Philosophical Horizons: Guest Post from John Torrey, University of Memphis

The Philosophical Horizons program, sponsored by the University of Memphis Philosophy Department, is designed to provide exposure to philosophy for populations that are likely not to receive that exposure.  Started in 2007, Philosophical Horizons has worked with dozens of students in over 10 schools in Memphis, TN.  Our primary partnership is with Memphis City Schools, which will be merging into a larger school district in the fall of 2013, providing unique challenges to the growth and development of the program.  The goal is to supplement the education that students currently receive and to help them improve their critical thinking skills.  Thankfully, philosophy traditionally allows students to gain those all-important critical thinking skills.  Soft skills that are transferable across industries has been promoted more and more, especially after the economy bottomed out only a few short years ago, and what I’m proud of is that critical thinking might be THE 21st Century skill our children need to have in order to succeed in this era.  Our program provides it through Socratic seminars, where we discuss philosophical issues with K-12 students and have graduate and undergraduate facilitators. 

How our program impacts character education is through the evaluation of certain ethical situations.  In most semester-long sessions, roughly 6-9 weeks in length, I’ve done some sort of an ethics component.  I’m a fan of asking kids why they think a certain action is right or wrong and what considerations are to be made in those value judgments; they have always been very bold about their ethical positions (in my experience) and give them without reservation, and honest conversation is necessary for character development.  By getting students actively thinking about their previously held notions and challenging them, we are achieving the critical reflection needed for character education.

Quite simply, our greatest success has been our longevity and growth.  I can’t tell you how proud I am that over 20 graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Memphis have selflessly given their time over the past 6 years, that Memphis City Schools have been able to work us into over 12 different schools over the past 6 years, and that we can continue to do this work with institutional support.  Our Philosophical Horizons curriculum has been added to a new charter school opening in the Fall of 2014 in Memphis and that we will have a partnership with that school going forward has been my biggest personal success with the program and I’m looking forward to what comes next with this partnership.  Over the next 5-10 years, I could see this program being in at least 8 schools a semester, as I plan to incorporate more graduate students from other disciplines with an interest in education or philosophy to increase volunteers.  Ideally, we will acquire a long term funding source, which will also increase our volunteer base and the limiting factor for our program isn’t the number of schools interested in our program, it’s having enough volunteers.  This sort of initiative could be taken on the road, as well, and that is something that I’m exploring at this point.  The future looks good for us!

If I were a parent or a teacher trying to get my child to be more philosophical, I would suggest asking your child “Why?”  Oddly enough, we don’t ask them why they think the world is the way it is, and asking them why will give you more information to better learn and understand their worldview.  Philosophy is an activity surrounding wonder, especially for children, so getting them to start using their imagination and wonder about the world is always a great way to get this kind of thinking working.

John Torrey is a 2nd year PhD Student at the University of Memphis and serves as the Student Coordinator for the Philosophical Horizons program.  The website for Philosophical Horizons ishttp://www.memphis.edu/philosophy/philhorizons.php and he can be reached at jrtorrey@memphis.edu

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