University of Minnesota
Philosophy Camp
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Philosophy Camp doesn't sound very academic. What approach to education does it use?

Philosophy Camp is centered on the Socratic tradition of cooperative inquiry into large questions about how we can live our lives well. Socrates did not take the stance of an authority who knows and tells, but rather the stance of an inquirer who is curious and open to the ideas of others. Philosophy Camp instructors hold a space where students and instructors together exchange stories and ideas that open up fresh ways of seeing the world and fresh possibilities for taking actions that build meaningful lives.

Philosophy Camp has been inspired in its methods by the educational philosophies and traditions of Denmark's Folk High Schools and Highlander Folk School in the United States, both important and highly successful examples of what is now called democratic, or popular, or people's education. Those who take leadership in this kind of education take care to respect, draw out, and build on the experiences of life that students bring to their learning. Philosophy Camp aims to create for students an experience in the spirit of Highlander and of a 19th Century Danish folk high school. Additional influences that inform the approach are Donald Winnicott's theories of human development and maturation and Wilfred Bion's theories of group dynamics and processes.

What is the tradition of the Danish Folk High Schools?

Denmark's Folk High Schools are what we in the United States might call "People's Colleges." Their inspiration came from the writings of N. F. S. Grundtvig, a 19th century clergyman, poet, historian, and philosopher. Grundtvig believed that all Danish citizens would need to be prepared to be involved at every level of life and government to create a strong and modern democratic nation. The Danish schools were called "folk" schools because they were for the general citizenry, or "folk." The schools were called "high" schools because they focused students' attention on high questions, large questions whose answers have life-shaping implications like, "What is a good life?" "What is a good society?" "What is good work and authentic vocation?" Grundtvig's goal was to provide young people 18 to 25 years of age with education that was "enlightenment for life." He believed that the knowledge people needed came from living, not from facts and theories; enlightenment for life couldn't be taught, but must be lived. He was critical of schools that subjected students to a lot of rote memorization and examinations because he felt these processes killed learning and deadened the lives of the students. Grundtvig's folk school was to be residential, with teachers and students from all classes of society living and learning together for a period of three to five months. There were no required texts to read, and no examinations. Students and their teachers formed a community of learners who drew inspiration from their Danish cultural heritage in music, literature, history, etc. This approach to learning contributed in an essential way to the students' energy and motivation to undertake and persist in the quest to bring the large questions of life home to their own lives. Young men and women who had attended the folk schools in their rural villages later became instrumental in establishing the modern dairy and agricultural cooperatives that benefited farmers and strengthened Denmark's economy at the end of the 19th century. Hundreds of folk high schools exist today throughout Scandinavia. People throughout the world are adapting the folk school idea to meet the challenges they face.

What is the tradition of Highlander Folk School?

Philosophy Camp is also based on the traditions of Highlander Folk School (now Highlander Research and Education Center) near Knoxville, Tennessee, and its founder Myles Horton. Horton wanted to help Appalachian mountain people reduce persistent poverty and illiteracy and create better lives for themselves. He visited Denmark in 1931 to learn about the Danish Folk High Schools. What he saw there made a deep impression. Students and teachers lived together, interacting in an informal setting. Students learned from each other, not just from designated teachers, without the pressure of examinations. All participants were highly motivated, and they emerged from the experience with clear convictions about what they stood for and what they were against. Highlander Folk School began the following year. Its goal was work toward a truly democratic society. Horton believed that all people are capable of participating in democratic society and governing themselves, but that some people, particularly those most marginalized in society, had never had a chance to practice living with others in a democratic way. Horton and his staff worked to make Highlander a place where people came together to practice living the ideals of a democratic society. Poor, illiterate, and marginalized people who came to Highlander were respected for the knowledge they had and were given opportunities to learn from each other how to solve their own problems. Horton called himself a "two-eyed" teacher. He said that he had one eye focused on how people saw themselves in their present condition, while the other eye focused on their potential and capacity. Horton wanted Highlander workshops to get people moving and taking action in their communities.

Highlander used a participatory and egalitarian conversation process called "learning circles" that enabled participants to talk about their experiences and the challenges facing their communities. These conversations generated trust among participants, spawned fresh understandings of how the challenges could be addressed, and raised confidence in their ability to take these understandings home and to act on them.

How does Philosophy Camp incorporate the traditions?

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. During Philosophy Camp all participants, students and instructors, will examine and imagine what sorts of lives are worth living in our society. Learning circles and other large and small group activities will be used to help us examine our lives and our relationship to our communities, to bring to light hidden and limiting assumptions, and to expand our hopes for what is possible in our own lives and in the world.

The two courses that are combined in Philosophy Camp (Phil 4326 and Phil 4350) have three goals. One. Students will explore large philosophical questions that open up possibilities and hopes for lives worth living. How is identity constructed? What is vocation? What experiences of community are desirable in a life?

Two. Students will use their philosophical explorations to reflect on their lives, their life experiences, and their futures.

Three. Students will reflect critically on how their first-hand experiences in Philosophy Camp, including their field experiences in innovative settings in the wider Windom community, fit with the picture of social change found in the tradition of popular and democratic education.

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