Briana Toole is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Claremont McKenna College, and the founder of the philosophy outreach programme Corrupt the Youth.
I spoke to Briana to learn about what led her to create the programme and what her experience has been running it.
Briana Toole. Image by Briana Toole.
Ciaran: Hi Briana, so could you start by talking a bit about your philosophy background?
Briana: So it's sort of a convoluted story. I came into philosophy through what feels like the long route. I went to what was not quite a Title One school but I grew up in this town of 1,800 people, and I graduated with 53 other students, so it was very small. So, obviously no philosophy classes at that kind of place. I wanted to be a lawyer and when I went off to college I did this honours colloquium, and they brought in a law professor who said if you want to go to law school, you should consider majoring in English, history or philosophy because those are the majors that have the best scores on the LSAT, which is the admissions test for law school. I had this friend that I argue with all the time and he was always saying “Plato said this”, and I'm like, I don't know who the hell Plato is. So I'll take philosophy and I'll do well on the LSAT, go to law school and then maybe finally beat my friends in arguments!
I took a couple of classes and actually really, really enjoyed philosophy. I had ethics and philosophy of religion with David McNaughton, who's recently retired and moved back to England. It occurred to me that philosophy was asking the questions that lawyers should ask but can't. So, not just did this person break the law but is the law just to begin with? And are we obligated to follow an unjust law? Those are the sorts of questions philosophers concern themselves with but lawyers not so much, and those are the sort of questions that I wanted to ask especially as a woman and a woman of color. So for me, philosophy was a chance to think deeply about the structure of society and why we observe some of the injustices that we do. And being able to ask and pursue answers to those questions really drew me into the field.
Ciaran: How did your public philosophy work come about?
Briana: There's this big conversation in philosophy about the pipeline problem: we're losing women and people of color. Many people have diagnosed the problem as occurring between the undergraduate and the graduate stage. They say, “Well these kids come in, they like the classes, but they're not getting into grad school. And if they get into grad school, they're not getting into tenure track jobs”. And I think that's part of the problem. But a bigger issue to me is that so many kids of color don't even know that philosophy is this subject that they can study in college. I didn't know that and it took me getting to college to realise I could and it was only because I wanted to go to law school that I considered philosophy as an option to begin with.
So my thought was if we want to see more kids of color in philosophy majors, what we need to do is to make them more aware of the fact that philosophy is something that they can major in, that it is a career that they can pursue. And the best way to do that is to expose them to philosophy in high school. So that's sort of how Corrupt the Youth came about. The idea that if we want to address the pipeline problem, the first thing to do is just to get more people of color in the philosophy major to begin with.
Ciaran: So when you started Corrupt the Youth, was it just yourself or did you get a group together?
Briana: So, when I was at the University of Texas we brought Minorities and Philosophy to our campus in the fall of 2015. We were looking for projects and I said, "Hey, you know, something I'm really interested in doing is a programme where we bring philosophy to high school students, and professors and graduate students can teach it". It would be a win-win: the kids get exposed to philosophy and our graduate students will get some practice teaching outside of a traditional college setting. So we started this project. My husband is a high school teacher, he worked at a school in Austin [,Texas], so we already had that connection. So I went to the school, I met with a teacher who was interested in working with the programme. And I said, “Here's what we’d like to do: We want to come in twice a week, two or three facilitators will teach a class and you won't have to do anything. You know, you'll just sit there and learn with the kids”. And that was obviously really appealing to them!
At first it was just me who ran the programme as the director. I signed people up, trained them, set the schedule, set up the curriculum. And then the next year, I took on board a co-director, Amelia Khan, and the idea there was that she would serve as the director in the next year. And honestly, I did not have plans for expansion. It never occurred to me to think about it as a broader project. But then Rima Basu, who is now my colleague at Claremont McKenna, emailed to say that she was interested in starting a chapter in LA. So we met and we got that started. And then I ended up in Boston on a pre-doc at MIT and a school found out about the programme and asked if we'd bring it there. So it just sort of expanded without a lot of conscious thought or planning.
