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Senior year in high school is a difficult, confusing, albeit exciting time for many of us. Since the past thirty years, Ann Arbor Michigan Pioneer High School Philosophy teacher Jim Robert has offered his seniors an opportunity to take an inward look at themselves in a deep and meaningful way, and examine through books, poetry, essays, and discussion, their life journey and purpose. In an age in which grades and test scores seem to pervade all that one does, luminaries such as Jim continuously remind us of the words of Sai Baba, “The End of Education is Character”.


Nearly 40 years ago – here at the University of Michigan over in Angel Hall, Professor Nicholas Wight’s [SP] History of Ancient Philosophy Class, I first came upon Socrates’ famous expression, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” not knowing then that it was going to become a guiding star in my life. I can’t tell you why this quote has resonated so deeply in my life. But I do know that in the 24 years that I’ve been a public high school teacher, it has somehow managed to find its way into every class I’ve ever taught. Twenty years ago, I began writing the curriculum for a high school philosophy course. In the years since, it’s taken on a life of its own. I’d like to think Socrates’ words have found a permanent home.

The Class

Today, I want to take you into this class and show you this home. Let’s go for a walk into my classroom. This is my current classroom in the D2 Hall over at Pioneer High School. Yeah. You may think it’s your dorm, but it’s not. It’s a place where my students and I meet five times a week. In 17 years, I’ve moved four times into four different classrooms. But they all end up looking like this, filled with color and art, thousands of photographs of the students who’ve come through, hockey sticks, ice skates with essays written on them, and mobiles made of ballet slippers. An array of projects made by the students through the years, all an attempt to do what I’m going to try to do today, and that’s captured the essence of the experience of this class.

You should know right off the bat that this class targets a very specific group of students: high school seniors. It’s a senior elective class. You should also know this is not an AP class. The kids that sign up for this class cover the full spectrum of academic abilities, ethnicity, and social class. You should also know that, if you couldn’t tell from the images, this is not a typical introductory philosophy class, although it started out this way. I quickly learned from the students signing up that they were looking for something more.

Something was missing from their education. They wanted something more, they wanted it to be more real, they wanted a place to be real, they wanted to look at themselves. They wanted to look at their world in a way they hadn’t since they were children. But most importantly, I think they were looking for a place to process the monumental transition that senior year had become.

The Council

Now, who am I? Where have I been? Where am I going? What does it mean to be a human being? What is this life all about? These became the questions that guided the evolution of this class. Now, the heart and soul of this philosophy class is a collective experience known as the council, the process by which gaining awareness of others’ views and perspectives enables us to critically examine our own. A very formal definition, to be sure, but here’s how it works. For the first month or so of each semester, the entire emphasis of everything we do in the class, all the assignments, the in-class activities, the readings, are all designed to accomplish two interrelated tasks. The first is to lower the fear level in the class, and the second is to create a trusting, caring learning community.

Now, as the weeks press on, as they grow more comfortable with me and they grow more comfortable with each other, they come into class one day without any prior warning, and they have to respond in writing to the question, “Who am I?” I take their responses, put them in a folder, and then, three days a week, we draw a response from that folder. That student sits in a very big, comfortable chair in front of the class. It’s called the “council chair”. They read their response to the class, and then for the remainder of the hour, they have their life examined by their classmates through a very disciplined questioning process that has become known as the council.

Now, what separates this from other group processes is precisely that. Only questions are allowed. So when that student is in the chair in front of the class, only questions can be asked. No comments, no judgments, no expressions of agreement or disagreement to anything he says or she says. It’s just questions. But what really makes this a unique experience and, I think, a very powerful experience is the kind of communication that unfolds during the council.

David Bohm, a great American theoretical physicist, spent the last years of his life examining human thought and communication in a remarkable little book called “Bohm Dialogue.” It talks about two types of communication. The first kind, the one we’re most familiar with. All of us here today, is a one-directional type of communication that he calls “to make something common.” It’s what I’m doing here. It’s what most of us have been doing here today. I know something, my class. You don’t know it. I usually tell it to you in a lecture form, and when I’m finished, hopefully, I’ve made it common between us. In most of our educational research suggestions, this is probably not the most effective communication to use in teaching a class.

The second kind of communication, the one that’s fused in the council process and the one that seniors in high school are hungry for, Bohm calls “to make something in common.” Now, here we start with an idea or a topic. We don’t know where we’re going to go with it. We don’t know of the understanding that’s going to emerge. But it’s a dialogical process of give and take, back and forth, questions, answers, thoughts, and in the end, whatever does emerge, whatever understanding does come out, we’ve done it together. We’ve made it in common.

Now, in this council experience, what you get, metaphorically speaking, is the entire class painting together on one canvas. At the end of each hour of each council, the portrait that emerges is a unique understanding that never existed before and the entire class had a hand in creating it. What’s unfolding before my eyes over these 17 years has been one of the most intimate and remarkable journeys for the nearly 4,000 seniors who have taken this class. I want you to picture this for a minute. 4,000 times, semester after semester, year after year, together with.

