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Kids engage with deep questions at Texas A&M University’s philosophy summer camp

Questions are encouraged at Texas A&M University's Philosophy for Children summer camp, which closed out its third year Friday. During the course of the week, 50 middle school and high school students discussed and considered various philosophical topics from politics and government to education.

By Chelsea Katz

Why is the sky blue? Sure there might be a scientific answer, but that does not mean people should not ask the question.

Questions are encouraged at Texas A&M University’s Philosophy for Children summer camp, which closed out its third year Friday. During the course of the week, 50 middle school and high school students discussed and considered various philosophical topics from politics and government to education.

“As a philosophy teacher in college, it’s hard to re-teach people how to ask questions because, of course, children ask questions constantly, philosophical questions even,” Camp Director and A&M philosophy professor Claire Katz said. “Then that gets trained out of them because we give them answers. Empirical answers …. Being in a situation where they’re free to ask the question is hugely important and that somebody’s listening, where the question’s important.” People tend to get intimidated or shy away from philosophy, she said, because they do not understand what it is and do not realize they use at least one form of philosophy almost every day.

“Every ethical decision that someone makes, every time you’re trying to figure out what to do, you’re engaged in one branch of philosophy,” Katz said. “I don’t think people realize that they go through their lives almost every day engaging in philosophy in an implicit kind of way.”

For people who think philosophy is too high-level thinking, first-year high school camper Lucy Raleigh said, she encourages people to give it a try.

“It’s a little nerdy, but it’s still kind of cool. Pretty much anybody can participate in the discussion and stuff. It’s more open than people might think,” she said.

Katz’s goal is not to change the way the students think, but to help them understand why they think and believe what they do, Katz said. This happens through civil discussions in the middle school and high school groups.

“By civilly, I don’t mean not passionately,” she clarified. “I mean not just calling people names. It’s not that these kids don’t get passionate or intense… They feel strongly about things, and I think that’s also something we underestimate with both middle and high school kids. I think we just think, ‘Oh they probably just believe whatever their parents believe.’ But that’s not true. At some point they do take ownership of these ideas and they believe them and they have arguments for them, but they’re also open and they will listen to what somebody else says.”

People make the mistake, she said, of not considering students, especially middle and high school students, as intellectuals.

“Kids, they think about these things if you give them the opportunity to, and they have opinions,” camp facilitator Hannah Philibert said. “Not all of them, but a lot of them, they’re much more perceptive and reflective than I think we often give them credit for. … Hearing what they have to say has been really eye-opening and refreshing. Kids are just naturally philosophical, and giving them the chance to engage in that has been really rewarding.”

Discussions during the camp include broad themes, such as morality and life in general, camper-turned-facilitator Major Eason said.

“It’s been a great way to talk to other people about that and really see other people’s perspectives and also learn how to properly contribute and discuss in an educational setting and to also get better at listening and learning how to properly listen and talk to other people about their perspectives,” the high school senior said.

Eason, who attends Asheville School in North Carolina, has been working with the middle school students and has enjoyed getting to hear their contributions to the discussion.

“This really helps with learning how to think — not what to think, but how to think,” he said. “Learning the processes of what questions should you ask when approaching a certain situation, and that’s what I think they really get out of it.”

For middle school student Andrew Sorescu, who has been attending the camp every year, it has challenged his beliefs and led him to think about ideas he had never considered.

Fellow camper Robert Behmer agreed with Sorescu, saying, “Even if I disagree with their opinions, I’m able to better put myself in their shoes now. I may not agree with it, but I can understand where they’re coming from.”

Allen Academy sophomore Leah Cairns said the camp has allowed her to learn different perspectives on topics ranging from ideal types of government to teaching practices in the high school group.

“It’s interesting to hear the points of view, but I like to take those and kind of maybe modify my own opinions on something and try to find my own truth based on what the others have said and kind of get my own, so I can kind of build off my experiences from each year and broaden my views on things, so maybe something I wouldn’t have ever considered is now a possibility.”

Student making paper at P4C Camp.

Student making paper at P4C Camp.

Srinidhi Narayanan, a senior at College Station High School, said her first year attending the camp has lived up to her expectations with the majority of it being camper-driven discussion.

“I’ve always enjoyed the discussion aspect in like English and history, and I think this is kind of like that on a deeper level because it’s a good combination. There’s historical context and it’s challenging literature,” she said. “There’s an added component of understanding, like a next-level type of understanding that you want to have here, so I think it’s better than any discussion I’ve had in school, but at the same time it’s all the stuff that I enjoy about school discussions.”

