People throughout the world read the Harry Potter book series and watch the movies, but this year’s Texas A&M Philosophy for Children summer camp looked at the series’ philosophical themes.
The discussions included talking about the ideas of good and evil, race, destiny, freedom, prophecy, friendship, love, censorship, dangerous ideas, banned books and secret spells.
When it comes to these themes, A&M philosophy professor and camp director Claire Katz said, people have philosophical discussions whenever they discuss the morality of the books’ events.
“If you do something like Harry Potter, it means that they can see immediately in things that they’re reading, the philosophical themes,” she said. “You immediately tie philosophy to their world — to popular culture in general, but more specifically to their world.”
When Katz started the camp four years ago, the purpose was — and still is — simply to give students who enjoy thinking philosophically a space to do so with other like-minded students, she said.
“As great as public schools might be, even private schools, there really isn’t this space where there’s no test, there are no papers — no grading, no assessing,” she said. “It’s really about what are you interested in and how do we keep it philosophical … but a place for them to form a community and to find other kids who are like that. They know they’re not alone in thinking these ideas and to find a place to talk about them, to enjoy it, to explore those ideas in a sustained kind of way.”
It creates a low-stress environment, ninth grader Caroline Stanton said, noting it is one of the few places where she does not have to raise her hand to join a conversation and where there are multiple right answers.
“It’s really nice to just be able to talk, and you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to,” she said. “If you don’t have an answer, you don’t have to give an answer.”
As the discussions progress, she said, “we stumble upon these ideas that you have that you didn’t know you had.”
Ninth grader Jacob Maddock, visiting from Phoenix, said unlike class, the students from seventh grade through high school are allowed to openly talk about philosophy at the camp.
By starting in middle school, junior facilitator Olivia Conway said, the students can begin thinking about problems from a more comprehensive perspective. Conway, who is Katz’s daughter, said what she enjoys most is seeing the students begin referencing each other’s ideas and collaborating with the other students during discussions.
“It makes them better thinkers, but it also just makes them more thoughtful people,” she said.
Facilitator Desirae Embree, who has been involved since the camp began four years ago, said she has come to learn not to be surprised by the sophistication of the students’ discussions.
“If anything, I think that the camp actually teaches adults that children are much more clever and nuanced in their thinking, and just in general intellectual. They’re a lot more intellectual, I think, than we give them credit for,” she said. “Now whenever I hear the discussions, it’s exciting to see them willing to change their positions, and then a lot of times also they’re just funny.”
Mark Mitton, a visiting magician who performed and led a demonstration for the students, said he was blown away by the discussions he heard.
A&M Consolidated High School student Robert Behmer said he knew how Mitton was doing one trick during the demonstration Wednesday morning,
Calling Behmer up to the stage in the Geren Auditorium, Mitton said there is a cost for saying “I know,” and also a cost for “I don’t know,” noting both can be powerful.
“If he doesn’t know, but he talks like he does know, now you’re in a trap, and you’ve just set yourself up — so what was a position of power is now a position of weakness,” Mitton said.
The phrases “I can” and “I know” go hand-in-hand, he continued, saying there are times when not knowing presents a greater opportunity to learn.
As the students leave the weeklong camp, Embree said she hopes the students leave with less certainty than when they arrived.
“I think it’s one of the things that philosophy does is it constantly questions what we assume to be the case,” she said. “It’s constantly asking, ‘Is that really the case?’ [and] ‘Do we actually know that?’ and looking for explanations rather than just sort of settling it. … I think it’s also really important, especially now, that we not commit so hard to very particular perspectives or very particular standpoints; that we’re open to being critical of them, so that we can be open to change.”