This coming semester, the Philosophy Department is offering a new Academically Based Community Service course that will allow Penn students to teach high schoolers how to write philosophical op-eds.
The course, titled “Public Philosophy & Civic Engagement,” will be taught by fifth-year Philosophy Ph.D. student Michael Vazquez. Vazquez said students will spend a part of each class figuring out how to distill complex philosophical ideas to high school students in an exciting way, and they will then go to teach philosophy in a Philadelphia high school once a week. According to the course syllabus, students will learn and teach topics from moral and political philosophy that relate to living in a democratic society, such as civic duties and obligations, patriotism, propaganda, and civil disobedience.
“We’re going to let the high school students dictate the sort of questions we want them to ask," Vazquez said, adding that the Penn students will develop lesson plans that are shaped by high school students' interests.
By the end of the semester, Vazquez added, the high school students will write philosophical op-eds based on what they learned from the Penn students, and they will hopefully be able to publish these op-eds and present them at Penn.
Vazquez said historically, ancient philosophers were accessible and involved in the public sphere. He hopes the course will fill a need to bring more people in contact with philosophy and help the discipline become more diverse and accessible.
"For most of its history, [philosophy] was thought of as ubiquitous. Everybody did philosophy. Everybody engaged in it, and it was kind of a way of life," Vazquez said. "But the more kind of specialized it became, the more detached it became from ordinary lived experiences and the sorts of questions people would ordinarily ask."
While graduate students such as Vazquez do not often have the opportunity to become undergraduate professors of ABCS courses, Vazquez was able to develop his ABCS course through the Provost’s Graduate Academic Engagement Fellowship. This program, founded this year by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and Provost Wendell Pritchett, awards fellows with a research fund of $5,000 over two years for service-related projects.
Vazquez said he wanted to teach an ABCS course after serving as a teaching assistant for Philosophy and Education professor Karen Detlefsen's “Philosophy of Education" course, which involved teaching philosophy in middle schools.
“I had a really cool chance to TA with Karen for this ABCS class, and I saw just how like, kind of incredible this work is," Vazquez said.
He added that throughout the semester, he hopes undergraduates will gain typical philosophy skills such as articulation and analysis of detailed arguments. Additionally, Vazquez wants his students to explore the nature of philosophy and its role in the community.
While Vazquez said the time and location of teaching opportunities is yet to be determined, Shoemaker High School in West Philadelphia is an option. Course enrollment is capped at 15 students, and open spots are currently available.
Vazquez said he was grateful for the opportunity the fellowship has given him to develop the new ABCS course.
“Penn is really distinctive in that it’s trying to give validation to this kind of work with the resources they have," he said. "Not all schools will have the resources or desire to say 'this work you’re doing is important — it’s not just a side project.' This is part of the mission of the University.”