Ciaran: That's a great sign, that there was all that outside interest.
Briana: Well, I talked a lot about it on Facebook, you know, I'd post a picture mentioning what we were doing and when things went well and what we were learning and I think that sort of exposure got people thinking like, "Oh, yeah, this could be fun. You know, why not? Why not do philosophy in this sort of way?" Social media, what would we do without it!
Ciaran: So to bring things up to date a bit, you now run a summer programme as well, right?
Briana: Yes. So this summer we actually just launched our, hopefully inaugural, summer programme. I don't know if you're familiar with the programme Duke TIP? It stands for the 'Duke Talent Identification Program'. It proclaims to be a summer programme for gifted students and they identify these students based on how they do on the state standardised test in the US. I taught there in the summer of 2015 and it's a great programme, but it's prohibitively expensive. So the kids come and live on Duke's campus for three weeks. You know, they eat meals in the cafeteria, they take a six-hour class every day. They do residential events in the evenings. It's really wonderful. But it's like $3,000. So I'm sure you can sort of guess what the demographics end up looking like: it's mostly wealthy kids, largely white. I saw a sprinkling of black kids when I was there; I'm pretty positive I could have counted them on my hands.
It just struck me as fundamentally unjust. Summer camps are wonderful opportunities for kids to sort of get outside their comfort zone, to meet people from different areas, and to get a sense of what college life will be like. But the kids who need it most are poor black and brown kids yet they are the least likely to have access to it. So I thought, here's what would be really fun. Kids are clearly interested in philosophy. Wouldn't it be nice if we could do a programme that was like Duke TIP but for philosophy, and that was completely free for the participants. That way we could let poor kids come and they wouldn't have to worry about the $3,000 price tag. So I applied for an APA grant. I think I applied the first time in 2016. We didn't get it. Applied again in 2017. We didn't get it. Tried one more time in 2018 and this time we were successful. We won the APA grant for $20,000. That ended up representing about 66% of the funds that we needed to run the camp. The remaining cost was provided by PLATO, which is a nonprofit that tries to get funding for philosophy pre-college programmes. And then we had individual contributions and the University of Texas made some donations as well.
All told, it took about $28,000 to run a two week, summer residential camp. We probably could have done with a bit more, but you know, that was that. So we're out of money now. We would like to do the programme again but that depends on us being able to raise the funds that we need. We hired two instructors and each taught two classes. We offered critical reasoning, political philosophy, race and gender, and ethics. Each student enrolled in two classes and then we offered a writing workshop for one hour every evening because we wanted to help students build a personal portfolio of work for when they apply to college. And I'll be honest, it was really, really, unbelievably, painfully stressful for the first three days! I did not sleep. I don't know that any of our staff did. But once the ball got rolling and things sort of hit their natural groove it was really amazing. I'm gonna cry talking about it because it's still just very fresh - we were really lucky to have nineteen absolutely incredible students. Three came from our New York chapter, four drove from Brownsville, Texas - which is a six hour drive - one came from Houston, and the remaining students came from Austin. And they were just wonderful.
They enjoyed the classes so much, our instructors were fantastic. They really did a great job of responding to the students needs and picking up on when the students weren't interested in a topic and so shifting to something that the kids were actually interested in instead, which is what we want to provide. School can be really restrictive. And a lot of our students mentioned this. There's a curriculum that has to be taught, and you have to get through it as a teacher, whether you and the kids are interested or not. But at Corrupt the Youth, because we have the flexibility to do so, it was just like, “Oh, you don't want to talk about this. You want to talk about consent? You want to talk about transgender issues? Alright, we are going to just radically change our lesson plans for the remainder of the week, and we're going to talk about the stuff that you actually care about”. And for our students that was really freeing because it gave them the opportunity to drive the course, which is not something that they get to do in a traditional school environment.
