Long Island middle and high schools seem to avoid the profound questions in life. Sure, kids may muse about the meaning of life or the existence of heaven, but rarely are those discussions the main point of a structured class.
The hierarchy of most public schools' educational goals are consistently revealed in workloads heavy with math and science.. Combining that with the islandwide priority on STEM education, many students have been deprived of important critical thinking and analytical skills.
That is different for Bethpage High School, whose cultivation of classroom philosophical dialogue has produced national recognition in recent years, and whose system should not only be praised, but followed.
Harshil Garg, valedictorian of Bethpage High's Class of 2015, was named this year's Most Philosophical Student in America in the National Kids Philosophy Slam, an annual K-12 program with a goal to bring more philosophy to public schools nationwide.
Garg submitted an intricate response to a question about whether violence or compassion has the greater impact on society. Deciding that ultimately compassion reigns in the long arc of strife, he proved that high schoolers can tackle the lofty inquiries of existence.
But this wasn't a case of one brilliant brain in the crowd. Bethpage High has also been cited as Most Philosophical School in America six times in the slam's 15-year history. It is the only school in New York State to receive this award. Bethpage's four philosophy classes have about 90 students, and the school even has a philosophy club. Bethpage also placed first out of 24 teams in this year's Long Island High School Ethics Bowl, beating out Collegiate School from Manhattan.
Principal Michael Spence said that critical thinking is "one of the primary goals of high school." Notice that this is not only Spence patting his school on the back, but him reminding us of a reality that many schools seem to have forgotten -- school is not just about the "what," and it's not about funneling malleable minds into STEM occupations so they can make more money.
Even though I attended a private Catholic high school, I felt I missed out on a lot of self-reflection. The most non-religious philosophical dialogue I ever engaged in before college was during a couple of weeks of a senior-year theology class. As a college philosophy major, I am now connecting to the ancient Greek world, the crucible of modern knowledge in which many of life's big questions were debated. I hope all public schools can look to Bethpage and give future students the opportunities of analytical thinking that philosophy can provide.
Every school and every education should be centered around the "how," the "why" and the pursuit of inquiry. Asking questions is always more important than being given answers.
Christopher Leelum, a student at Stony Brook University, is an intern with Newsday Opinion.