Ben Lukey: The Role of a Philosopher in Residence for P4C

Benjamin Lukey


Ever since Thomas Jackson introduced P4C to Hawai‘i in the mid-1980’s, one of the defining characteristics of p4c Hawai‘i has been its commitment to working with classroom teachers in Hawai‘i’s public schools. It has been part of our mission to find every way possible to support these teachers, both in their classrooms and as faculty in a school setting. This has aided the teachers to develop their own intellectually safe communities of philosophical inquiry and to grow as colleagues engaged in philosophically fruitful reflections on issues that matter to them. All this has helped to create a deep-seated commitment among the teachers to p4c as a basic approach to teaching, not just another passing programmatic fad. Until relatively recently, much of the focus had been on working with teachers in elementary school classrooms, where they had the freedom to set aside time for p4c each week.

At Kailua High School (KHS), two teachers – Amber Makaiau and Chad Miller – began incorporating p4c into their curricula (in social studies and English, respectively). Both have achieved impressive results in their respective classrooms. Their students have also performed well in their classes and on the high stakes tests such as the Hawai‘i State Assessments, and Advanced Placement exams. More importantly, their students were engaged participants and spoke positively to other students and teachers about their English and Social Studies classes. Through the University of Hawai‘i, Makaiau and Miller taught a course to introduce p4c to several colleagues who had become interested. Although the class was successful in introducing the theory behind philosophy for children and many aspects of the p4c pedagogy developed by Jackson, Makaiau, and Miller, it became clear that if p4c Hawaii was going to become part of the Kailua High School culture, teachers who wanted to implement p4c in their classrooms would need additional support. It was decided, with the support of the Uehiro Foundation and private donors, that we would provide the support of a high school Philosopher in Residence as a pilot scheme. I agreed to take on this role and endeavor to translate my experience and competence with p4c in elementary school settings into the high school context.

When I first began working at Kailua High Schools’ in 2007, there was no job description for a “Philosopher in Residence.” Furthermore, in creating my own job description for this position, I realized that I was working against a system that predominantly views educators as subject-matter specialists. A quite natural expectation of teachers and students is that the role of a Philosopher in Residence is to dispense expertise on the subject of philosophy in keeping with their standing as an authority on the historical figures, movements, schools, and arguments that are studied in philosophy departments in colleges and universities across the U.S. But I saw my role quite differently and wanted to avoid the trap of becoming just another subject specialist.

If I were to make any impact in my role as philosopher in residence, I had to overcome the entrenched view of philosophy as a content specialization and the view of the philosopher as subject specialist. Over-emphasis on subject matter specialization makes it difficult for teachers to include philosophy as part of K-12 education. One of the reasons for the relative paucity of philosophy in K-12 education is due to the questionable assumption that children and adolescents are unable to comprehend the issues and questions that comprise the discipline of philosophy and engage in philosophical reasoning. A further reason is that philosophers have no recognized discipline-specific role within the K-12 school system. I felt strongly that what was needed was to adopt a more collaborative and interdisciplinary approach.

Philosophy is often regarded as a rather arcane subject-matter—the preserve of specialists who predominantly teach in colleges and universities. Thus, in creating the position of a Philosopher in Residence, we needed to avoid the image of “philosopher” as a subject-matter specialist, for several reasons. First, philosophy is not, and should not be, its own content area, separate from other content areas. Secondly, because my role as PR was to work with teachers in their classrooms, I did not want to act as the sage on the stage dispensing philosophical wisdom. My role would instead be to help teachers and students engage in philosophical activity in the classroom. The reinstatement of philosophy as a classroom activity serves as an antidote to the idea of the philosopher as a subject-matter specialist. Philosophy as an activity, specifically as a pedagogical activity, is something for all content areas. Therefore, philosophical activity also provides an opportunity for teachers to engage in a form of interdisciplinary inquiry.

I suggest that this reinstatement of philosophy as a dialogical activity in the classroom can become a useful addition to pedagogic practice and that trained philosophers can be helpful toward this end. However, this conception of philosophy is far removed from its current status and role in the academy. The idea that philosophy is more than the study of the philosophical canon and that it can be better understood as a dialogical activity is as old as philosophy itself. Indeed, it is Socrates who was the model for me as PIR as a facilitator of philosophical dialogue and inquiry and not as a subject-matter specialist.

Given the overemphasis on the value of information and subject-matter specialization, I have deliberately avoided trying to teach the philosophical canon to high school students and teachers. Instead, I have tried to make my value to the high school community felt not as a professor but as a co-inquirer into the practical and conceptual problems that teachers and students face. In addition, given the professional insularity that content specialization encourages, I have tried to foster an interdisciplinary community of inquiry among the teachers, where the focus can linger on discussing the purposes and value of education rather than moving right to devising lesson plans for content mastery. One benefit of the co-participant relationship of the PIR and teacher is that philosophy has emerged from the esoteric shadows of the academy to become an activity and mindset appreciated by students and teachers. While some teachers and students develop a concurrent interest in the philosophical texts of the discipline, most acquire a confidence and appreciation of their ability to discuss philosophical subjects and examine themselves and others.

I see three main roles that a PIR can play in working with teachers and students: 1) the PIR helps keep the focus on philosophical questions of purpose and meaning; 2) the PIR helps create a community where interdepartmental discussion can flourish; and 3) the PIR collaborates with specialist teachers to think about curriculum, classroom issues, and lesson plans. The first role is what facilitates the successful performance of the other two. By discussing the question of the identification of knowledge and understanding with information and the issue of the subject matter as a specialization divorced from other subjects as philosophical problems, teachers engage their own teaching and curriculum from a more interdisciplinary perspective. In order to facilitate such discussions, the PIR must remain a philosopher, committed to the pursuit of wisdom, meaning, and understanding through dialogue. While a presentation of the full scope of these three roles is not possible in this blog, some illustrations of what each role looks like, as well as fuller explanations of my reasoning, may be found in my published work.


team-member-benjamin-lukeyDr. Benjamin Lukey is the Associate Director of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education. He has been part of the p4c Hawai‘i family since 2000. While completing a Masters and Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, he facilitated p4c inquiries and worked with many excellent teachers at Waikiki Elementary, Hokulani Elementary, Wai‘au Elementary and Ala Wai Elementary. Dr. Lukey also spent two years facilitating p4c at Loveland Academy, working with children with autism and other developmental disorders. Since 2007, Dr. Lukey has served as the Philosopher in Residence at Kailua High School, working with English and Ethnic Studies teachers to integrate p4c Hawaii into their curricula. In addition to his administrative duties, Dr. Lukey serves as Philosopher in Residence at Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School, and continues to support p4c Hawaii teachers and students at Waikiki School and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Ben Lukey: The Role of a Philosopher in Residence for P4C

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