By Roberta Israeloff
The PLATO High School Essay Contest gives students the opportunity to engage with timely and timeless philosophical issues and improve their academic writing. It’s open to all U.S. high school students, and the winners receive cash prizes; in addition, winning essays are published in Questions, PLATO’s official journal.
Some of the questions on which students have been asked to write include:
- Do people have free will?
- Is friendship a more important value than honesty?
- How can you figure out, in a museum devoted to contemporary art, whether the fire extinguisher on the wall is part of an artistic installation or, simply, a fire extinguisher?
- What is the moral status of non-human animals?
The contest was devised to give young philosophy students an opportunity to learn the skill of philosophical writing. Many of those lucky enough to encounter philosophy before college are familiar with the community of inquiry model – in which students and discussion facilitators sit in a circle and discuss topics that are suggested by the group. Some students engage with philosophy for the first time through a high school ethics bowl, during which they discuss and analyze timeless and timely ethical dilemmas. The essay contest gives students more inclined to express themselves through their writing the opportunity to wrestle with texts and construct good written arguments.
The question posed each year is buttressed by a scenario to give students a context in which to consider their answer. For example, here is the prompt from this year’s question:
Sarah and Mike, two friends who met in an art class, spend the afternoon in MassMoCA, a museum in North Adams, MA, that features installations of contemporary art that are sometimes very large and often unusual. In one gallery, they stop to look at a pile of sticks placed in a corner. In another, they watch an endlessly looping video of a person sitting in a chair. They aren’t sure what to make of these exhibits. Finally, in one of the museum’s wings, they find a variety of large, colorful abstract shapes drawn right on the walls. “Now this looks like art!” they say to each other. The artist’s name is Sol LeWitt. But when they read more about him and his work, they learn that the shapes on the wall weren’t actually painted by LeWitt. Instead, his assistants painted them according to his very detailed written instructions.
“This stuff isn’t really art,” Mike says. “It’s all a scam!”
Sarah isn’t so sure. “Well,” she says, “it’s in the museum, which means someone decided it should be here. So it must be art.”
To write the 2,000-word essay, students are encouraged – but not required – to use outside sources, some of which are listed as suggestions. Students also learn to use MLA style for citations.
The contest, in its fourth year, is open to all US high school students. The PLATO Awards Committee comes up with each year’s question – as well as guidelines and suggested outside readings – and all submissions are graded by a panel of high school teachers and philosophers. Cash awards are given to the three best essays.
Participating in the Essay Contest can prove a valuable experience for many students, including one who wrote an email describing its impact on her:
After my school participated in our local high school ethics bowl, I decided to write a philosophy paper for the PLATO essay competition.
I am writing with sincere gratitude for having been awarded the PLATO Essay Prize. I was so happy to learn I was selected. It is a great honor, I am grateful for the award and prize money. I designated the money specifically for Philosophy book purchases. So far I am enjoying:
- A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell
- The Philosophy Book by Will Buckingham
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
- The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
- The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
- The Republic by Plato
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
- Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
I am grateful that I won, but I especially appreciate how the process of learning critical thinking positively affected my life. Philosophy writing helps me to articulate my points… Since so many ethical dilemmas are at our doorstep today, understanding philosophy seems more important than ever.
Roberta Israeloff directs the Squire Family Foundation, which advocates for more philosophy in more K-12 classrooms, now in its tenth year.