes is too appealing to be ignored, so students keep coming back to philosophy club.

The most common topic of discussion is language – a surprising choice considering it is a lesser known subject of professional philosophy. Perhaps the preoccupation comes from a related interest, which Emmett described as a desire to identify what keeps people in metaphorical chains. “All men are born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” said Emmett, quoting Rousseau. And, perhaps, chief amongst these chains is the inability to precisely express oneself. According to Emmett, “When you give something a label, it has become real.” Cast in this light, language is not so much an innocuous tool for mankind but its master, controlling what is possible in deed and thought.

With the special emphasis placed on language as a limiting agent, it makes sense that communication is paramount between the club members and between past and future club presidents. To ensure that the club is passed into good hands, Emmett plans to uphold the tradition of asking for feedback at the end of the year then giving that feedback to his successor. What worked, what did not work, what would students like to discuss next year? A highlight of the hopes for next year is that the club becomes better connected with the community. This means that Emmett hopes for more guest speakers and more opportunities for students to philosophize with other schools, especially schools where philosophy is part of the curriculum.

As for Emmett himself, next year he will attend Bard College, where he plans to double major in pre-med and a foreign language. What about philosophy? Will that fall by the wayside? With a touch of mirth in his voice – as if the answer was so obvious it was not worth mentioning – he replied that he will certainly continue studying philosophy. After all, a doctor should know the difference between right and wrong.

And here we all can learn a lesson from this story about a high school philosophy club. Whatever your position, age, race, sex, and ability, philosophy is for you. We all need to know the difference between right and wrong, how to analyze ourselves and our world, how to dive deeply into the mysteries of life. This point bears special significance to older generations who feel they have a monopoly on the truth. We need philosophy and we need to recognize philosophy as something belonging to everyone. To paraphrase Emmett, ‘Keep an open mind. Students might be younger and less experienced, but if you listen carefully, they too have something important to say about life.’

Andrew Chirdon is a former outreach volunteer and philosophy graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. He currently lives in New York City and is eager to stay involved in philosophy outreach. He can be contacted at achirdon501 at gmail.com.

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