AP Lang classes welcome Stanford philosopher John Perry

March 11, 2017 — by Derek Chen
Photo by Derek Chen

Stanford professor emeritus John Perry answers questions from students in the AP Lang classes on March 9.

“What’s the most practical course you’re going to take?” asked John Perry, a professor of Philosophy Emeritus from Stanford, to the room full of AP Language students. “The one you just took — the philosophy course.”

On March 9, Perry came to the school for the first time to talk to seniors enrolled in AP Language about their experience in the course and the practicality of philosophy. The dialogues in his 1978 book “A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality,” which are philosophical conversations regarding God and personal identity, are a key part of the AP English Language and Composition course.

The seminar was organized by Truman Chen, a Class of 2013 alum and former student of AP Language teacher Jason Friend. As a history major at Stanford, Chen now works as a researcher for Philosophy Talk, a radio show hosted by Perry and his colleague Ken Taylor.

Chen recalls being at a pitch dinner for Philosophy Talk, which is when the researchers propose the shows they have been considering for Perry and Taylor to review. He decided to ask Perry if he would be interested in visiting Saratoga High, and Perry was open to the idea.

“I thought of it just because I remember how influential AP Lang was, and how much my class enjoyed the readings,” Chen said. “But at the same time, we as a class didn't have much real connection to these people that we were reading. Since I already knew one of the major authors of the course pretty well, I thought it'd be really fun for students to see one of the faces behind the philosophy they had been reading.”

Perry was also intrigued by the idea of philosophy being taught at a high school.

In his talk, Perry encouraged the seniors to pursue their true passions, saying students could major in whatever interested them while taking a few strategic classes that would make them employable.

“It’s true of American universities that you have this flexibility, and it’s important to use it,” he said. “You’ve got enough units to accomplish a great deal; learn about art history, learn how to program a computer and so on.”

Perry noted that philosophy is perhaps the most useful field of study, asserting that it allows students of it to think through things more logically, yielding disproportionately higher scores in subjects such as medical science and law.

A question and answer session followed and seniors asked questions such as: What makes life worth living? What if we could upload our consciousness to a computer? Can artificial intelligence feel the way we do? What happens after death?

Friend especially enjoyed this part of the talk, saying it was a “unique opportunity at SHS, and one that certainly doesn’t happen at most high schools.”

Students shared a similar sentiment about Perry’s talk, expressing appreciation for the wisdom he offered — especially as students are preparing to leave for college.

“I thought his talk was very eye-opening regarding philosophy as an area of study in college,” senior Jason Kao said.  “It made me more open to the idea of taking courses in college not for ‘practicality’ but rather for intellectual progress.”

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