The topic of discussion early one morning at Charles H. Flowers High School was love.
"Love is not a feeling. It's a thought," Principal Helena Nobles-Jones said to the 15 teenagers sitting before her. "Do you agree?"
C.H. Flowers High School principal Helena Nobles-Jones says her voluntary, 7 a.m. philosophy class puts students in right mindset for school and teaches them to think.
(Susan Biddle - The Washington Post)
"I think that thought provokes feelings," Parisa Souvannavong, 15, reasoned.
"It's either a reflex or a thought," agreed Joey Price, 15. "It goes through your eyes, then has to be translated by the mind, then it goes to the heart." His answer drew applause.
Three mornings a week, teenagers at the Prince George's County high school arrive shortly after 7 a.m. to discuss Plato, Aristotle and other great thinkers with their principal. They write papers and read assigned texts, but they receive no credit for the course.
Nobles-Jones, who has run some of the toughest schools in the District and Baltimore, said the seminar offers her students something more. It puts them in the right mind-set for school. "It gives them the sense that today will be all right. It settles them," she said.
More importantly, she said, it teaches them something that is usually not part of the high school curriculum. "You have to teach kids to think," she said. "It's not automatic. They need to start the day off thinking."
Indeed, the push to do well on high-stakes testing has left little time for extra courses such as philosophy, which many researchers argue is precisely what students need to think critically.
"It allows students to make arguments and think about those arguments," said Jana Mohr-Lone, director of the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children in Seattle. "The whole point of philosophy is learning to think. In education today, there's nothing more important."
Only a few Washington area high schools, chiefly in the District and Montgomery and Fairfax counties, offer full courses in philosophy. That's partly because few teachers are trained to teach the subject.
"Philosophy is not a traditional school subject, and we have a tendency to do the things that are traditional," said Matthew Lipman, a philosophy professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey who runs the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.
In recent years, some school districts have been trying to change that. Many have reached out to organizations such as the ones Mohr-Lone and Lipman run. The Delaware-based American Philosophical Association has even started a newsletter for children and teenagers.
Nobles-Jones decided to offer the seminar to all interested students when theschool opened in Springdale two years ago. She thought it would help students face the challenges of growing up in a community that is really more urban than suburban. Parents often work and have little time to spend with their children, so their children end up learning more from television and their peers, she said.
"You have a group of adolescents and they have real-life, complex circumstances and often they don't know how to approach it. This teaches them how to approach it," she said.
A teacher had once done that for her. Growing up in a sharecropper's home in North Carolina meant that there were few expectations of her, she said. In seventh grade, she met Mrs. Hubbard in her six-room schoolhouse. Mrs. Hubbard talked to Nobles-Jones about Aristotle, and played for her the music of Bach.
"She told me: 'There's an untapped intelligence you have that no one will expect you to use. And I don't want your conversation limited to tobacco, corn and cotton,' " Nobles-Jones recalled.
Nobles-Jones began teaching 35 years ago after graduating from North Carolina Central University. She also earned a master's degree from Ohio State University. She has often gone beyond her obligations, even buying prom dresses and paying for field trips for her students.
Nobles-Jones doesn't want her students' conversation limited to music, clothes and dating. Many teenagers, she said, are more concerned with who has a better image than with who has a better chance of getting into college.
"If society were to accept foolishness, I would let my kids be foolish. But it will not accept it, so I don't let them be foolish," she said.
Nobles-Jones's towering presence has captivated many at her school. "Her appearance and everything about her speaks power," said Keith McClung, 15, who regularly attends the philosophy seminars. "She can alter you in a second. She forces you to use your mind. She forces you to evaluate a situation."
On a recent morning, she paced in front of the class as she spoke about Socrates, who was condemned to death for corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens. She bellowed. She pointed with long, manicured nails at students to prod them to speak. She talked about how Socrates defended his method of teaching.
"He is trying to say, you need to understand whenever I was questioning anyone, I was in search of the . . .?"
"Truth," the class said together.
She asked the students if it was a good thing to ask a lot of questions.
"If you ask a lot of questions, knowledge is endless," said Babak Dastani, 16.
Nobles-Jones agreed. "The search for additional knowledge. That's the Socratic method," she said.
She tries to apply philosophy to situations that the students can understand, including, for instance, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Many of the class members are student government leaders. Othersaspire to become lawyers or scientists. Some have been prodded to join as a punishment.
"It wakes you up. It begins your day on the right track," said Omari Aarons, 17, who will be the student representative on the new Prince George's school board.
"It gives you a completely new perspective on the way that people think," Aarons said. "When you think about the actions of people, instead of coming to one conclusion you can reach several. Philosophy helps you open your mind."