Another thing they really enjoyed is that, so many of our students mentioned that in a traditional classroom, you might want to raise tangential questions but their teachers will say, "Well, look, that's outside what we're doing. We can't talk about that. That's beyond the scope of class." Whereas in philosophy classes, the tangential questions are the ones that we’re interested in. So when the students raised questions, we said, "Okay, tell me why that question came to mind? How am I answering that question? Help us better understand the thing that we started out with". So the kids had much more freedom to be creative thinkers, and to not be boxed in and to design and drive the discussion. If you think about the way these new fancy cars work, you know, if you slightly move out of the lane, the system automatically routes you back in. For kids, school can be kind of like that; go outside the lane a little and it pushes you back in line. In philosophy, you think “no, let's go outside of the lane a little, let's see if that's going to teach us something. Let's figure out why that question is important”. And I think it was validating for our kids to hear their questions being taken seriously and treated with respect. And I think that's why philosophy can be so empowering, especially for people who are marginalised and disenfranchised, because it gives them a chance to let their questions and concerns be taken seriously, when in most contexts, they are not.
Ciaran: I'm always interested to hear when people have started these projects and been involved with them for a while, how - whether it has at all, of course - changed the way they think about what it means to be doing philosophy. Have there been any changes for you through doing Corrupt the Youth?
Briana: I think my research and the work that I do with Corrupt the Youth ends up being quite complimentary. One of the things we mention on our website and that we're trying to be better at communicating to the public is that, part of why I wanted to do Corrupt the Youth is that I think philosophy can really be a very powerful tool to analyse and address the issues that students of color see in their communities and in their schools and in their personal lives. That is sort of how philosophy originated for me. It's not what I started researching, but it is what I ultimately wrote my dissertation on and what I research now. I'm an epistemologist, and I look at how race and gender and sexuality and so on, affect what we know about the world, and the sort of habits and predispositions that we form and how this affects our ability to communicate with each other. And that is what I want to bring to our students too.
One of the lessons that I really like that we do is to use the Ring of Gyges thought experiment to unpack the motivations behind using body cameras on police officers. The idea in the Ring of Gyges is that, if people only act morally because they're afraid of the negative consequences of acting immorally or unjustly, then it seems like a truism that people may need to be watched, especially people who have a lot of power. And if that's the case, does this mean Plato basically provides us with an argument for why cops ought to wear body cameras? And could that address police brutality? So the idea is to use philosophy as a springboard from which to address some of the contemporary social issues that we face. I think that is what philosophy is supposed to do, so when I pitch this to kids and administrators what I say is philosophy is about how to live a good life, that that was its origin. And I'm obviously flattening this a bit. But yeah, we do philosophy because we want to know what it takes to live a good life and how to live a good life and what a good life consists in. But if it's fundamentally more difficult for a person of color, for someone in poverty, for young women and girls, to live good lives, then we need to figure out why that is. We need to figure out what social forces make that the case. And that's where public philosophy really becomes salient. These are the sorts of questions that if people had the luxury of time, might ask more often and might take more seriously. And I think our job as philosophers, especially for those of us who are passionate about public philosophy, is to help make that connection between life and philosophy more clear.
Corrupt the Youth Summer School 2019. Image by Briana Toole.
Ciaran: Your website mentions how the kids involved can gain skills that they can take back and use to think about issues in their communities. I thought that was really interesting, this kind of community element to it because I've spoken to people who do Philosophy for Children and pre-college philosophy, and I've spoken to people who do philosophy more directly in communities.
What I really find interesting about Corrupt the Youth is that it sounds like it’s trying to bridge these two things, and it's not treating the school environment where someone could encounter philosophy as something that is separate from community life. I saw that one of your chapters is run out of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, so do the discussions there take into account issues facing young LGBT people in the area for example?
