‘It’s a way of thinking’: VCU summer camp opens high school students’ eyes to philosophy

August 1, 2022
High school students at the VCU Summer Camp in Philosophy participate in a mock trial at the Academic Learning Commons at VCU in July. Among several activities during the weeklong camp focused on the concept of justice, the students discussed with VCU faculty and students what guilt

Some high school students spend their summer at scout camp, theater rehearsals or on the swim team. This July, a group of more than 20 students from high schools around the region spent a week at Virginia Commonwealth University pondering some of life’s biggest questions.

The VCU Summer Camp in Philosophy, a weeklong day camp program held for the first time this year, offered students in grades 9-12 an opportunity to learn new perspectives and explore this year’s theme — justice —by creating projects, including videos, podcasts and presentations, to help themselves and others see the world in a new way.

“I think the camp made me realize that philosophy was not really a thing that you just learn and then you tell other people about it; it’s a way of thinking,” said Lucy, a student at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, as her project groupmates enthusiastically agreed. “It’s a way to understand things in a deeper way and to make conclusions, and I think that’s a really helpful skill.”

Throughout the week, the camp’s coordinator, James Fritz, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences, and VCU students Amanda Nash and Katie Kerrigan, the camp’s counselors, led the students in scavenger hunts, mock trials, thoughtful discussions and other activities designed to help students unpack questions about how to make the world a better place. These questions students are asking, Fritz said, “are really, really thorny and interesting, and they deserve serious focus and attention.”

“One of the really wonderful things about this program — the thing that I find most fantastic about it — is that it has the opportunity to reach a whole bunch of students who’ve just really never encountered philosophy in any form at all, and they have no idea whether it’s something that they’re interested in yet,” Fritz said. “The high school students I talked to in preparing for this program, a lot of them are already really passionate about trying to make the world a better place, a fairer place, a more just place. And that’s a place where a lot of students already have a lot of mental energy focused, and they’re interested in thinking more carefully and more deeply about just what it means to make the world a fairer place.”

As a graduate student before coming to VCU in 2019, Fritz led summer camps and after-school activities teaching K-12 students philosophy in Columbus, Ohio, “to bring philosophy into the community as much as I could.” This inaugural VCU camp, which earned funding through an Innovations in Teaching and Student Engagement Award from the College of Humanities and Sciences, was the buildup of years of work to do just that.

James Fritz, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences and the camp's coordinator, standing, talks with student jurors in a mock trial. versity Marketing)
James Fritz, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences and the camp's coordinator, talks with the jury about their options as they prepare to deliberate on the outcome for a defendant in their mock trial: guilty, not guilty and -- if an unanimous decision was not reached -- a mistrial. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Embracing tough conversations

Lucy, of Atlee, was one of the few high school students who said she’d had some philosophy experience. Philosophy majors pursue careers in a range of fields, such as law, business and STEM, among other areas.

“I really did not know what I was expecting coming to this camp because I’d really only talked philosophy with my dad before,” she said. “It was like, ‘Who is gonna be here? What is it gonna be like? Are these all gonna be little mini-philosophers?’ And it’s been a really great experience. I’ve had so much fun. I come home every day, and I’m like, ‘I’m on the edge of my seat when I listen to people, smiling while I’m listening.’”

Lucy and her groupmates, Eve of Mills E. Godwin High School and Rita of Collegiate School, both in Henrico County, chatted on their last day of camp as Rita fine-tuned animations for their video project about the moral philosophies of abortion, which they’d present later that day to their parents and peers. The three agreed that they’d gone in unsure of what to expect at the camp but found it fulfilling.

Rita, left, and Eve, local high school students, smile as they look at the screen of a laptop.
Rita, left, and Eve, local high school students, work together on their animated video project ahead of their presentation to the group's parents on the last day of the VCU Summer Camp in Philosophy in July. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

“Before this experience, I was a total introvert,” Eve said. “Like Lucy, I was really worried that I wouldn’t make friends, but it turns out everyone was super friendly, and we all like philosophy, and we’ll talk and share different opinions. It’s just really opened my mind about the world and different points of view.”

