by Thomas Wartenberg
Beginning in 2010, I have led a number of Summer Seminars for School Teachers on Existentialism sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Although I have been involved in pre-college philosophy for 20 years, my efforts had previously centered on elementary schools and, in particular, using college students to facilitate philosophy discussions based on picture books.
Because of my involvement with PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), the national organization that advocates and supports the introduction of philosophy to pre-college students, I started thinking about expanding my involvement with pre-college philosophy. I realized that my efforts would have much more impact had they were centered on teachers, as each teacher influences a large number of students each year. After hearing from the teachers themselves at our PLATO conferences, I recognized that teachers desired assistance in approaching the philosophical texts they wanted to expose their students to. There appeared to me to be a real need to support middle and high school teachers in their efforts to teach students philosophy.
I decided to make Existentialism the subject of the seminar for a number of reasons. First, I remembered that Existentialism was the first school of philosophy that had interested me as a teenager. It was while teaching Camus’ novel The Stranger one summer that I remembered that my first introduction to Existentialism had been his Reflections on the Guillotine, which I had read in junior high as part of my preparation for a debate about capital punishment. (Like Camus, I was arguing against it.) That book stirred my interest in philosophy, which I pursued on my own by reading Sartre and others in Walter Kaufman’s classic anthology Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre.
I also realized that many high school students were being exposed to Existentialism, which they reported to me in my college course on the subject. But I also discovered that their understanding of the school of thought was neither deep nor particularly accurate. And while the dramatic writings of the Existentialists are quite accessible, the philosophical texts they wrote are often very difficult to understand. I thought I could provide high school teachers with a background that would enable them to teach the texts they were teaching more effectively.
When I met with the 16 teachers in my first seminar – most of them high school teachers but some middle school teachers and even one from elementary school – I didn’t know what to expect. What I discovered was revelatory. The teachers were the most serious and dedicated students I had ever taught. They realized that they were being given a great opportunity and they did everything they could to take advantage of it. I didn’t have to encourage them to read the assignments; they came to class each day brimming with enthusiasm and full of questions they had about what they had read. It was a very welcome change from the routine of teaching college students, many of whom weren’t really sure why they were in class.
I also discovered that the opportunity provided by the seminar had a very beneficial impact on the teachers. I hadn’t realized how stressful the job of teaching was these days. As a privileged college professor, I found the idea of teaching five or six classes a day and going home to face grading a hundred student papers unfathomable. This daily grind wears teachers down. The opportunity to talk with other smart, like-minded individuals about ideas rather than schedules truly energized them.
Especially at a time when philosophy departments across the country are being down-sized or even eliminated, we need to think about how to bring more students into our classrooms. The NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes for School Teachers are an excellent way to do this. Each fall, when I meet with other directors of these classes, I am surprised to find myself the only philosopher offering one. I hope my brief report will encourage others to do so as well.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is now threatened by politicians who vow to eliminate it completely. I find this completely baffling. A program like the one I am a part of is one of the best ways to spend our tax dollars in a way that benefits a wide range of people, not just teachers but also their students. This program is not limited to teachers in public schools. Many of the teachers I have taught were from private and parochial schools. Let’s hope that the politicians in Washington who are trying to eliminate such wonderful programs do not succeed. The NEH Program of Summer Seminars and Institutes for School Teachers is truly valuable and needs to be supported.