“Big Questions”: An NYU-led Outreach Program for Schools

Jennifer Judge – jennyjudge@nyu.edu
Jessica Moss – jm5706@nyu.edu

What makes an action right or wrong? Do we really know the things we think we know? What makes a life good?

These are questions that are central to all of our lives. Philosophers discuss them every day, but middle and high school students don’t always get a chance to confront them head-on. This is what “Big Questions”—an outreach program run by the New York Institute of Philosophy and the philosophy department at NYU —aims to change.

We believe that a truly worthwhile education aims to produce thoughtful and critical citizens. With this in mind, we have designed Big Questions as a way to introduce students to the ideas that have occupied thinkers for centuries, while simultaneously teaching them to articulate, defend and adjust their ideas in rational and respectful debate. Volunteers from NYU’s philosophy department will lead students in classes, discussion groups and workshops, customized for the unique needs of each school.

Big Questions has launched with classes at Broome St Academy, the High School for Dual Languages and Asian Studies, and the Beacon after-school program at East Side Community High School; we hope to expand in the coming months, and welcome inquiries from schools.

We are committed to fostering positive, meaningful connections between the schoolchildren of New York City and the university community of which they might one day choose to be a part.

The Program

We will consult with each school or after-school center to design a customized program of activities and events. We can provide volunteers for weekly or twice-weekly sessions over the course of a semester, or for a shorter pilot program. These sessions can either be integrated into existing courses at schools or else provided as independent enrichment activities outside classroom hours. Sessions will normally last between 40 minutes and 1 hour, led by two or three NYU volunteers, as class size dictates.

Here is a sample of the topics for our sessions:

1) Right and wrong

Is it ever all right to harm one person in order to help another, or many others? Why? Consider various moral dilemmas and try to get a consistent theory to explain why we react to them the way we do.

2) Justice

What makes a society a fair one? Is fairness the most important thing? Would you rather live in a just society where many people are unhappy, or an unjust one where people don’t mind?

3) Happiness

What makes a life a good one: Getting everything you want? Being a good person? Pleasure? Would you choose a pleasant life even if it was just an illusion?

4) Knowledge

How do we know the things we think we know? Can we trust our senses? Can we trust what other people tell us? Do we ever really know anything? What’s the difference between knowing and just believing?

5) Free will

Do we ever really act and choose freely, or is everything we do determined by forces out of our control – genetics, society, the laws of physics?

6) Moral responsibility

Is it fair to blame someone for doing something wrong if she couldn’t help it? If she didn’t know better? If she was raised without good values? When are we or aren’t we responsible for our actions?

7) The Self

Would you still be you if you lost your memory? Had a radical change of personality? Had your brain transplanted into a different body? What makes a person who they are?

8) Egoism

Is everything we do self-interested? Even when we help others and care about them are we really doing it because it gives us satisfaction?

9) Race and gender

Are there hard scientific facts about what race or gender you are, or do humans make up these categories? Why do we use them?

10) Paradoxes

If you are young now and a single day can’t make the difference between being young and old, how can you ever grow old? Is the following sentence true or false: “This sentence is false”? We’ll consider these and other famous philosophical paradoxes.

Parting Word

Questions about justice, moral responsibility and the nature of happiness are not just for philosophers to answer. It is our belief that every student, regardless of socioeconomic background or academic ability, should be encouraged to think carefully about issues that are central to what makes us human. This is the opportunity that “Big Questions” aims to provide.