Arturo Javier Castellanos, a PhD student of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, pulled out a hunk of modeling clay he had fashioned into a small statue. Then he smashed the figure. “Is it the same thing?” he asked 10 eighth- graders at Southside Academy Charter School.
“No,” answered one student. “Yes,” countered another student. “It’s just in another form.” A third student wrinkled his face in confusion.
“What about a chair made from a tree?” Castellanos asked. “Is that the same thing?” After a few minutes of spirited debate, he raised another question. “Are Clark Kent and Superman the same person?”
The middle school students spent about an hour discussing the questions. They were actually tackling a legitimate philosophical puzzle: the problem of material constitution, which addresses the relationship between an object and its matter.
“They saw the puzzles and were arriving at solutions that actual philosophers would have endorsed,” says Scott Looney, a philosophy PhD candidate who teaches the weekly class. “They’re learning to think through a problem.”
That’s one goal of the five-year-old volunteer project that allows philosophy graduate students to test their teaching skills and interact with teenagers at Southside Academy, according to Anton Ninno ’73, G’91. Ninno, a Title I tutor at Southside Academy, approached the Syracuse University Department of Philosophy with the idea.
The academy’s staff chose 12 students for this year’s class, which meets Friday afternoon for an hour. Two graduate students attend each session, with one as the lead presenter.
The class may encourage students to consider college liberal arts programs – maybe even philosophy, Ninno says. No matter their future, all students benefit from learning how to discuss ideas and develop critical thinking skills.
“We tell them it’s like a real college class,” he says. “It’s up to them what they take notes on. It’s up to them what they learn.”
The class has addressed classic philosophical questions, including: Is it ever OK to tell a lie? What is a friend? Would you sacrifice a few lives to save the many? They recently debated another pressing issue: Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Ben Bradley, professor and chair of the philosophy department, said the program offers an outlet to many graduate students who “want to do good things for the community.” Besides, “They really like doing it,” he says.
It’s unusual for a high school, let alone a middle school, to include philosophy in its curriculum, he says. “Most don’t get it until college,” he explains. “This is a way to get students exposed to it so it’s not totally unfamiliar to them.”
Philosophy tends to be overwhelmingly white in the United States and in English-speaking countries, he adds. “Teaching in city schools where there are more non-white students challenges that perception.”
Bradley, who is teaching the course Philosophy of Sports next semester, will teach a session this spring at Southside Academy. He’ll ask the teens: What makes something a sport? What is the value of sports? What counts as cheating?
“We’re not going to teach them a ton of philosophical content in an hour a week, but we’re trying to get them to think philosophically and ask the right kinds of questions and learn how to solve problems,” he says.
In addition to Looney and Castellanos, students Nykki Dular, Sophie Ban, Steve Steward, Preston Werner, Sean Clancy, Teresa Bruno, Carolyn Garland, and Isaiah Lin are teaching the class this year. David Sobel, the Irwin and Marjorie Guttag Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy, also participated in the eighth-grade class seminars.
“Philosophy makes people smart,” Looney says. “I want them to come away thinking the liberal arts are good.”
The program offers great practice for future teachers, Castellanos says. “They might not have all the technical words, but they say it in their own way,” he says. “I hope they can see how fun it is.”
A video of the class in action can be viewed following this link: http://news.syr.edu/graduate-students-teach-philosophy-to-eighth-graders-in-city-schools-68821/