Youth philosophy conference generates wonder

“Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” – Plato

Wonder is a good thing. When I came away from the 9th Annual HYPE (Hosting Young Philosophy Enthusiasts) Conference held two weeks ago at the University of New Hampshire, I came away with more questions than answers ­ and that is, after all, the point. I was also struck by the energy and enthusiasm of the 1,000 New Hampshire high school students who had basically never met before, and their willingness to gather together to wonder as a community ­ to ponder the question “What does democracy look like?”

In thinking about an image to capture the intangible idea of philosophy, I was reminded of my visit a few years ago to the Hereford Cathedral in Hereford, England, home of the Mappa Mundi, the oldest medieval world map in the world ­ and the largest chained library.

In Medieval times, a collection of 150 books constituted a major library. These hand-manuscripted and hand-bound volumes mostly on the topic of law and religion were irreplaceable and therefore exceedingly valuable. Cathedral librarians solved the problem of potential theft by chaining the books to the shelves. Today the Hereford Chained Library contains 1500 rare books ­ the largest chained library in existence.

Books contain ideas, knowledge, beliefs, and superstitions. Old books are of course especially precious ­ like some beliefs we hold dear. But the chained library then took on another meaning for me. How many wars and deaths have been caused because of people chained to their beliefs ­ or their superstitions ­ tethered so strongly to their precious library of thoughts that the chains preclude them from standing in another’s shoes?

Philosophy invites us to deliberate about what we believe, what we hold dear.

The HYPE Conference key note speakers ­ war correspondent journalist David Wood and award-winning documentary wartime photographer Andrea Bruce ­ urged student philosophers to “read dis-trustingly,” and dare to ask of a source ­ “How does he know that?”

Wood has spent his career reporting from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Central America, and imbedded with mountain, airborne, brigade and infantry troops in Afghanistan. Bruce captured the intimacy of ordinary life primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both focus on unembellished truth. Wood: “I explain the facts, but don’t translate the facts.” Bruce: “I stay as close to the truth as I can ­ I don’t set things up. I use beauty and light to get people to, hopefully, pay attention to that truth.”

After the keynote address, student leaders lead their discussion groups to different locations around campus as faculty gathered to hear UNH Education professor Dr. Joe Onosko speak on the topic “The Importance of Philosophy During Crisis Times.”

Onosko’s selection of “crisis times” statistics are certainly cause for concern. Schools are experiencing a 68 percent increase in teachers who are more stressed; 38 percent girls and 26 percent boys, aged 13-18, report anxiety disorders; the number of suicidal teenagers has doubled in the last decade; increased isolation of teenagers; increased uncivil behavior; sexism on the rise; 25 percent children in poverty; the opioid crisis; and “despair death” via alcohol, drugs, suicides among those adults aged 50-54.

Onosko cited the research of Robert Sapolsky in his book, Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst. Anthropologically speaking, our “primal thinking” is tribal thinking, a “hard-wired” part of our brain that registers the idea of “difference” spawning “us/them” thinking or “we’re right, they’re wrong.” But the balance is the cerebral cortex ­ that part of the brain that forms the power of belief ­ and can override primal “hard-wirings” to enhance the capacity for empathy, more so than in any other primates on earth. Still, Onosko’s conclusions focused on the ultimate need for the re-distribution of wealth.

I feel that one reason for the alienation and stress facing youth today is the elimination of the “soul-food” of education ­ the stuff of creativity. In deference to the pervasiveness of science and technology, we erroneously thought we could leave “fluff” subjects often marginalized by academia ­ art, music, theater, storytelling ­ behind. Yet these teachers save lives, and bring the most isolated, alienated youth back to some salvation of finding themselves.

I should add to this list philosophy teachers like Chris Brooks, the Souhegan High School Philosophy teacher who founded HYPE. These subjects deal with intangibles, connect to emotion, build community, touch the imagination ­ and reflect the cross-disciplinary nature of the brain itself. In the face of the alienating and isolating impacts of technology, we need creativity more than ever.

The gift of the day came in the comments of three anonymous teachers responding to the pessimism of Onosko. One Romantic Poetry teacher suggested that Onosko’s viewpoint was colored by his social science lens. In his book Catching the Big Fish, filmmaker David Lynch, founder of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, writes: “There’s an expression: ‘Where the attention is, that becomes lively.’ So when you focus on a thing, it’s almost as if you start it moving and vibrating.”

Another teacher talked about the need for aesthetics ­ defined as “a critical reflection on art, culture, and nature.” The Greek root word aisthetikos means “sense of perception.” Perception is everything! What are we looking for? What do we expect to see? We manifest what we become aware of, what we think about, what we value.

The third teacher talked about mindfulness and recent research about the positive effects of bringing meditation into schools. Philosophy is, indeed, active mindfulness ­ just a short step away from meditation. Like the “bliss” that Lynch describes in meditation, philosophy arms youth by empowering them and building their confidence in hearing their own voices and honoring those of others. Lynch: “Bliss is like a flak jacket. It’s a protecting thing. If you have enough bliss, it’s invincibility…when those negative things start lifting, you can catch more ideas and see them with greater understanding.”

“The Giant” by N.C. Wyeth, a favorite painting that sits above my desk, expresses something about light, imagination and belief ­ a cluster of children stand in awe of the “giant” they see in the clouds. On the one hand, truth is a viewpoint, and like the children, one “tribe” can “see” one “truth” so clearly, while another tribe might see only blue sky.

“The Giant” also gives us an aerial view ­ reflective of philosophy ­ a view that allows us to “see” our own minds. We cling to some beliefs; others are subject to change like the clouds in the sky. Even in the case of those beliefs that chain us to some foundation, we can lift the book of our belief off the shelf and re-examine what we believe as if it were open book ­ this is the process of philosophy. We can also allow old beliefs to pass away like the “giant” in the clouds that will soon disappear.

Alain de Botton refers to Nature and art as “the apothecary for the soul.” And so it is with philosophy.

D. Quincy Whitney is a career journalist, author, historian and Nashua resident of more than 40 years. Contact Whitney at