A High School Philosophy Conference

By Sean A. Riley

Thanks to the good work of those involved with PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) and pre-college philosophy centers around the country, awareness is growing about both the importance of pre-college philosophical training and about its conspicuous absence in the standard American public school curriculum. To fill the void and inspire pre-college students to study philosophy, PLATO has developed a multi-pronged approach, which includes the following programs for high school students: PLATO’s annual essay contest gives students the opportunity to compete to write philosophically rigorous essays, High School Ethics Bowls offer students the opportunity to craft moral arguments and discuss their merits before panels of judges, PLATO’s Questions journal provides students a forum for publication of their philosophical writings, and high school philosophy conferences give students a taste of the academic practice of philosophy. These programs allow students with different strengths and interests opportunities to engage in philosophy outside of the classroom and outside the standard curriculum.

Now in its third year, the Long Island High School Philosophy Conference was born out of a partnership between The Stony Brook School and the Squire Family Foundation. Each year, the conference brings together 60-100 students from as many as eight different schools from the region to engage in philosophical conversations with each other. This year’s event took place on Saturday, November 12, and began with a mixer that got students talking to each other about this year’s conference theme, “Relativism.” At each event, our keynote speakers, who have included C. Stephen Evans (Baylor), Todd Buras (Baylor), and this year David O’Hara (Augustana University), give compelling, accessible, and relevant addresses on topics like the existence of God, why one should study philosophy, and moral relativism. Following the keynote, students choose to continue the conversation with the keynote speaker or to join one of the adult-led presentations on topics like logic and argumentation, the seven deadly sins, and applied ethics, which are led by local professors and high school philosophy teachers. After the first round of break-out sessions, students gather for lunch at discussion tables labeled with philosophical questions like “Do human beings have free will?” and “Do humans have souls?” We encourage participants to sit with students and teachers from other schools for these discussions. After lunch, everyone attends student-led concurrent sessions in which students deliver papers, presentations, or performances and receive feedback from the audience. The event concludes with closing remarks and discussion on what students learned. From the survey feedback we have received, attendees love the event and are often inspired to continue exploring philosophy.

For more information about the Long Island High School Philosophy Conference, visit http://www.plato-philosophy.org/philosophy-conference-high-school-students/

Sean A. Riley serves as Academic Dean at The Stony Brook School, a college preparatory boarding and day school on Long Island. He teaches a variety of philosophy courses and coaches the Ethics Bowl in addition to his administrative work. Before joining the faculty at The Stony Brook School, Sean earned his PhD in philosophy from Baylor University. Prior to that, he earned a combined BA/MA at Penn State University. Sean lives on campus at The Stony Brook School with his wife and four children.

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