Local Teens Get Their Socrates On

Souhegan High School has earned national attention for its philosophy prowess



courtesy photo

It’s no secret that human beings have problems communicating with one another. The current presidential race is a clear example, as it sometimes feels like the two major parties speak entirely different languages. As a result, civil discussion can be hard to come by, and conversations often escalate into flat-out screaming matches.

In the quest for common ground, students at Souhegan High School have responded — with the help of a guy named Socrates. For the past seven years, the Souhegan High School Ethics Forum, a group of high school seniors, has organized and facilitated an annual, statewide Socratic dialogue called HYPE Day (Hosting Youth Philosophy Enthusiasts) to encourage young people to become more critical thinkers and respectful communicators. 

HYPE Day reached a historic turnout this March as nearly 1,100 high school students from 26 New England schools flocked to the event at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. At the event, SHS Ethics Forum students facilitated Socratic dialogues focused on the topic of freedom of expression and how it is influenced by power, control and fear.

“We’re not trying to teach people to be the next Socrates,” Souhegan ethics teacher Christopher Brooks says. “What we’re trying to do is help kids to be better critical thinkers across the board in their lives. And, if we can do that, then we’re producing better citizens.”

In the HYPE format, a Socratic dialogue is a group of between five and 15 people in which participants work together to find a universal truth or conclusion about a given topic. A question, such as “What is progress?” or “When is too much information too much?” is posed as a topic. Each group member is invited to share a first-person experience regarding the topic before the group is welcomed to ask that person questions to gain a better understanding of his or her relationship with the subject matter. Only one person speaks at a time.

After everyone in the group has spoken, the group continues questioning to create a conclusion on the subject using the examples given by group members. The goal is to come up with a resolution that suits each example.

While they’ve been busy exploring the power of Socratic dialogues, the SHS Ethics Forum earned a Pulitzer Arts Foundation grant last year in conjunction with the New Hampshire Humanities. Student organizers decided to put some of that money to use by funding a documentary that would help spread their message.

Portsmouth-based Atlantic Media Productions filmed the documentary throughout the past school year and will complete the project this month, intending it to draw attention to the topic of freedom of expression while highlighting the work and achievements of the SHS Ethics Forum.

“These students have raised the bar, and we need to honor that,” Atlantic co-owner and producer Nancy Vawter says. “We want to show the hard work of these students in a light that will inspire not only students and teachers but also school boards and humanities councils to take our future seriously.”

So why are Socratic dialogues important? They have no winners or losers — unlike what we often see in hostile political debates. In a world where people insist they have the right answers, a dialogue focuses on asking the right questions.

So, while our politicians are going at each other’s throats like a UFC fight, 14- to 18-year-old kids are modeling civil discourse for adults.

What’s wrong with that picture?

Maybe it’s time to start asking more questions.

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