Briana: Yes, absolutely. It's the whole point of the chapter system and the reason that we don't have anything like a national curriculum. We want the students in our programme to be able to think about issues that they're experiencing. And so yeah, our chapter in LA absolutely looks at LGBT issues. They think about what is love and what is the nature of love, and are there restrictions on who can love who? A lot of the students they work with are homeless, so they look at issues of homelessness as well. Our students in Austin are primarily Latinx, and so they look at issues related to immigration, citizenship, borders. Guns are a big issue in Texas, so we’ve done lots of lessons about gun rights, which is always really fun. Our students in New York are more concerned about issues related to stop and frisk, because that was a thing that defined New York for the last two decades. So every chapter is sort of shaped by the issues present in that community.
Now, I do think this is why some people are opposed to public philosophy and why they're opposed to programmes like Corrupt the Youth. I came across this old Brian Leiter post that talked about - I'd never heard this term, I think it's hilarious - 'Me-search'. So instead of research, it's me-search and it's not "real" philosophy because what people doing this are studying is their own oppression. But I have not heard a single persuasive argument as to why studying one's own oppression isn't a viable research area. Part of me can't help but think the reason someone might think it's not a viable research area is, one, because they’re the oppressor, two, because they can't study it given that they’re not the oppressed, and three, because it doesn't make them look good. But that doesn't mean it's not worth studying. So to get back to the thrust of your question, yes, we want the kids to be a driving force behind what we do and what we study, and so each chapter is very uniquely tailored to the interests of the students involved.
Ciaran: When you were setting things up, was there a model, or an existing programme which inspired you or was it just organic?
Briana: There was no model. There are a handful of similar programmes but Corrupt the Youth is unique in that we're the only one, to my knowledge, that partners with schools and so basically becomes a part of the school curriculum for a semester, so we're not an after-school programme. I don't do that. I like to meet with students regularly, I think it's good for them and for our volunteers to establish relationships with each other. And so there really wasn't a model that I could rely on for how to implement this. We told the students this too: “you're sort of guinea pigs, you know!” I think they actually like being spoken to frankly about this. I'm just like, "Look, this might go really badly and if that happens, you just need to tell us what doesn't work. We'll try and fix it". And they like that we're responsive to their needs, we have the flexibility to actually meet them.
The first year that we ran we partnered with this programme called AVID that works in schools. We met twice a week for ninety minutes and we had three volunteers go into each class. After that semester, I took a poll, got feedback from our students, feedback from the volunteers, and it was abundantly clear that three people were just too many cooks in the kitchen. However, one person would have been too few because everyone feels a little more confident co-teaching. So we modified it and now we do two teachers per lesson and we try to have one person overlap from lesson-to-lesson so that someone's in the room who knows what happened the previous time. We're not always successful with that as people's schedules change. We also realise that the lecture model just really doesn't work for high school students. They're too energetic, they want to talk. And so we try to use the discussion model instead. So there have been lots of changes over the last few years in response to what volunteers say and what students say. We're still really bad at not incorporating enough multimedia, for instance, though a part of that has to do with schools not having the resources.
I think what causes the death of a lot of organisations is that they're not malleable. They write their pitch, they don't really think very much about the population they're working with, and they want that thing to just be permanent. Whereas, Corrupt the Youth is like a living, thriving, organism. We're changing all the time. I think this programme will look very different in five years, because the kids we work with will be very different in five years. And so yeah, we didn't have a model. I guess we still don't have a model. We're, you know, we're in our infancy still. We're learning as we go.
Ciaran: I'm always interested to hear about whether and how people have broader motivations for setting up public philosophy projects, connected to social issues for example. You’ve mentioned this somewhat already as a key factor for you, would that be right?
Briana: So there's something I tell my college students, and I really believe it: working backwards, what kind of people do we want to produce? And my answer to that question is we want to produce good citizens. So what does it take to make a good citizen? Well actually, I think philosophy has a lot of the skills needed to help people become good citizens. Even though we're not great at it, we do preach charitability. That seems like a thing that's really missing right now; really working very hard to understand what someone's saying, and what other beliefs they must take for granted in order to make certain assertions, trying to interpret what they're saying in a reasonable and kind spirit. I think that also makes the person more empathetic. It makes them attend to others’ wants and needs and concerns more. And I think that could translate into better politics. So part of the thought was, if philosophy does its job well, it's supposed to make people more critical. It’s supposed to make them think a little more deeply. It's supposed to make them question the motivations behind something or whose interest a policy serves.