Although this is Mia Paulk’s first year to attend the camp, the middle schooler said, she has come to see how true it is when people say that history repeats itself.

“I feel it’s important, especially this generation, understand philosophy and understand the past to help them make better decisions for the future,” she said, taking into account the social media age and the political climate. “I feel philosophy really helps to have a clear eye of what’s happening, and I think that’s what makes this camp so amazing that it really helps to open my eyes and have a comfortable environment where I can express my political views and kind of argue them as well.”

The discussions are more interesting when they take place in a room where the people are open to other people’s opinions and respectful of those thoughts, two-year veteran middle school camper Raizel Neal said.

“It’s just a really open place where you can express yourself and it just feels like no one’s judging you based on your opinion,” she said. “Everyone has a say in everything.”

Griffin Ford, who attended the camp two years as a camper and returned this year as a junior facilitator, said she first was introduced to philosophy in her English classes when for one day they would discuss the literature.

“But it was only one day. I would just want to keep doing that for every single class. When I found out about this camp and I did the essay and entered the essay just to see maybe I’ll be interested, and I did the essay, and I just had so much fun with it,” the College Station High School senior said.

Kenji Blum, also a former camper who returned as an instructor, called it an honor and privilege to return in that capacity to “create a community of inquiry for these children in which they can grow and engage in ways that I particularly believe you don’t really get to do in normal public school system these days.”

Even though Blum only attended the first year as a camper, he attended Katz’s Philosophy for Children class at A&M last year.

Philibert said she enjoys helping students understand why they say or think the things they do and why they agree or disagree with certain perspectives.

“If we had that more in our society, I think we’d be a lot better off as a whole, so if we can start them out early, then I think we’ll be in a much better state. … It sounds cliché to be like, ‘Children are our future,’ but that is kind of exactly what they are and to help create a future that is inquisitive and thoughtful and doesn’t just accept things at face value or go along with the status quo, teaching them how to challenge the status quo and think for themselves is very fulfilling,” she said. “It gives me hope that things will improve with the generations to come that we’re not just going to keep repeating the same process or have history repeat itself if we can teach them how to address the situations in the world in a better way and to be more thoughtful.”

Philosophy also can help students develop empathy, she said, because they learn to see other people’s perspectives.

“If there’s anything we need more of in this world it’s the ability to have better conflict resolution and to engage with others in a way that is not hostile, to not antagonize each other and to be able to argue, not fight, to be able to have a discourse where you can come to a better understanding,” Philibert said.

Clear Falls High School junior Angus Heartsill always has been interested in philosophy, but the camp has helped him learn more about the study.

“The thing that really shook me the first year I came here was that everybody has different opinions and it is possible to change your mind. Changing one’s mind is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s better than just keeping an idea that you might have thought might not work,” he said, adding he has attended the camp since its start in 2016. “It’s generally just beneficial to explore new people’s ideas and maybe form some new ones of your own, maybe change your mind every once in a while because it’s healthy.”

Katz began the camp in 2016, along with the pre-college philosophy program. Her first year, she thought there would be 10 people — maybe — if her children did a good job of recruiting their friends. Instead, the camp maxed out at 25 students — then hit an expanded capacity of 46 students.

“This is a niche camp, in the same way that soccer camp is. We cater to a very particular kind of kid. On the one hand, I think philosophy is for everyone in the same way that physical activity is for everyone, but not everyone’s going to love soccer and not everyone’s going to want to go to soccer camp,” she said. “It’s the same with philosophy or math. People may like it when they have it at school, but they’re not going to want to do it all day. The kids who come here, there’s a few that it’s not quite the right fit and they figure that out, but the majority of kids who come to us, this is what they want to do.”

Students from Bryan-College Station, other parts of Texas and even other states form an intellectual community through the camp, and she wants to help them understand that they do not have to wait until college to form that type of group. The camp provides a space where they can think and talk about ideas that they might not get the opportunity in school because being intellectual is not always looked as “cool.”

“Because it’s called philosophy, they know this is that space where they can come and talk to other kids about those ideas. That’s one of the main things I want. … What I would hope is that the kids who are here long enough that when they get to college they will take humanities courses. Would I love for them to do philosophy? Of course. But more I want them to demand more for their education, that whatever they major in to understand this should be a part of their education.”


Originally posted here.