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Philosophers share experiences facilitating intergenerational dialogue in schools, communities, and the public sphere

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What is the importance of listening to children? What are the challenges in teaching cosmopolitanism through world history? What does it look like to teach climate justice with an emphasis on student agency? How can philosophy be made more accessible to marginalized groups?

Educators discussed these questions and more at the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) conference held at UW earlier this summer. PLATO, a nonprofit affiliated with the UW department of philosophy, conducts programs for students, educators, and families.

This year’s conference, “Ethics in Schools, Communities, and the Public Sphere,” featured 65 speakers from across the world. Dr. Jana Mohr Lone, executive director of PLATO and affiliate associate professor at UW, said that since the first conference in 2011, the event has grown in participants and has moved away from the traditional academic conference model.

“We really wanted this to be much more of a community of philosophical inquiry throughout the conference,” Lone said. “We've tried to strike a balance between having people do presentations, and having workshops and more interactive sessions.”

Serge Danielson-Francois, world history teacher at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, presented on transforming the sophomore world history curriculum into a blend of political philosophy and ethics. He said that he attempted to contextualize popular media images of refugees, beginning with images of Afghans holding onto airplane landing gear to flee the Taliban.

“The danger in starting with that image and not contextualizing it for me is that the refugee, the migrant, or the asylum seeker becomes pitiable,” Danielson-Francois said. “What's missing is the dignity that you would associate with a human being.”

Danielson-Francois added that he tried to present countries as worthy of their own investigation, apart from traces of colonialism and US involvement, by watching videos of cutting edge acid rock bands in Mali, among other teaching tools.

“I do keep failing [to foster such a view of foreign nations, but] I so far haven’t given up,” Danielson-Francois said. “[My students] still appreciate that it’s hard and that what I’m asking them to do is something that adults haven’t been able to square.”

Alejandro Marx, teaching at the High School for Environmental Studies in New York City, presented on how students can become engaged practitioners of environmental ethics through community projects. Marx said that his class, inspired by reading Jeannette Armstrong of the Okanagan Nation, explores current city initiatives from the perspective of every entity affected by it.

“We do something called the Real New York City Council,” Marx said. “We borrow a practice from the Okanagan nation … where you have people at the council who are speaking for those who don’t have a voice, not just humans … you also have land speakers, you have water speakers … And so I give them a list to choose from … and then everybody speaks and presents from [that] point of view.”

Marx said that students use tools including the NYC environment & health data portal, interviews with community members, HabitatMap, and AirBeam sensors for collecting air quality data for proposals presented to city government officials.

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“One of the biggest takeaways from all these years of teaching ethics is that it's the young who teach ethics to the old,” Marx said.

Nicole Acosta, a graduating UW senior in philosophy with a focus on ethics and feminist philosophy, volunteered at the conference and said it was amazing to see how people want to accessibly teach children philosophy.

“I think that there’s a lot that children can offer philosophically, because of their vulnerability and their openness, that adults just can’t reach,” Acosta said.

Acosta said that, as a BIPoC person, she noted a lack of underrepresented communities both at the conference and in the field of philosophy.

“Since the conference, I’ve been thinking about what would happen if that was flipped, if I was in a more diverse community with more diverse people,” Acosta said. “[About] how would I make each lesson accessible to each student, no matter their background.”

Debi Talukdar, program director at PLATO, co-presented with Nic Jones and Dr. Sara Goering on the lack of diversity in philosophy. Talukdar said the team looked at a 2018 survey of professional philosophers on their first exposures to philosophy and noticed many similar experiences shared by people with marginalized identities.

“We made the case that if we can strengthen that connection, or provide more opportunities for early exposure, you’re going to have more people hooked onto it,” Talukdar said. “Particularly people who may not be thinking about the field … How many Brown people do you see in philosophy? How many women do you see?”

Talukdar said that talking with Goering helped her think about the tension between needing to expand access and the potential harm of inviting marginalized folks into unsafe spaces.

“Both problems have to coexist and be tackled at the same time,” Talukdar said.

Reach contributing writer Vyom Raval at Twitter: @SemiVyom

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