So my thought was, if we teach kids how to think that way, then yeah, maybe they won't agree with my politics, but that's fine, because at the very least, they'll be asking, "Okay, when we propose a policy like in Alabama, restricting abortion access, what are they trying to achieve with this? Whose interest does this serve? Who has a right to speak on abortion? Is it men? Is it women? Is it both? Why might a woman consider having an abortion at all? What does it mean for a fetus to be a person? What does it mean generally to be a person?" I'll hear so many people argue about these questions. And they'll say, "Well, I think abortion is wrong. And that's what I've always thought, that's what I'm always going to believe". And then you push them and ask questions. And it turns out, they have no idea why they believe these things. And I want philosophy to be a tool students can use to be more critical of others, yes, but also to reflect more on why they believe what they believe, and how those beliefs fit into a broader context.
So I think if we want to make better citizens, we need to make people who can ask those sorts of hard questions, who can realise that these things that we treat as black and white are actually a lot more nuanced than we would like to acknowledge. And that sometimes you can't just say, "Here's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it". You have to say, you know, maybe I was wrong, or maybe I wasn't asking the right questions, or maybe I don't know about this topic as deeply as I thought that I did. And I think teaching philosophy can help our charitability and critical reasoning, but also our humility; that's a value that I'd like to impart to our participants. And my hope is that that will make us better communicators, better interlocutors, better citizens. But Corrupt the Youth is a small programme occupying a very teeny part of the world. And I'm not sure that other people buy into my vision of philosophy. You know, philosophers, they nitpick everything to death, so even everything I just said, a philosopher will want to write a twenty-page paper about it!
Ciaran: A lot of the stuff that we’ve talked about so far is kind of premised on you going into this and being there as the person, you know, with the philosophy background and who works as a professional philosopher and so on. I'm interested to know though, not as a philosopher, has running Corrupt the Youth changed you at all?
Briana: I definitely think it has with respect to one big thing. It's made me much, much, much better at taking criticism. I mean, I don't know if that's Corrupt the Youth or if it's aging. When I was in my early twenties I taught high school, and I did not like criticism, would not seek it out; I was very combative and defensive. And now I very much want to be criticised, I want to get better. I think people don't like criticism because they take it as an indictment of themselves. Whereas working with Corrupt the Youth has made me think "No, this work is for other people. It's not about me, it's not about my ego". And so if I'm going to be better at serving others, then I need to be aware of what they need and what I'm doing wrong and what I'm doing well that I should keep doing. And so I've gotten much better at soliciting criticism and responding to that criticism and I really try to reflect on what things I need to change or improve on, which has actually made a huge impact on my philosophical research because now when I get criticism, I'm like, “Yep, this person's right, definitely should have done this differently”. And so I think my writing has also improved because I've gotten better at taking criticism, which is a skill that I've developed working through Corrupt the Youth.
The second big change, though I'm still not great at this, and I don't think I'll ever be great at it, is communicating. I think I've gotten a little better at communicating with other people. I found this through managing people. I think it's just very hard to manage people. It was a struggle to tell you the truth at the summer camp when I was supervising people, and one of my staff said, "Yeah, I was telling someone about my boss" and she meant me. I thought, "Wait a second. I'm the boss!?" That felt so weird and wrong, but it was good to make explicit because it helps you improve. My co-director had to call me out on this actually in the summer. She was like, “You want people to teach the way you teach. But that's never going to happen. People are only going to do the best that they can do”. She was right, of course. I need to manage people from that perspective and not from the perspective of “you need to do what I'm doing”. So learning to develop people professionally is a thing that I think I'm improving at. I'm not great, I will never be great at that, I acknowledge that.
