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Philosophy in the Trenches


Tim Ignaffo Image

Tim Ignaffo

Teenagers typically challenge anything and everything—or as Guillermo Marini, a third-year Philosophy and Education Ph.D. candidate at TC puts it, adolescence is “a time of awareness—students are distinguishing themselves from their parents and from the larger group, and questioning what they want to do with their lives.”
So why not teach them philosophy? Most countries in Europe and Latin America do just that, but not the United States, where most young people complete high school without ever having been exposed to the most basic philosophical questions of existence, ethics and aesthetics.
Last January, Marini, fellow Philosophy and Education Ph.D. student Timothy Ignaffo and a group of other students at TC and Columbia set out to change that picture, creating the Philosophy Outreach program. Members of the initiative now travel weekly to a number of city schools, where they facilitate weekly after-school dialogues, coordinate guest lectures, or both.
With the benefit of a seminar on how to guide text-based discussions, taught by TC Philosophy and Education Program Director David Hansen, the TC and Columbia volunteers have guided students in parsing a range of works, including Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and Sophie’s World, a novel on the history of philosophical thought, by Jostein Gaarder.
“We use short stories, too—anything that gets the students thinking and talking,” says Ignaffo, who coordinates the program. “The responses have been tremendously positive.”
Ignaffo says the program is rooted in the concept that engendering “philosophical discourse is an organic way to learn.”
The program has grown steadily since its launch. Last year, it had a presence in four schools in New York City, including the Brooklyn and Manhattan Free Schools, and nine active volunteers. Thanks to seed funding from the Squire Foundation and support of TC and Columbia faculty, there are now eight participating schools and 22 active volunteers. In addition, Philosophy and Education graduate students will have the unique opportunity to teach a philosophy course this spring at Columbia Secondary School, which has philosophy as part of its innovative core curriculum.
Marini hopes the model of the Philosophy Outreach Program can be replicated by graduate-level students in other disciplines.
“We’ve had the privilege and gift to come to graduate school,” says Marini. “Who else has this kind of opportunity to share?”
The program has made such a strong impact that one high school student who was moved to speak at TC this past fall about his positive experience has since enrolled in Princeton University’s summer program in philosophy.
For Marini and Ignaffo, success stories like that one are simply added motivation to create the highest quality experience, not only for high school students, but for the teaching volunteers.
“Teaching is a craft,” Ignaffo says. “We want to be prepared and to provide a good service.”
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