In my class, we get to explore hopes and fears, failures and successes, families, relationships, love, loss, drugs, alcohol, values, politics, and religious beliefs. You can only imagine the territory seniors want to cover when they get the opportunity to examine each others’ lives, and in searching to understand their own. I can’t take you into a full council in this short time, but I do want you to hear some of the voices that have spoken from that council chair. The clip you’re about to see is sort of a few years back, one of my old classrooms. But it really captures the spirit of this process. It’s the very beginning of the process, anyway, because it’s the kids sitting there reading their “Who am I?” statements to the class.

Who am I

Student 1:

I feel this won’t fulfill the assignment and I worry too much so I’m callus and apathetic.

Student 2:

I am a combination of all the mistakes I’ve ever made, of all the victories I’ve had.

Student 3:

I care about my friends and I sacrifice for them.

Student 4:

Who am I? I am the loud noise in the city, friends to the celebrities, model in perfection, a house divided.

Student 5:

But my feelings change, so I change. Why not? But then why can you ask me who I am? Fuck you.

Student 6:

I have a beautiful family. I care about my family.

Student 7:

I trap myself in my thoughts. I think of my father more than I openly admit.

Student 8:

I live up to a certain set of ideals and try my hardest to be who I love and love who I am. I am a girl, a Caucasian, a student, a 16-year-old, an employee, a Social Security Number, and a birth certificate.

Student 9:

I’m angry. This question is unfair. I cannot pinpoint myself because I am different everyday.

Student 10:

I am a Christian. I am afraid to die.

Student 11:

I love sports, I love people, I love relation, I love life.

Student 12:

I am a child of divorce, the victim of an eating disorder and many doses of criticism.

Student 13:

I’m curious. I will be curious forever.

Student 14:

I am afraid of the future. I am afraid of failing. Luckily, I’m not afraid to try, therefore I move forward.

Student 15:

I am the result of my past, of what I did and what I lived.

Student 16:

I will tell you that the mental illness and drug use of my family causes me nervousness, and I cannot tell you why the thoughts screaming through my brain right now are having so much trouble coming out correctly.


I know who I am, but I lack efficient language to tell you. I’m Tim. No more, no less.


I am Ben, Benjamin Truiny [SP].

Student 17:

Who am I? Just a young woman trying to find her way.

Student 18:

I am a human, living, thinking, breathing, changing, growing, crying, laughing, playing, listening, waking, running, working, being. I am that, I think.

James: It really is a bridge to their council, where, when they write these, I only give them 20 minutes to do it. I mean, “Who am I?” that’s probably one of the most important questions you could ever ask yourself, but I only give them 20 minutes to do it and it leads into the council. So, if you can imagine each of these students having to feel 50 minutes worth of questions from their classmates having everything and anything to do with their life. It’s a remarkable process. I’d like to leave you with three thoughts based on my experience in this class.

The first is embodied in this quote by American educator, John Gardener, “It’s characteristic of youth that what will appear later as accomplishment appears first as longing.” The search for an authentic self is one of the primary tasks of adolescence. It’s especially acute for high school seniors.

By affording these students the opportunity to examine each others’ world view and perspectives, they learn to examine and uncover the foundations of their own. But in learning to really listen to each other, to feel both safe and vulnerable, to sit in that chair and have their life examined, they gain access to this authentic self, even if only for a moment, and the powerfully liberating sense of freedom that comes with that experience. The impact these councils have had on my students’ lives makes it clear there’s both a need and a place for this kind of work in our schools.

The great lie being told in public education, it’s being told as well as believed, is that the skills most needed to successfully transition to becoming an accomplished adult are the same skills being measured on the barrage of standardized tests they’ve had to endure throughout their educational career. The second point has to do with community-building. Along with this search for an authentic self, a real and meaningful sense of belonging is another major yearning of adolescence. Creating a caring and trusting learning community in my classroom not only helps to satisfy that longing but also serves as a model for these students for the much greater task of community-building they’ll be doing outside the classroom as adults.

Learning to understand and embrace multiple perspectives, becoming comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty, and not knowing, and experiencing that our differences are just as important and necessary as our similarities in any healthy and vibrant community. These are all important skills that need to be developed and also find a more permanent home in our schools. My last point brings us full circle to Socrates. “The unexamined life is not worth living” is a radical calling for greater self-awareness.

In my classroom, it is an inward turning of their attention based on the recognition we can never hope to understand ourselves or actualize our full potential as human beings if we don’t carve out the time to do this kind of self-examination and reflection. In an education system devoted more and more to turning our students’ attention outward on the instrumental rewards of knowledge – such as social status and wealth and material things – Socrates’ quote is a much-needed reminder that the end of education is not facts or grades or test scores, what college you go to, or even what job or title you hold in life. But rather, the words of the great Indian saint, the end of education is character.

Thank you very much.

What were your impressions of Jim’s talk? What was the best class you took in high school?

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