Corrupt the Youth has given me a chance to have to work with a lot of people; the kids, instructors, teachers, and administrators. When I was in New York, I met with the superintendent of the school we were working with. There are a lot of stakeholders. I had to talk with parents this summer. It's given me the opportunity to learn how to balance a lot of competing needs. And also to think way more broadly than when I taught in high school. I taught high school for two years through Teach for America. There I just thought from one perspective: how much work I had to do, and then what the students needed. And I got frustrated when my principal didn't understand why I was doing something. And I got frustrated when parents complained about their kids’ grades. But since I've been doing Corrupt the Youth, I’ve just realised there's just so many more working parts than I could have ever imagined. So even though I might not like a policy, I now understand that there are motivations that I'm not fully aware of.
I think that's made me a better communicator. One of the lessons I did with students in New York this semester, precisely because I had this realisation, was the Allegory of The Cave. I did a lesson where the students broke into five groups and they represented different stakeholders. So one group was teachers, one was students, one was superintendents, one was the school board, and one was the principal. They all had to solve the same issue, attendance, and they all had a different set of constraints. When then they pitched their ideas, they had all come up with these radically different solutions that completely conflicted and they had a huge argument. So I said, “Okay, let's take a breath and why don't we listen to each group and let them share what their constraints were?” Once I did that, the students were like, “Oh, so that's why the students said this or that, or wanted this”. It was this big lightbulb moment where I thought, “Yeah, you know, there's so much happening that we don't understand”. And how frustrating is it that you don’t know those motivations and how much does it help to know them now? I think it made the kids better, for instance, at realising that sometimes rather than judging a policy, we should ask what's motivating this person's decision.
It was also good for me, because sometimes I don't consider the motivations enough. I think we can all have this real failure to be transparent. It’s present in academic departments for sure, and across universities and schools. If I ever went into administration, one of the things I'd want to be good at is being really transparent about the decisions that I'm making. I'm not a great leader by any means, I think I'm very much a work-in-progress, but carrying that lesson with me makes me confident that I can get better in this role, that I can be a better leader, and a better administrator for this programme precisely because I've had these realisations and that's a virtue of working with these kids.
Ciaran: That's fantastic and thank you for your time Briana, it’s been great to chat. Is there anything you’d like to touch on that we haven’t addressed, or expand on?
Briana: Yeah. Well, I guess we're desperate for money. So you know, if any rich people read or listen to this… If Mark Cuban is out there and wants to make a sizable donation that would be great! I think the message I'd want people to know is there is value in public philosophy. What strikes me, especially in reading the responses to Thi [Nguyen's] piece on Daily Nous, is that philosophy sort of has a branding problem. I think for so long we restricted ourselves to the ivory tower, and we were sitting away at our tables and our armchairs pondering these questions and assuming that other people didn’t ask them as well. And that's just not true. We were all normal people before we were philosophers! And something about it attracted us. And I think it's an incredible mark of hubris to think that other people, even if they aren't philosophers, even if they don't have a degree, that other people aren’t asking the same questions that we find ourselves gripped by.
Corrupt the Youth serves many aims, I want more people of color in the academy, I want kids to feel empowered to have conversations and address issues in their lives. But I also want to see philosophy make a comeback, and I think that it can but we just cannot do it without communicating to the broader public what the appeal is. And there's no reason to think that philosophy in the academy and philosophy with the public are incompatible or that philosophy with the public is somehow a dumbing down of what we do in the academy. It's just not. And the longer we hold on to that belief, the more and more we're gonna see philosophy disappear. Which sucks because I'd really like to get paid to do this!
Ciaran: If people want to support Corrupt the Youth and find out more, is the website the best place to look?
Briana: Yes, corrupttheyouth.org. If they want to make donations, there is a link to a PayPal account where they can do that. They are welcome to reach out to me if they have questions: Briana@corruptheyouth.org. We love inquiries. We love talking to people. So I'd be happy to field questions that anyone has.
Ciaran: Great stuff. Thanks again Briana!