If you want to know what it means to be a responsible citizen, ask 1,400 young philosophy enthusiasts

Wednesday, May 3, 2017
students manning registration table at HYPE

The 2017 HYPE conference kicks off in the Hamel Recreation Center.

Asking the Big Questions: Why Philosophy Matters | Students at last year's conference asked: To what extent is freedom of speech influenced by power, control and fear?

When it comes to tackling big philosophical questions, there are no easy answers — but there are a lot of great conversations. That’s what Anna Redway and 1,400 other high school students from all over New England discovered at this year’s Hosting Young Philosophy Enthusiasts (HYPE) conference, held at UNH in March.

Each year, HYPE participants travel to UNH for a day of intense discussion and philosophical debate centered on a guiding question. This year’s topic was "What does it mean to be a responsible citizen?"

“HYPE led to a lot of great discussions in the different student groups. Because of how relevant the issue is to everyone’s life, and because everyone has such a different background, the day broadened everyone’s thinking a little bit,” said Redway, a Souhegan High School senior.

Founded by the Souhegan High School Ethics Forum in 2009, HYPE takes philosophy out of the classroom and puts it directly in students’ hands. After opening remarks from former New Hampshire governor John Lynch, students broke off into small groups to discuss different aspects of responsible citizenship. The discussions are led by students — faculty members participate in separate sessions and the small groups are for students only. That gives them a chance to wade deep into thorny issues, according to Chris Brooks, a social studies teacher at Souhegan and an academic advisor for the Ethics Forum.

“The goal is to unpack each year’s topic philosophically, to get to the depths of what the conversation is about,” Brooks said. “It’s refreshing to have the students leading the conversation in small groups. They’re realizing not only how to have these conversations, but also figuring out how to have these conversations when there are lots of different perspectives.”

Students from Souhegan, Bedford High School and Spaulding High School in Rochester form the leadership team that organizes HYPE each year. Redway, a member of the leadership team, was part of a group that wrote grants to help fund this year’s event. The result of that work was a compelling conversation about citizenship, she said.

“My group talked about voting and being politically involved, and because a lot of people in my group are under voting age, we discussed how you can be involved with nonprofits or volunteer your time with campaigns and share your voice and your opinions, even though you can’t vote,” she said.

Encouraging collaboration and connections among New England high schools and universities yields benefits large and small, according to Brooks. The event transforms philosophy, ethics and leadership into a vital part of students’ lives and encourages debate on challenging topics.

“Based on the feedback I heard from my students, they were willing to let their groups touch on the current state of Washington politics. There’s a risk there: Tempers can flare, people can dig their heels in and what we’re going for in a conversation can be lost. But the students saw that as a challenge,” said Erich Dietel ’07 ’08G, a humanities teacher at Bedford High School and a HYPE faculty advisor.

It also brings together students of diverse backgrounds who might not otherwise meet.

“You have kids from the North Country interacting with kids from Manchester, who are interacting with kids from Lowell, who are interacting with kids from the Seacoast,” Brooks said. “It brings kids across district lines and across academic settings and allows them to self-direct. And a lot of kids keep up with each other and become friends.”

Three years ago, the Ethics Forum received a grant from UNH’s Responsible Governance and Sustainability Citizenship Project (RGSCP) to fund HYPE. The event also receives support from the New Hampshire Public Philosophy Initiative through COLA’s Grand Challenges for the Liberal Arts Initiative, which encourages cross-disciplinary responses to multifaceted issues, like climate change, global health — or responsible citizenship.

“The heart of RGSCP’s mission is finding ways to provide opportunities for students to think carefully and intentionally about what it means to be ethical citizens of the communities and organizations they belong to and will belong to throughout their lives. There’s no simple formula for how to do that, but we believe that giving young people an environment in which they are encouraged to talk to each other about serious and fundamental issues is a key part of our effort, which is why we’re very proud to have supported HYPE for the last several years,” said classics professor Stephen Trzaskoma, who also serves as RGSCP’s director.

For Redway and other participants, HYPE is a unique opportunity to delve deeply into complex philosophical ideas, face challenges and gain practical leadership experience with a cohort of peers.

“It’s cool to see how 20 people can do so much together and use everyone’s strengths to make an awesome day,” she said.