January 7, 2010
STUDENTS TAKE PHILOSOPHICAL LOOK AT LIFE
Young adults at Wagner College gather weekly to
tackle tough questions like how to save the planet
by DIANE LORE, Education Columnist
Most of us can think of a class or a teacher who’s had a strong impact on our lives. One class at Wagner College had such a powerful effect, its students didn’t want it to end.
That’s the short version behind the “Philosophy Cafe,” a student club at Wagner that meets in the coffeehouse each week for discussions on “life, the universe and everything,” in the words of science fiction/humor writer Douglas Adams.
The formation of the group was spearheaded by student Vanessa Cotton. The class that spawned the Philosophy Cafe was a freshman interdisciplinary learning community, “Language, Culture and Ways of Knowing,” taught by professors Marilyn Kiss, of the Modern Language Department, and Ann Gazzard, from the Education Department.
All Wagner freshmen are required to enroll in a topical “learning community” or LC, an interdisciplinary class revolving around a common theme, that’s taught by professors from the viewpoint of two different academic departments.
For several years, Professor Gazzard has been bringing her students to Camillo’s Cafe, a Princeton, N.J., bistro where she leads a once-a-month program called “Planet Cafe.” The title comes from a book by author Christopher Phillips, titled “Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy.” In the book, the author talks about ways to foster the Socratic method of thought and discussion based on the Greek philosopher.
During her Planet Cafe exercises, Professor Gazzard would challenge her students to think about and discuss ethical and philosophical topics such as: “What makes something wrong, and what makes something right?” and “Is a better world possible?”
“Maybe there is no one right answer to these questions, but philosophical dialogue in a respectful, open-minded community is what is needed if our students hope to bring responsible social change into their worlds,” she said.
According to the Planet Cafe format, participants begin by suggesting topics for the night’s discussion. Students have to be recognized by Ms. Gazzard or the evening’s moderator, to speak. The discussion continues for about an hour.
Ms. Gazzard’s students got plenty of practice before starting their own cafe. They visited the Princeton group twice, watching and participating. Ms. Gazzard also set up an online exchange.
The Philosophy Cafe was created last spring, and continues into its second year. Meeting once a week on alternating Mondays and Wednesdays, the group fills up half of the coffeehouse in the basement of Reynolds House on the Grymes Hill campus.
The topic at one recent meeting was “What is God?” Miss Cotton moderated the discussion, calling on people around the room to speak. The conversation was respectful, and deep, with few of the participants sharing the same viewpoints. At the end of the hour, no consensus had been reached, but students seemed eager to come back and discuss their ideas.
For information about the Philosophy Cafe meetings, the person to contact is Miss Cotton at email@example.com.
Local paper highlights philosophy clubJanuary 7, 2010