Bethpage High School, whose students have repeatedly won philosophy contests and accolades in recent years, has added another achievement to that growing list: It is home to this year's "Most Philosophical Student in America."
Harshil Garg, a Bethpage senior and the school's class of 2015 valedictorian, took the top award among 4,000-plus students nationwide. The "most philosophical" designation came in the 15th annual National Kids Philosophy Slam, a program designed to make philosophy fun and accessible to kids.
In the competition, students were asked to respond to the question, "Violence or compassion: Which has a greater impact on society?"
Garg chose to write about compassion in his 500-word essay, and included examples and quotes from historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I wrote about how violence is only a temporary solution to a problem, while compassion has more long-lasting effects," said Garg, 16. "Violence has a winning and losing side. Compassion has mutual benefits."
Garg, who placed fourth for the designation in 2013, said he entered the contest as part of a class assignment from his philosophy teacher, Wendy Way. He also won the slam's James W. Buchan Award for Writing Excellence and a $250 prize.
"Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi both led revolutions, stirring extensive political and social movements all while maintaining peace in the face of adversity," Garg wrote in his winning essay. "Even though violence may appear more powerful, and present a temporary solution, compassion will ultimately triumph. If a war is ended on hostile terms, even if a victor is crowned, underlying hatred will galvanize groups to continue fighting. But if compassion forms the basis, the peace will be long-lasting and prosperous."
Submissions were evaluated by a panel of philosophy teachers and professors, with Garg's essay standing out "for a number of reasons," said John Davis, the slam's executive director.
"The judges were absolutely impressed with the poetic nature and fluidity of his writing, as well as the strength and clarity of his argument," Davis said.
Garg's achievement is just one of many philosophy feats for the high school since it added the subject as an elective more than a decade ago.
Bethpage High has been named "Most Philosophical School in America" in six out of the slam's 15 years -- 2004, 2006 and each year from 2009 through 2012 -- and also claimed the slam's "Most Philosophical Student" in 2009, when Bert Geng won the title.
The school's other philosophy honors include having two students selected to represent the United States in the International Philosophy Olympiad in 2013 and 2014, as well as having a five-student team take first place this spring in the 2015 Long Island High School Ethics Bowl.
Bethpage's philosophy elective has grown to four classes, totaling 90 students. The school also has a Philosophy Club, in which teens engage in roundtable discussions in a "cafe-type atmosphere," principal Michael Spence said.
"We want students to think deeply about the world around them," Spence said. "One of the primary goals of high school is to cultivate critical thinking."
For Garg, who said he always considered himself "a math and science guy," it's those unique critical thinking skills that he most enjoys about philosophy.
"Philosophy comes with practice," he said. "I now realize that sometimes it's better to ask a meaningful question than it is to have a definite answer."
Garg plans to study computer science this fall at Duke University.
Link to Garg's essay: http://philosophyslam.org/2015MostPhilosophicalStudentinAmerica.html