There’s a common perception that philosophy is the exclusive purview of old white men wearing tweed jackets. But if you stop by John Keenan’s philosophy elective, you’ll see teenagers discussing enduring questions of ethics, aesthetics, existentialism, epistemology, and metaphysics. John begins this full-year class for seniors by introducing the usual suspects: Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Arendt, Kierkegaard, de Beauvoir, etc. But philosophy doesn’t end with this list of (mostly) men from the Western canon. So there are also readings and discussion of Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous American, African, and African American authors, along with critiques from feminism, gender theory, and disability studies. This quarter, the students explored the Africana philosophy of Ubuntu, as well as the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois and feminist philosophers Donna J. Haraway and Alison Jaggar.
John has been known to wax philosophical about young people studying philosophy: “In my experience, the most skilled philosophers are children. Who hasn’t had a fascinating discussion with a young kid asking ‘Why?’” He finds that high school students have reached the age when it’s natural to question many of the assumptions they have been taught, and they are ready to apply their lived experience to age-old questions. While class time is almost all used for seminar-style discussion, there are also nightly readings and brief writing assignments. Once per quarter, students write a more formal essay.
But it’s not all readings and debates. John also loves showing students the film The Matrix, much of which was inspired by philosophical texts, and includes what may be one of the only Hollywood cameos by a living philosophy professor, Dr. Cornel West.
Here’s what students have to say about John’s philosophy class:
“I wanted to take Philosophy as my history because debate and historical ideas have always interested me. The research I have done from past history classes and independent projects regarding structure, ideas, and religion’s role often have been my favorite topics at school. When I learned I could take a class that entirely consists of these topics, I was thrilled! So far, this class has far exceeded my expectations! The reading material is engaging and diverse, as well as always accompanied by a class discussion the next day. I have, on multiple occasions, been so fascinated with our topics that I have done further reading. While philosophy is often occupied with opinions from people coming from a similar circumstance, that being one of privilege, our readings and topics have included ideas from all types of people, such as feminist philosophy and African philosophy. ” — Caroline C.
“Ever since my freshman year, I had been excited to take Philosophy because of how past students talked about the course. Now, being a senior and taking the class, I know why others were so excited. I truly look forward to class and the discussions that come from them.” — Leanne B.
“I enjoy Philosophy class as I find listening to everyone’s different views on certain morals and ethics intriguing. I also find it very exciting learning new philosophies as they are very fascinating. John Keenan is a wonderful teacher and executes his job just as I’d expect a philosophy teacher to. I feel comfortable around John and feel that I can speak freely and ask for help on assignments or things that confuse me regarding philosophy when I need it.” — Lucas R.
“I wanted to take this class the minute it was announced. I’m not a philosopher but I’ve always wanted to think like one . . . As the work might be challenging I think it really helps our brain think of the craziest questions: “Is true love even real?” “Do people see the same colors I do?” “Is there a god disregarding religious beliefs?” I enjoy pondering these questions and I do enjoy this class. Hoping for a fun and not too difficult rest of the year!” — Charlotte T.
“I have enjoyed Philosophy class greatly because it allows me to think abstractly about enduring issues and has given me the opportunity to widen my perspective on different topics and ideas.” — Derrick B.
“I like Philosophy because it gives me a different view and lets me see into past philosophers’ brains. I find it interesting.” — Lizzie A-S
“Philosophy is an interesting course as it involves many other subjects such as science, art, history, and math. At first, I found it hard as I had to ask “Why?” for all the answers that I gave, and many times I didn’t know “Why.” However, in doing this I really started to have an answer to the question that was being asked. This process has made me understand myself and understand the beliefs that I align myself with.” — Isla D.
“I wanted to take Philosophy because it forces me to think creatively when answering difficult questions. I enjoy the class a lot because it’s all about engagement and discussion. If you are an upcoming senior and have the option to take this class, I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are the type of student who enjoys group discussions.” — Stephanie A.