Explaining existentialism

Professor Wartenberg is renowned for his work explaining philosophy to younger students.

By Keely Savoie

Existentialism may hold that life has no inherent meaning, but that doesn’t stop Professor of Philosophy Thomas Wartenberg from inspiring his teacher-students to quest for it.

For the third time, Wartenberg, whose work teaching philosophy to young kids is widely acclaimed, has been awarded a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities grant to continue his summer seminar on existentialism for high school teachers.  

The seminar affords the teachers the extraordinary opportunity to dive deeply into philosophy. Rather than teaching them how to teach, Wartenberg models methods that engage students in fruitful conversation and critical thinking. At the same time, the summer scholars create their own intellectually vital community that hones their knowledge and sharpens their teaching skills.

From the first day they arrive, Wartenberg seeks to get attendees thinking deeply and critically about the philosophical questions. The class examines themes explored by existential philosophers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and as they arise in films and in music.

Wartenberg, who is the subject of a documentary shown on WGBY public television and distributed nationally, developed the idea of reaching high school students with philosophical ideas because of his experiences teaching at the college level.

“I noticed that while many of my new students had read some of the central texts of existentialism, they didn’t have a grasp of the philosophical theories contained within them,” he said.

The quintessential existentialist novel The Stranger by Camus, for example, is ubiquitously read by high school students, but the philosophical themes within it are much less often covered in class, said Wartenberg.

In The Stranger, “Albert Camus explores this tension with our desire for the world to make sense and the fact that the world never makes sense,” Wartenberg said.

To explore that concept, Wartenberg has his summer scholars delve into Camus’s short but powerful essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The essay is about the man who was condemned by the Greek gods for eternity to roll a boulder to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back down the bottom. The essay imagines the mind of Sisyphus, and concludes that to make sense of such a world, where we are all Sisyphean laborers of a kind, “One must imagine Sisyphus is happy.”

By grappling with fundamental philosophical questions such as “How do we find meaning in life?” and “What is free will?” the teachers learn to tackle complex issues so that they, in turn, may teach their students to do the same.

“I am giving people the background to understand existentialism themselves and the tools to bring it back into the classroom,” Wartenberg said.

Another key aspect of the class: providing teachers with a lifelong learning community of colleagues.

“Every session, we start with a party so that everyone can get to know one another,” said Wartenberg. Weekend trips to existential plays and movies follow, along with class projects that require close collaboration. The teachers swiftly form bonds during the five-week class and continue to communicate after the class as colleagues.

“I’ve made lifetime connections,” said Marina Vladova, who teaches at Andrews Osborne Academy, a high school near in Cleveland, Ohio, and is chair of her school’s English department. She initially was interested in the class because she thought it would help her teach rhetoric. She didn’t expect to redesign her entire curriculum around the concepts she learned.

“I use it in one hundred percent of my classes,” she said, adding that Wartenberg’s class enabled her to incorporate philosophical ideas into all her classes and even inspired her to develop an entirely new course on philosophy and film.

“I came to the seminar hungry for rigor and creative discussion and looking for ways to bring that kind of thinking back into my classroom,” Vladova said. “Tom modeled ways that we high school teachers could bring those big philosophical questions into our classes and facilitate discussions at a much higher level.”

Wartenberg, an emeritus professor who retired in spring 2016, intends to continue teaching the NEH summer seminars at Mount Holyoke.

Think deeper. Come see what awaits.