What the world needs now: philosophy camp for grownups

In the past month, we’ve had every reason in the world to shut down and stop believing — in our country, in our ideals, in our ability to solve difficult problems. Hatred tends to do that, drive us apart and stun us into silence. With that in mind, I want to share a better way of settling our differences. It sounds like a vision, but it actually happened, this summer, right here in our city.

Just a few weeks ago, a diverse group of 22 city teens participated in the University of Baltimore’s first Philosophy Camp. Over five days, these high school students set a standard for how kids — and adults — ought to work out their differences: with respect, rationality and empathy.

The students in our camp were black, Asian, white and Hispanic, and from Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Few knew each other before the start of camp. All were apprehensive, shy and solitary during the orientation period.

There was no particular reason why this post-millennial, Instagramming, Snapchatting generation would want to engage in serious conversations with each other. They weren’t guaranteed instant gratification for showing tolerance and fair-minded thinking about provocative contemporary issues. They could’ve, if they’d so chosen, taken on an almost expected stance of incuriosity and knee-jerk reaction to opposing points of view. They didn’t have to unite — yet they did. Strangers became friends. Unity won out. But how?

My staff and I knew at the outset that we needed to make camp as challenging, engaging and enjoyable for students as possible. This meant no lectures, no tests, no homework and no grades. Instead, we facilitated ways in which students could discover for themselves the value and relevance of philosophical thinking for their own lives.

We encouraged students to openly express and rationally defend their own perspectives on some important topics — social media, hate speech, banning religious garb, police brutality, racial and religious intolerance, unrealistic ideals of personal beauty, plus a few ringers like The Matrix, robots and A.I. We also insisted that participants justify their own points of view and show respect for their peers’ opposing takes.

Adults, please take notice: The results were impressive. Shy students gave their opinions, with encouragement from their new-found friends (who weren’t so shy). Teens from different backgrounds joined together to discuss their opinions seriously but often with a lot of shared laughter. Students themselves suggested more subjects, more area for debate. Controversial topics were treated with tolerance, fairness and empathy.

I won’t forget watching three reluctant young men who were made to attend camp by their grandmother (she even took their phones away!), slowly become camp leaders. A quiet young woman began singing solo at lunch in our theater with a microphone left on by accident. Soon the entire camp joined her as backup. It was an ice-breaking, turning point for the camp. The bonding was strong, and seemingly instantaneous. Could we grown-ups be so spontaneous?

At the end of our camp’s closing ceremony, a 14-year-old girl volunteered to thank all of her new-found friends for what they had taught her in one week. “I love you all,” she said tearfully to a round of applause. Several others followed, grateful to their peers for showing them that they can disagree adamantly with each other and still end up as friends.

What these teens demonstrated — clearly, and with intent — is that in one short week we can learn how to treat each other in our divided nation. No longer can we be assured that the phrase “let’s all act like adults” will work. Perhaps we think we’re too adult, and thus beyond reason. What happened in Charlottesville is a tragic and sad reminder that sometimes adults need to step back and learn something from younger people. A little patience, a little recognition of our shared humanity, perhaps?

After the camp ended, one grown-up said, “This is what all of America needs — a camp to help teach us how to think and talk about our lives and our values!”

I couldn’t agree more. Next summer: Philosophy Camp for Adults.

Fred Guy is associate professor in the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore, and director of its Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics. His email is aguy@ubalt.edu.

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