High School Philosophy Contest

by Joe Murphy

Imagine being a high school student in the U.S. who is interested in philosophy. What official, academic outlet would you have? Not many students have the opportunity to take a philosophy or ethics course in high school, but there are rumblings now of a possible future in this country in which philosophy and ethics are taught more widely in our schools. In a recent article on pre-college philosophy in American high schools, published in the Spanish journal of philosophy, Diálogo Filosófico, I said that there seems to be a “paradoxical situation of philosophy in high school in the United States.” Philosophy is at best a scarce elective in American schools. Often—if philosophy is present at all—it is a club run by a teacher who took some philosophy courses in college and is excited to talk about ideas and do some inquiry with her students. Some schools might invite graduate students of philosophy to come in and offer workshops or Philosophy for Children, mostly in elementary schools. But usually there is no philosophy per se done in our schools. Indeed, many people may believe that philosophy is superfluous, unnecessary, and impractical, yet the critical thinking, inquiry, character education, and many forms of conceptualizing, that educators foster in schools are embedded in the process of philosophical thinking. In any case, the American Philosophy Olympiad (APO) draws from the students who do somehow find a way to study philosophy while in high school.

In May of 2016, two American high school students will represent the U.S. as young American philosophers in Ghent, Belgium. February 29 is the due date for students from anywhere in the U.S. to submit an essay to the APO on one of two topics presented by the APO. The top two essays will win the chance to fly to Ghent with representatives of the APO to compete in the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO) and rub elbows with their peers, as well as with professors and teachers of philosophy from more than forty countries.

The APO, which has been in development since 2010, is the American branch of the IPO. Every year, students from more than forty nations gather in a different host country to write an essay on one of four topics given to them at the competition. There is history here, but that is a subject for a future blog post.

The IPO—founded in 1993—is recognized by both the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP), and UNESCO. “Since 2001 the International Philosophy Olympiads have been organized under the auspices of FISP and with the recognition and support of UNESCO” (IPO Regulations, Preamble). The APO is recognized and sponsored by the APA. In 2011, two young American high school philosophers, one young woman and one young man, traveled to Vienna to write their essays in Spanish. The work of that year has become the American Philosophy Olympiad. Since Austria, we have been to Norway in 2012, Denmark in 2013, Lithuania in 2014, and Estonia last year. Our pre-college philosophy writing contest is now connected to the world of international philosophy. The deadline for the APO essays to be submitted is February 29. In May, we’ll travel to Ghent and meet with other international students and teachers, leaders from FISP, and representatives from UNESCO, for our international contest.

According to the Regulations of the IPO (Section 6b.II), “The essay must be written in one of the following languages: English, German, French, Spanish; however, it must not be written in the official language(s) of the student’s state (e.g., a German does not write in German).” So in order to participate in the IPO, not only must a student have read some philosophy, but she must also be proficient enough in French, German, or Spanish to write her essay in one of those three languages. That’s part of the international nature of the competition. Although the rationale is not explicitly stated in the IPO Regulations, it seems to me that the reason for requiring a student to write her essay in a language that is not her official state language is to foster deeper international understanding and profound empathy for people from other lands. It is a question of philosophical and cultural perspective that, it is hoped, will engender compassion.

If you would like to join in the efforts of the APO or find out more about it, visit our blog. I would also be glad to correspond or chat with you about it. If you know of a high school student who would like to submit an essay this year, have the student go to the APO blog and follow the instructions. Perhaps someday one of your students, children, or grandchildren will board a plane to fly to another country to meet other philosophers and write an international essay.

Joseph A. Murphy is Ethics Department Chair at the Dwight-Englewood School.

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If you would like to submit a contribution on pre-college philosophy, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.

1 thought on “High School Philosophy Contest

  1. “Philosophy is at best a scarce elective in American schools. Often—if philosophy is present at all—it is a club run by a teacher who took some philosophy courses in college and is excited to talk about ideas and do some inquiry with her students. Some schools might invite graduate students of philosophy to come in and offer workshops or Philosophy for Children, mostly in elementary schools. But usually there is no philosophy per se done in our schools. ”

    It’s true that philosophy is scarce as coursework in American high schools, and I lament this as much as the author. But the author is neglecting the major philosophic activity in which many American high schools students engage, which is interscholastic debate.

    For decades now, especially in the category of Lincoln-Douglas debate, high school students have debated explicitly philosophical topics, figures, and texts, especially in connection with moral and political philosophy. I first discovered philosophy through Lincoln-Douglas, and I’ve known many other professional philosophers who have as well. More professional philosophers should be aware of this activity and the opportunities it presents for cultivated interest in philosophy in college.

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