By Joe Glover, PhD Candidate, University of Iowa

As a teenager I did not really know what philosophy was. This is surprising considering my interests at the time. Beyond the usual interests of a high schooler, as a teen I read a lot of books, especially ones that could be considered “philosophical” such as those by Camus or Dostoevsky. How I eventually ended up in graduate school for philosophy is another story, but as a first year graduate student at the University of Iowa I was given the opportunity to participate in, and lead a session of, the Iowa Lyceum. Despite not really knowing what that was I still jumped at the chance since it sounded like a lot of fun. Ever since then, I’ve been actively involved with the Iowa Lyceum as a co-organizer. In this blogpost, I want to spend a little time explaining what the Iowa Lyceum is and why I think it is beneficial not only for the participants, but the graduate students that get involved. My hope is that some readers will become inspired to start similar programs at their own universities.

            Let’s begin with some history. Inspired by The Illinois Lyceum, the Iowa Lyceum was started in 2013 by then-Iowa-philosophy-graduate-students Kris Phillips and Greg Stoutenburg. The Iowa Lyceum is a week-long philosophy summer camp for teenagers with the aim of (i) introducing pre-college students to philosophy, (ii) giving students an opportunity to philosophize in a low-stakes-but-still-academic setting, and (iii) fostering their philosophical curiosity. What makes the Iowa Lyceum unique is that it is entirely run by philosophy graduate students, providing them with the uncommon opportunity to not only run a program, but to also have the even more uncommon opportunity to teach pre-college students and engage in philosophical discourse outside the usual academic setting.

The program is free for the students to join and for many years would draw attendees from the high schools and middle schools in Iowa City and nearby cities. On average we host 15-20 students per year with 3 or 4 graduate student organizers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued the Iowa Lyceum online which turned out to be a fantastic benefit. Instead of our attendees only being local, we’ve had students from not only around the United States, and have even had some from outside the country.

            As far as structure goes, the Iowa Lyceum remains relatively constant. As far as content goes, that changes each year. For instance, the first year I was involved with the Lyceum, the theme was “Women Philosophers”; this past year, the theme was “Justice, Identity, and Justification”. No matter what the theme is, we generally try to have each day built around three or four one-hour sessions. There are introductory sessions given by graduate students (“what is philosophy?”, “what is logic?”, and open-ended, intuition-pumping activities) followed by thematic presentations by both graduate students and volunteer professors. I ought to emphasize that these presentations are not intended to be lectures. We want these to be as interactive as possible and encourage the students’ participation throughout the week. The students are not there merely to listen to philosophy; we want them to actually do philosophy. To this end, the final day of the Lyceum consists of presentations by the students on any topic they were most interested in, whether that was based on one of the topics during the week or an independent interest.

            Okay, so we know what the Lyceum is. So what? There are some obvious upsides;  graduate students have the opportunity to practice their teaching skills and the Lyceum can lead to high schoolers taking philosophy courses in college or becoming full-fledged philosophy majors. All healthy outcomes for the discipline as a whole. As far as I’m concerned, while nice, these benefits are not what we should focus on. What we are almost primarily interested in is fostering philosophy as a way of life, first discussed in Pierre Hadot’s 1995 book Philosophy as a Way of Life and more recently popularized in the Philosophy as a Way of Life Project at the University of Notre Dame. In brief, this view of philosophy suggests that philosophy and philosophical material can be used to initiate self-reflective thought about one’s own beliefs and values. Of course, we want to get the students exposed to philosophical theories and we want them to start to develop the skills associated with philosophy courses, but the main idea with the Lyceum is that the students should engage in self-reflection in order to apply the philosophical tools they’ve learned to their lives. If I’m permitted to be a bit cliche, the teen years can be a turbulent time and having analytical tools and the knowledge of when to use them can be much more impactful than merely receiving advice and not knowing how to apply it (as valuable as that advice is). We try to choose themes and topics that would be relevant to a young adult learning to navigate the world. The students may not realize it, but themes and individual sessions are chosen with an eye towards helping them learn philosophical skills they can use in both their education and day-to-day lives.

            In order to start a precollege philosophy program of your own, it’s fairly simple: you need to wrangle together a few interested graduate students, teachers, or faculty, settle on a theme, prepare a week-long schedule, try to secure funding to provide books, meals, and t-shirts, and then you’re off to the races. Of course, there is more to it than that, such as promoting the program and coordinating finances and logistics. One thing that you definitely need to do before starting a precollege philosophy program is to check with your university’s policies regarding minors on campus and hosting programs geared towards minors. You should also look into funding opportunities, both internal and external, depending on the needs you may have. We like to provide the Iowa Lyceum participants with philosophy books related to that year’s theme, for instance, which is funded by a combination of PLATO’s grant program and University of Iowa funding. Other than that, all it takes is a few dedicated people to start a precollege philosophy program at your university.


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