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Bridging the gap

Sometimes in life, the best teachers among us are the students

By WITW Staff on March 24, 2017

When Clarinda Blais, a Boston University philosophy student, first approached the St. Francis House in Boston with an idea for a program to teach philosophy to homeless women, few expected much to come of it.

“I said to her, ‘I don’t think this will work,’” recalled Rachel Klein, the coordinator of the women’s shelter within St. Francis. “I was totally wrong.”

Blais has been leading weekly philosophy classes at St. Francis and other shelters as part of the Free Philosophy Project she founded more than a year and a half ago as a means of bridging “what sometimes seems like an insurmountable distance” between those who had experienced homelessness and those who had not. The Washington Post profiled her work in a story and video posted on its website.

In 2015, Blais began the project with lessons on Plato and Aristotle’s theories of free will and moral responsibility. The women’s conclusions on the topic, she said, were often vastly different from those of the old masters. Fortunately, the purpose of the class wasn’t to teach the women to regurgitate old ideas, but, rather, to encourage discussion on life questions that Blais says are relevant to everyone. This summer, Blais added, she hopes to work on a national expansion of the program.

“[Philosophy is] actually the most accessible of all academic fields,” Blais told The Washington Post. “It just requires you to reflect on your experience, and everyone has their own experience.”

The resulting discussions, Klein said, have forced her to question many of her own preconceived notions. Despite facing practical problems such as the daily acquisition of food and shelter, she said, the women often posed philosophical questions to which she had no answer.

“If someone is using [drugs] and they think they’re happy, are we to say that they’re not happy if they think they are?” Klein said, recalling a recent question asked by a woman during discussion. “It was such an interesting conversation.”

Hope Daniels, a 50-year-old, who among other issues, has battled a crack addiction and a brain tumor, said that she appreciated the classes because it allowed her to finally be heard.

“I get to tell my story. I get to tell my feelings,” said Daniels. “[Blais] doesn’t look at me funny when I say whatever comes out of my mouth. I just let it go.”

Allen Speight, the philosophy department chair at Boston University who also serves as Blais’ advisor, says that philosophy students could stand to learn from the homeless as well.

“People who live by their wits and whose lives have had a more difficult passage are people who have a lot of philosophical questions that might be sharper in some ways, much rawer than people who have had a more privileged existence,” said Speight.

Watch video of Blais and her students below.

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Read the full story at The Washington Post.


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