Penn’s ‘philosophers in residence’ engage Philadelphia youth with the hard questions

Ph.D. students Jacqueline Wallis and Afton Greco are embedded at the Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia, where they give philosophy lessons on curriculum-relevant topics and run an after-school Philosophy Club.

Jacqueline Wallis and two students at Philosophy Club.
Fourth-year Ph.D. student Jacqueline Wallis, middle, facilitated an exercise during Philosophy Club after school at the Academy at Palumbo, with high school students Leila Salama, left, and Marty Signes, right.

Afton Greco stood in front of 23 ninth graders in a world history class at the Academy at Palumbo in South Philadelphia, her backdrop a slideshow with passages from “Leviathan” by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Greco, a fourth-year philosophy Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, was sharing strategies for reading philosophical texts amid the students’ unit on the Enlightenment.

“Philosophers have a lot of really interesting things to say, but a lot of them are bad writers,” she began. Greco instructed the high schoolers not to worry if they did not understand everything on the first read, priming them with several questions to think about as they parsed “Leviathan. Reading the text, she paused at bolded words to ensure students knew what Hobbes meant by “nature” and “confederacy” and “industry.”

Students shared whether they agreed or disagreed with Hobbes’ conclusion that people need a strong authority or “sovereign” figure to keep from waging war against each other. Greco repeated the lesson in the next period, which ended with a spirited discussion among a few students on the meaning of a sovereign.

She is one of two “philosophers-in-residence” at Palumbo, along with fellow fourth-year philosophy doctoral candidate Jacqueline Wallis, who taught the same lesson to two classes earlier in the day. Embedded in the school for about 10 hours a week, one of their roles is to provide what they call a “push-in,” which involves dropping into a class to discuss philosophical issues around a topic related to the course material.

J.P. Leary, who teaches the world history class and previously brought in Greco and Wallis to talk about freedom, says, “They’re good at getting the students to think about difficult questions in a way I think is manageable,” and that his goal is to encourage his students to be curious and open-minded.

Wallis began as a philosopher in residence in January 2023 with Yosef Washington, then a philosophy Ph.D. student at Penn, and Greco joined last fall. As their first push-in, Washington and Wallis taught a lesson about theories of time travel for a class reading Octavia Butler’s time travel novel “Kindred.” 

Last fall, Wallis also provided a lesson on philosophical theories of time for an astronomy class. “It’s not a settled question what time is, so I think it was fun for the students—in a science class—to get exposed to questions that there weren’t settled answers to,” she says. She has also offered push-ins on evaluating evidence in environmental science and the ethics of stem cell technologies.

Wallis says teachers have told her a few times that more students participate in these discussions than normal. Greco thinks one reason for this is that “these students see Jacqui and me being comfortable in our uncertainty, which is maybe a newer thing for the students. So many of these questions are open-ended. There’s a range of answers that seem reasonable, but we don’t really know which one is right.”

Jacqueline Wallis talks to Marty Signes during Philosophy Club.
Jacqueline Wallis, one of two philosophers in residence from Penn at the Academy at Palumbo, talked to high school student Marty Signes during Philosophy Club after school.

In a philosophy lesson on justice, Greco ran an exercise where she asked students to think about what laws they would create for their vision of a just society if they were on an island with no existing laws or government.

In addition to the push-ins, they have been running a Philosophy Club that meets weekly after school. Wallis and Greco also help teachers come up with discussion questions for lessons and provide other professional development.

Expanding beyond stand-alone programs

The Philosopher-in-Residence program is an initiative of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), a national organization dedicated to bringing philosophy and ethics into schools. The program at Palumbo is administered by Penn’s Project for Philosophy for the Young (P4Y), which philosophy professor Karen Detlefsen—now vice provost for education—founded in 2014.

“One of the most exciting aspects of P4Y is the role that graduate students play in producing ideas for innovative programming and in putting these ideas into play,” Detlefsen says. “The ideas that Afton and Jacqueline have developed through their engagement with the Philosopher-in-Residence program are perfect examples of this.”

Dustin Webster, a postdoctoral fellow serving as co-director of P4Y, says, “The mission and philosophy of the program is really to bring opportunities to engage in philosophy and philosophical thinking to students who don’t really have a chance to do that.” He adds that, while philosophy is common enrichment in private schools, he believes it’s an opportunity all students should get. 

Penn P4Y originally began working with Palumbo as part of an Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) course, through Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, focused on an event called the National High School Ethics Bowl. Detlefsen and Webster brought a regional Ethics Bowl competition to Philadelphia. The event differs from debate in that students are not assigned opposing views. 

Until last year, P4Y largely provided stand-alone programming, such as running an after-school club. But these activities are not always integrated into the school, Webster says, and, while there are options for curriculum development for educators, “teachers are already so overworked and overburdened it’s hard to want to add things to their plate.”

That’s what made PLATO’s Philosopher-in-Residence program so appealing. PLATO originally launched the program in a Seattle elementary school in 2013, and it has expanded since. Thanks to a grant from the Whiting Foundation, PLATO funded the pilot expansion in January 2023 into three high schools across the country, including Palumbo. The others are in Seattle and Boston.

PLATO Executive Director Jana Mohr Lone says she reached out to Penn because she knew the school’s past work with philosophy for young people, and Webster is on PLATO’s Academic Advisory Board.

“What makes the Philosopher-in-Residence program unique is that it allows for the kind of relationship building between the philosophers and both the teachers and the administrators but also the students; that is not possible with different people coming into classrooms,” Lone says.  She adds that having a philosopher in every grade and many subject areas means that if a question arises in a math class, for example, the teacher can ask the philosopher to come in for a session rather than thinking, “Well, I don’t really know what to do with that.”

Lone says students get the false impression that asking a question indicates ignorance and that there’s something they should know that they don’t, whereas learning philosophy gives them more confidence in asking questions. 

“Wondering about the world is a really important part of being a human being, and young people wonder about all kinds of things,” Lone says. “At some point I think many of them get the message that that’s not really a valuable way to spend your time. Engaging in philosophy reminds them that you can wonder about these questions your entire life.”

Extracurricular thinking

Wallis and Greco run an after-school Philosophy Club, an informal gathering where students can show up as little or often as they like to discuss a range of topics. The focus of the fall semester was bioethics at the request of the students, Wallis says.

One Thursday, after the two concluded their four push-ins talking about how to read philosophical texts and the school day concluded, they and a few high school juniors convened to talk about Jean-Jacques Rosseau. The philosophers in residence come with contemporary topics, too, but this fit well with speaking about Hobbes earlier in the day. The high school students who attended indicated the club provides an outlet they might not always get elsewhere.

“I really like to talk to people who think about things,” said Marty Signes, who would like to major in philosophy. She recalled trying to talk to someone about the trolley problem and getting the reaction, “That’s so dumb because it’s never going to happen to me.” But Signes wants to talk about much more than only things that affect her.

“People are not really open-minded when it comes to talking about philosophy,” said Oreoluwa Oyefeso, who encourages people, “As you’re living on this planet, think about stuff that might not happen to you.”

Adina Cooper added that people need to be able to change their mind about things and commented, “I like saying, ‘How do you know that?’”

Statements laid out on table for Philosophy Club activity.
For an activity during Philosophy Club, Jacqueline Wallis had Academy at Palumbo students discuss how certain they are about different statements.