Discussing the Meaning of Life in High Schools
By Audrey Ledbetter, Boston-area Philosopher-in-Residence at Medford High School
High schoolers are not often given the space to let their minds wander freely. Their days are punctuated by bells signaling when they can move and grades quantifying their worth as students. As one of the PLATO Philosophers-in-Residence, I wanted my classrooms to feel different. I hoped to provide a place where students look forward to thinking rather than dreading it. This semester, I began a weekly philosophy club. I get a steady stream of regular students and can occasionally recruit some people that walk past the open door. Over the past few months one lesson sticks out: the topics that engage the students the most are those that help them think through the meaning of life.
One of the first philosophy club topics was a fan favorite: is it ok to gossip? Conveniently, my students walked into the classroom gossipping about what grades everyone got on their biology test. I asked them why they found all this comparing and talking about other people worthwhile. After a bit of stumbling, they decided that it was a way to connect with each other. Though they all took it alone, the biology test was a shared experience. I pushed them to think about how it would make someone feel to know that other people were talking about their grades. They quickly noted that gossip is not okay if it actually causes another person harm, but the risk of causing harm is not reason enough to negate the benefits of creating community with others. It’s a questionable argument, but one that emphasizes relationships with others.
Another philosophy club topic: is death what gives life meaning? I told them to imagine they were immortal. The students ended up in two camps. One side believed that the longer they lived the more good they could do in the world, so being immortal would be more meaningful and is therefore desirable. The other side began with the intuition that immorality would be undesirable because after everyone in your life dies you would be left with no one. Eventually, however, they started to think that since there will always be more people, even if they are not immortal, there are always more relationships to build. Other people, both sides thought, are what gives life meaning.
The same intuitions came out when we discussed the question, are you real? Occasionally the students roll their eyes at thought experiments, and the experience machine was one of these eye-rolling moments. I introduced Robert Nozick’s thought experiment: imagine you can plug into a machine that allows you to experience anything you desire, would you do it? Nozick asks what could matter to us other than our perception of our lives from the inside. The students’ answer was unanimous: other people! I tried to get them to focus on how it would feel to be inside the experience machine, but they wouldn’t budge. One student kept going back to her grandmother. She said that her grandmother would be upset to know that she chose to leave her and go into an experience machine. Even if she could program her grandmother into the machine, she would still be leaving her grandmother behind. It doesn’t matter whether or not the grandmother is real, but it matters how she feels.
A worry I had coming into this position was that the students would see me as a sort of therapist, a role that I am not qualified nor supposed to enter. But philosophy is my savior here. Students share their experiences, good and bad, and they are treated with respect as “case studies” for the group to work with to come up with answers to the questions—Is it ok to gossip? Is death what gives life meaning? Are you real? They seem to find this approach freeing—they can talk about bad things in their lives without people getting weird about it. One student shared the story of her mother passing away when she was young. She talked about how moving through her mother’s death changed her in a way that made her better. Death is not a good thing, she seemed to be arguing, but good can still come of it. This prompted a discussion about how something can be not-good and good at the same time. It was a moment of acknowledging how such a contradiction is possible. This sort of contradiction is not one that is typically accepted in philosophy, but my students were able to take their peer’s experience as a valid piece of reasoning and make sense of things from there.