Nash, a VCU senior majoring in philosophy and political science, became interested in philosophy after taking a course taught by Fritz. They joined the camp as a counselor, in part, due to their love of philosophy and, in part, “to hear from younger people who haven’t had philosophical training.”

“They know so much,” Nash said. “I feel like I’m impressed and wowed by them every time I come into this classroom. We’re all getting here at 8:30 in the morning, and we’re just going to town talking about class consciousness and meritocracies.”

The camp was an experience Nash and Kerrigan, a VCU junior majoring in English and political science, with a minor in philosophy, both said they would have enjoyed when they were in high school.

“I remember being in high school and kind of feeling like no one really cared what I had to say, like a lot of adults are not really interested in your opinions of things, and I really did feel like I had some well-formed opinions on things but had nowhere to go because no one was really asking about them,” Kerrigan said. “It feels really nice to be the one to ask, to be honest, and to open up a space for younger folks to share what they think, develop their opinions, develop their arguments, especially knowing that that’s not always encouraged.”

And, they said, the students didn’t shy away from having tough conversations.

“All of the groups that have split off – they’re doing presentations on these real-world issues that are really hotly debated and looking to answer those questions with moral reasoning,” Kerrigan said.

Katie Kerrigan and Amanda Nash face each other, sitting at a table, sharing a laugh.
Camp counselor Katie Kerrigan, right, a VCU junior majoring in English and political science with a minor in philosophy, shares a laugh with fellow camp counselor Amanda Nash, a VCU senior majoring in philosophy and political science, as they prepare to work with students on the last day of the VCU Summer Camp in Philosophy. “They know so much,” Nash said of the student campers. “I feel like I’m impressed and wowed by them every time I come into this classroom. We’re all getting here at 8:30 in the morning, and we’re just going to town talking about class consciousness and meritocracies.” (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Fresh perspectives

One camp group examined opposing moral philosophy arguments from two scholars around whether racist actions constitute racism. They drew their own conclusions, articulating the flaws in one philosopher’s argument.

“Whether it’s due to implicit bias or another factor, the impact of an action can still be racist regardless of motive or intent,” said Olivia, a student at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. “These two are inextricably linked.”

Several groups used the audio and video recording studios in The Workshop at VCU’s Cabell Library to create their projects.

“We’ve read two different articles about drug legalization, and for our project, we’re summarizing what they said and putting our own views at the end,” said Abdul, a student at Glen Allen High School, while in The Workshop’s podcast recording booth.

He and his groupmate Tino, who recently participated in the Levels Up Academy, an audio storytelling intensive program at the VPM + ICA Community Media Center, a partnership with the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, donned headphones as they discussed their script with groupmates Angela, of J.R. Tucker High School, and James, of Salem High School in Virginia Beach.

“We’re going to make an audio documentary,” said Tino, a student at Church Hill Academy. “Think of it like an NPR segment, where it’s going to be us as philosophy reporters covering views and our ideas.”

Another group’s project focused on the ethics of euthanasia.

“I know my opinion on this topic has changed this week,” said Jack, a student at James River High School. He and his groupmates said they hoped they could help their peers and their parents, who would be watching their presentations at the weeklong camp’s conclusion, see the topic in a new way too.

As Cadence, of Glen Allen High School, Colleen, of Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, and Mauren, of West Springfield High School in Springfield, put the finishing touches on their presentation on the ethics of cloning, they talked about what it was like to be part of the first installment of this camp.

“It is very fun, and it is definitely something I will do again,” Mauren said. “If they have this next year, I will be here.”

A high school student sits on the floor with a computer in her lap and speaks to two fellow students with computers who are facing her.
Lucy, a student at Atlee High School, talks with groupmates Eve, left, and Rita, right, about their video project in the video student at The Workshop at VCU's Cabell Library as they prepare their video for presentation to their parents and peers later that day at the VCU Summer Camp in Philosophy. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

By Mary Kate Brogan

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