There are no prerequisities for talking about the things that matter most.
I’ve been studying philosophy since the age of fourteen, when my grandpa, a philosophy professor, invited me to spend the summer with him and learn about Plato and Aristotle with his college undergrads. Right away, I was hooked. Not only were we asking some of the most fascinating questions a human being can consider—what is justice? What is happiness? How can you live a good life?—we were learning from people who had been dead for over two millennia, whose ideas still felt just as fresh as the opinion section of the New York Times.
Since then, I’ve taken a lot more philosophy classes, and even taught a few of my own. But even though doing a PhD means becoming even more specialized, I’ve come to believe that philosophy can be made accessible and relevant to everyone, just as my grandpa made it accessible and relevant to me.
A couple of years ago, I started leading philosophy discussion workshops with court-involved young adults, ages 17-24, in Harlem. We meet once a week to talk about concepts that impact our thought and action in ordinary life: power, authority, self-interest, morality, responsibility, testimony, paternalism, punishment, racism, and equality. And each week, we have passionate, fiery debates about the issues that matter most.
Two things are especially cool about this kind of conversation. First, you don’t have to know anything to participate. You simply have to judge whether your own experience agrees with the claims that are being made. Second, you learn how to argue well with others. By modeling respectful disagreement and requiring that everyone be able to give reasons for what they say, we as facilitators hope to make clear both how confused many of our intuitions are, and how best to become more confident in our beliefs. Academic philosophy is just a more rigorous and sustained version of the kinds of conversations we have in these discussion workshops.
Studying philosophy at the academic level has all sorts of great benefits—it’ll sharpen your critical thinking skills, make you more skeptical of what you read in the news, and help you get into law school—but for me the most important benefit is personal. When we’re born, we find ourselves part of a family, a culture, and a set of traditions that we do not choose. We can either adopt these traditions unthinkingly and unreflectively, or we can do philosophy: we can step back from our habits and think seriously with others about how best to live.