Speaker asks students to consider philosophy

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 15, 2002

People told John Davis it couldn’t be done.

They said it when he bought a run-down farmhouse near New York Mills, Minn., for $10,000, hoping to restore it and use it for artists’ residencies. But he did it.

They said it when he wanted to create a cultural center in the city to get the commuity involved in art. But he did it.

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They said it when he started a common-person’s philosophy contest, hoping to bring people from across the country to debate life’s big questions in front of an audience. But he did it.

Davis, the founder of the Great-American Think-Off philosophy contest, spoke to Albert Lea students Monday, and his message was that having goals and crafting a life philosophy of your own is more important than academic discussions with little relevance to real life.

Using his own story as an example of sticking to your philosophy, he encouraged students to think about and discuss the meaning of their lives.

&uot;To me philosophy is about how you live your life,&uot; Davis told a group of about 100 high-school English and social-studies students. &uot;To me, that’s a real personal interpretation.&uot;

Philosophy, he said, has its roots in ancient Greece, where thinkers like Socrates and Plato focused on asking questions and having discussions. But someone who takes a college philosophy class these days will probably spend more time memorizing the names and theories of past philosophers than discussing important questions themselves.

&uot;I think philosophy is so far removed from what it’s supposed to be,&uot; he said. &uot;It is not about asking questions or talking.&uot;

Trying to change that, Davis started the Think-Off, where nationwide contestants draw on personal experience to write an essay on a question like &uot;Is the nature of humankind good or evil?&uot; or &uot;What is mightier: the pen or the sword?&uot; Four finalists travel to New York Mills, population 900, to debate the question and win the title of world’s greatest thinker. The contest has drawn national media attention and was even broadcast live on C-SPAN.

When he decided students needed a way to get involved, he started Kids’ Philosophy Slam, similar to the Think-Off, where students submit essays or art work in response to a question. This year’s question: What is the meaning of life?

Davis has traveled around the country and spoken to schools about the Philosophy Slam, and said even though he knows he won’t reach all students, he can hope to make a difference for a few.

&uot;My hope is that of 100 students here, maybe four or five will say, ‘What is my personal philosophy?’&uot;

Often, the younger children are easiest to reach.

&uot;I had a great discussion about the meaning of life with some first- and second-graders,&uot; he said.