Epic Undertaking: U.Va. Professor Aims to Strengthen Teaching of High School Philosophy

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

August 31, 2010 — Aesthetics. Epistemology. Metaphysics.

Just a few terms that University of Virginia philosophy professor Mitchell Green hopes become part of the lexicon of American high school students.

To achieve this epic goal, Green recently received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a summer institute for high school teachers, which he developed and will sponsor in collaboration with U.Va.'s Center for Liberal Arts. "Epic Questions: Mind, Meaning and Morality," is part of a larger project that he has initiated, called The High-Phi Project.

"Reaching out to those outside academic philosophy need not start in college," said Green, the NEH/Horace Goldsmith Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy in the College of Arts & Sciences. "Indeed, inquisitive children and teens often philosophize without knowing that they're doing so.

"Further, those properly exposed to philosophy develop a skill that is surprisingly uncommon – namely the ability to tell good arguments from bad, regardless of the subject matter,” he continued. "As future voters, consumers, parents and policymakers, secondary-level students exposed to philosophy are better equipped to spot fallacious reasoning in public discourse, advertising and elsewhere."

In addition, studying the subject in high school can help students perform better in college and in their chosen careers, as well as just enrich their lives, Green noted.

"Students are eager to engage with questions of free will, ethics, time, causality, knowledge and the mind, and with appropriate guidance can be introduced to the systematic study of such questions. This provides a firmer foundation for their study of the humanities in college.

"But even for students who do not continue to college, exposure to philosophy can help them grapple with some of the hardest questions a thinking person can ask," Green said. "That’s why I think of philosophical intervention in high school as not just a long-term investment in the humanities, but as having the potential to sharpen the critical acumen, and more generally widen the intellectual horizons of all students we might reach." 

In contrast to much secondary education in Europe, relatively few U.S. high schools teach philosophy, either as full-term courses or as units in larger humanities courses, Green noted. The summer institute "creates an enormous opportunity for American educators willing to rise to a new challenge," he said.

Green plans to invite up to 30 high school teachers nationwide to participate in the "Epic Questions" institute, to be held July 11-29, 2011. A portion of the $167,884 NEH grant will be used for stipends to cover travel, meals and accommodations for participating teachers while in Charlottesville, Green said.

"The institute will serve as a kind of crash course in philosophy," he said, "since my impression is that relatively few teachers wishing to teach philosophy, either as a full-term course or as part of an existing course, say, in literature or science, have much formal training in the field."

Teachers will have three weeks of intensive introductions to the main sub-fields of philosophy, taught by experts who are either Green's department colleagues or graduates from the doctoral program. Participating U.Va. faculty members (and what they'll be teaching) include John Arras,  Porterfield Professor of Bioethics & Professor of Philosophy (bioethics), Brie Gertler, associate professor of philosophy and director of graduate studies (epistemology and metaphysics); and Trenton Merricks, professor of philosophy (metaphysics). Ph.D. graduates (and their topics) are Duncan Richter of Virginia Military Institute, (ethics), Renee Hill of Virginia State University (political philosophy) and Walter Ott of Virginia Tech (history of philosophy). 

Jennifer Merritt, who heads the mentoring and diversity programs in the U.Va. Women's Center, will co-direct the institute. Merritt has extensive experience bringing philosophy to high schools, first in Cleveland via John Carroll University, and more recently in Charlottesville City Schools, particularly in the Henry Avenue Learning Center.  Philosophy graduate student Bryan Cwik, who has many years of experience teaching gifted high school students in Arkansas, will serve as the institute's research assistant. 

Green's broader High-Phi Project is supported in large part by a three-year endowed chair he was awarded by the Teaching Resource Center for 2009-12. "It provides research funding in support of my aim to strengthen the teaching of philosophy in high schools, starting in Virginia, but ultimately with national aspirations," Green said.

In addition, Green and Merritt have received a grant from the Provost's Office of University Community Partnerships to offer a "service learning" course in spring 2011. U.Va. undergraduates studying philosophy or related disciplines will partner with area high school teachers to bring philosophical pedagogy into their classrooms, Green said. 

He also plans to hold an essay contest on philosophy for Virginia high school students this year.

Next year, Green will work with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities toward the creation of a Web resource, Thinkit!, for Virginia secondary teachers currently teaching or interested in teaching philosophy.

"Following the model of the National Humanities Center's successful Teacher Serve Program, I plan to design a set of philosophy resources accessible online to teachers and their students," he said. These resources will include not only readings, discussion questions and paper topics for various philosophical problems; they will also include a "dialectically active" component in which students can instantly see objections to the stands they are considering on philosophical questions, and in which they can revise those stands in light of those objections.

— by Rebecca Arrington