Off to philosophy camp
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Eight high-school students huddled around several tables in the University of Iowa English-Philosophy Building as their instructors presented a mind-boggling scenario: A runaway trolley is hurtling toward a broken-down bus full of orphans. The trolley will certainly hit the bus if nothing is done to stop it. You are standing on an overpass next to a very large man. If you push the man off the overpass, you can stop the train, but doing so would certainly kill him. Should you do it?
Kai Vorhies, a sophomore from George Washington High School, furrowed his brow, wrestling with the decision. He’d never before been given such an assignment, never before had to pinpoint what makes an action right or wrong. Like most of his classmates, he’d never before studied philosophy.
Vorhies spent a week last summer evaluating situations such as this at the UI Lyceum, a free, five-day summer camp that introduces area high school students to philosophy in order to develop critical thinking and argumentation skills and improve college readiness.
Greg Stoutenburg discusses the Iowa Lyceum philosophy camp. Video by Matt Jansen.
Kristopher Phillips and Greg Stoutenburg, graduate students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Department of Philosophy, became interested in implementing Lyceum at the UI after talking with colleagues at the University of Illinois who developed the Illinois Lyceum—one of very few programs of its kind nationwide—to determine whether exposure to argument analysis improved students’ academic abilities.
Early in 2013, Phillips, who is from Midland, Michigan, and Stoutenburg, who is from Westland, Michigan, pitched the idea to UI Philosophy Department chair Diane Jeske and Paul Bellus, director of UI youth programs. The program quickly fell into place, enrolling its first students last summer.
“It’s a shame that so few high schools in our country offer students an opportunity to study philosophy,” says Jeske, observing that knowledge of philosophy is essential to many disciplines. “The Lyceum aims to correct this, and is an admirable attempt to bring philosophy to more students.”
Phillips notes that studying philosophy builds critical thinking skills, which “are massively beneficial for any field, and they help prepare students who are heading off to or applying to college.”
He adds, “Philosophy helps develop skills that are particularly helpful for innovation in STEM programs.”
Vorhies says that after participating in Lyceum, he feels more confident and better equipped to enter college and prepare for a career in medicine.
“The skills I acquired I utilize in some shape or form every day, in class, at home, and socially,” he says. “I make better, more logical decisions.”
Plus, he now sees philosophy in a new light. “Before I went to the Lyceum, I perceived philosophy as a kind of fortune-telling-esque science, but I found that it was a branch of science with as legitimate a purpose as physics or biology."
Joel Tansley, a sophomore from Iowa City’s West High School, was attracted to last year’s program because he wanted to learn more about philosophy and its history. He enjoyed studying ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, and skepticism, and said that the instructors presented the material in a way that “didn’t fly over his head.”
Indeed, Phillips and Stoutenburg strive to keep the discussions informal, interactive, and fun by incorporating videos, music, guided group projects, and game-like activities. Tansley’s favorite part of the program was applying philosophical ideas to popular culture, such as analyzing the humanity of robotics through the Terminator movies and the use of skepticism in The Matrix.
This year’s camp will focus on moral dilemmas and ethical questions such as “What is the nature of goodness?” Students will discuss hypothetical scenarios and learn how to approach them from various perspectives and build arguments. They will also have a chance to research their own philosophical problem and present their findings.
The Iowa Lyceum is funded for the next three years by the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Provost, and the Division of Continuing Education. Jeske has also donated research funds to the program.
For more information about the Iowa Lyceum and to register, visit sites.google.com/site/lyceumiowa/home/about-us.