Philosophy Program Inspires Middle Schoolers University News
By: Sara Hoover
Michael Burroughs
Michael Burroughs talks with kids recently at
Hickory Ridge Middle School about issues
of violence during a philosophy class.
Photo by Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal.

When Socrates faced the choice between death and renouncing his pursuit of truth, he stated, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Ever since 400 B.C., individuals have been taking Socrates’ advice and following in his footsteps. Some have much smaller footsteps.

Fifteen eighth-grade boys and girls at Hickory Ridge Middle School discuss questions like: what is wisdom? What is courage?

They are participating in Philosophical Horizons, a philosophy discussion program for middle school students. The class is once a week throughout the school year and taught by Michael Burroughs, a philosophy PhD candidate at the U of M.

The point of the class is to make philosophy accessible and allow students to become critical thinkers.

“I want them to get a sense of what philosophy is and not take issues just at face value. Fundamentally, I want them to think,” said Burroughs.

Students were selected out of eighth-grade social studies classes based on their ability to converse well and in good academic standing.

Deonte Glaspie, 13, thinks philosophy “means an open discussion about real-life situations. Just talking and laying out what you feel.”

Burroughs, 27, has taught philosophy at high schools, but it was his time spent leading a philosophy discussion group in a prison for two years that changed his way of thinking.

“The experience lent me to trying to do philosophy wherever I can, outside of traditional ideas of where philosophy should be done. Middle school was a natural progression. Although a lot of times people doubt this age group to deal with philosophical concepts, I realized the exact opposite. They were hungry for it.”

Michael Burroughs passes out a slip of paper to kids in his philosophy and ethics class
Michael Burroughs with the Philosophy Department passes out a slip of paper with a hypothetical situation for kids in his philosophy and ethics class.
Photo by Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal.

The class began in September and the content surprised the students.

“It’s a lot different than what I thought it was. I thought we was going to be bored. We talk about real stuff that happens everyday,” said Antonio Sibley, 15.

Principal Cedric Smith is supportive of the program.

“I thought it was a great idea and just different for our kids. It’s a way to get our kids to start thinking globally, getting them to understand the community and the world itself and how it effects them,” said Smith.

Hickory Ridge Middle School serves 955 students in sixth to eighth grade.

“Philosophy can be taught anywhere. The public school system, particularly in this area given the history of race relations and public interaction in the city, is a good idea,” said Dr. Bill Lawson, faculty adviser for the class.

Lawson, distinguished professor of philosophy at the U of M, has given lectures to middle school children about philosophy over the years.

“It’s intellectual exposure. We are asking very basic questions about human existence and human treatment, and how to think about those. No one should be upset or disturbed that we are trying to get students to become better thinkers, even at a very young age,” said Lawson.

Lawson believes critical thinking is needed in elementary and middle schools.

“Children are much more sophisticated than we give them credit for. At a very early age, children are very curious. In some sense they are born philosophers because they want to know about the world. They are exposed to critical thinking, how to assess problems and the implications of things.”

This program is not the first of its kind in Memphis.

In 1965, Memphis hosted one of the first pilot programs in the country for philosophy for kids. The program was taught in public high schools. It ran for two years until the funding ran out.

Burroughs, who volunteers his time, hopes to get the program into more schools and more graduate students interested in teaching it.

Watch a video on Philosophical Horizons program.

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Watch a video on Philosophical Horizons program.

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Last Updated: 12/21/12