This week was the first session of PLATO’s new ten-week online intensive course on “Philosophy in Schools.” I look back two years, to the early days of the pandemic, when we were just discovering that our work with educators might be able to happen online in ways we had never imagined. Now we don’t hesitate to develop online classes, for adults and young people, webinars, workshops, and other online programs, aware of the power of the expanded access to our work that such programs foster.

But a virtual webinar or lecture is one thing. The cultivation of a learning community through a 10-week class is another. I had assumed that the development of the kinds of strong communities of inquiry that we have experienced in classrooms, the creation of an environment conducive to deep and open discussions, and the emotional and social dimensions of our in-person programs could never be replicated online.

In a way, I was right. We are not replicating what happens in an in-person program. The way a group of people doing philosophy together over a period of days or weeks feels in an embodied situation is quite different from meeting virtually and talking to each other through a screen. But it’s different, it’s not better or worse. Some aspects of the experience are diminished, of course — we lose the opportunity to chat casually in an unplanned way with someone after a session, the tactile and physical features of being together in a room, and the ability to move around the space together and to see people’s whole bodies and not just their faces.

But there are also features of the online encounter that are special. Each of us in our own spaces, communities, time zones, coming together in a way that is accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet signal. The intimacy of each person’s face on the screen and the way everything outside the screen seems to fade as we focus on thinking together and trying to understand each person’s ideas, feelings, and beliefs.

In our class, there are students from all over the United States, as well as from India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Colombia. In our first session, there was great enthusiasm about being together, about being able to talk with and get to know such a diverse group, without having to spend money and time on flights and hotels. I was especially moved by the introductions the students gave, each describing their dedication to this work and their happiness at reaching this moment.

In the discussion that ensued, we examined the nature of truth and asked whether philosophy is or should be a quest for truth or for understanding, or both. We considered the challenges involved in developing clarity about the differences between what is true and what is false, and how to tell, and at the same time celebrating the multiplicity of ways people approach knowledge, depending on their experiences, backgrounds, skills, needs, and desires. These students are living in such a variety of political and social climates, and what moved me most was everyone’s eagerness both to express candidly their own challenges and to learn about what everyone else thinks.

It was a deep, wonderful conversation and left me exhilarated and grateful to be part of this community.

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