At Oak Hill School our understanding of philosophy is not limited by contemporary restrictions between specialized fields of knowledge. Consequently, we do not teach philosophy in a pejoratively academic sense, we practice it as a foundational method of inquiry suitable for all disciplines.

At the Upper School level, this practice consists in investigating contemporary problems through an interdisciplinary- based analysis of concepts, beliefs, methodologies and conventions. One aim is to expose conceptual naïvetiés. Another is to establish in our own minds a logical and coherent framework for understanding what it means to aspire to an expansive intellectual and practical integrity. Other goals arise through the course of our investigations.

This type of practical learning is best accomplished through directed and creative conversation. Consequently, most of our courses are given under the purview of the Senior Seminar.

Past Course Offerings Include:

Environmental Ethics and the Human Place in Nature

This course investigates the always changing human relationship with nature through an examination of the self-understandings that have characterized our cultural and scientific ways of inhabiting the earth. We survey these tendencies from the Neolithic period to the present technocratic age. We specifically chart the changing concepts of rationality and reverence, with a particular emphasis on how the actions of perception determine relevant facts. We then investigate the emerging discipline of environmental ethics through two of its more challenging qualities: its problematic relationships with prevailing moral practice and the possibilities it claims to offer when we assume its promise of a deeper sense of human responsibilities. Through the readings and discussions, the students will be encouraged to explore their own assumptions and evaluations concerning their relationship with the natural world.


The Problem of Human Relationship: Buber, Levinas, and Merleau-Ponty                   

This course explores the problems of human relationship through an examination of the work of three 20th century thinkers – Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. We first examine Buber’s “dialogic principle,” his realization that human existence is determined by two fundamentally different types of relating: the I-It relation, or relating to things, persons, or entities as objects to be used, or means to an end, and the I-Thou relation, relating to things and persons without preconceptions, encountering them as ends in themselves. We then investigate Emmanuel Levinas’ claim that the encounter between persons is ‘ethical’ in its source for the simple reason that an ‘I’ discovers its own particularity when it is singled out by the gaze of another, whose gaze, as a force, is interrogative and imperative. Finally, we explore Merleau-Ponty’s work concerning the mutual and participatory nature of embodied perception and the implications that his notion of the “flesh of the world” has for an ecological conscience. We set the context by examining current discussions concerning theories of identity development; how one becomes an “I”, how that “I” acquires an ethical orientation, and how that orientation extends to others and the surrounding world.


No Excuses: Becoming a Self – The Philosophy of Existentialism

As a philosophic movement Existentialism is difficult to define, mostly because most of the thinkers, writers, and artists associated with this movement generally rejected that association. There is a constellation of beliefs or positions that unite these thinkers however, despite the fact that these positions may have arisen from seemingly antagonistic principles. These include the notion that one’s choices and one’s actions are the ultimate indicator of one’s beliefs, and that every one of us as an individual is responsible – responsible for what we do, responsible for who we are, responsible for the way we face and deal with the world, responsible, ultimately, for the way the world is. It is, precisely, the philosophy of “no excuses.” Life may be difficult, circumstances may be impossible –. but we cannot shift that burden of choice and consequence onto anyone else. Existentialism seeks a new governing standard for the human condition beyond the norms of natural science or moral orientations, that of personal authenticity, even in the face of an indifferent or absurd universe. We explore this constellation of beliefs through the work of some of the following thinkers; Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Gabriel Marcel, Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and Simone Weil.


How to Become Who You Are! – A reading of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Friedrich Nietzsche was a profoundly positive thinker determined to discover a way beyond what he saw as the inevitable chaos that would result from questioning the ideals under which humanity lives and labors. Nietzsche was often alone among philosophers in asking a fundamental question which required a permanently expanding commitment to honesty: what sort of person am I to become?  We explore many of his answers through a reading of his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, We also investigate the evolution of Western morality through the lens of his persistent critique as well as his explorations of the root motives underlying traditional morality, religion, science, and modern secularism. The readings include excerpts from Nietzsche’s other works, as well as commentaries and analysis from the fields of philosophy, literature, psychology, theology, and the new cognitive sciences.

Courses in Development

Ethics in a World of Strangers  – 21st Century Problems

As members of the human family we exist on many different social strata – as friends to each other, as members of families, and neighborhoods, as members of language groups, cultures, political entities, and possibly as planetary inhabitants. From a larger perspective, the earth now has over 7 billion inhabitants, all clamoring for dignity. How do we handle situations like these? Do we owe anything to others in the world by virtue of our common humanity? Do we owe anything to the planet which sustains us? This course investigates these problems and possibilities through an examination of 21st century issues in ethics, in relationships. We’ll examine ideas such as happiness, obligation, hospitality, justice, vengeance, forgiveness, and consequence. We’ll look at how western morality has gone about figuring out “what matters.” We’ll then be prepared to investigate current debates regarding rights and obligations of individuals and groups, hospitality to the immigrant and foreigner, responses to vulnerability and poverty, and the conflicts between opulence and need in a world of great want. We’ll examine feminist rethinking of ethics, the relations between a “just war” and a “just peace,” and justifications of tactics such as torture. Other issues we may find fertile to investigate include the status of animals in research and industry, justice toward ecological systems, religious sympathy and tolerance, sexual ethics, bio-engineering, and the latest research in primate ethics.

Senior Seminar (11th and 12th)

The intent of the Senior Seminar is twofold; to introduce the students to some of the structures, materials, and expectations they will encounter in a typical 100 – 300 level college course, and to establish a forum for research, investigation, and cooperative inquiry about the problems inherent in the course topic.


We act under the assumption that human knowledge is both encyclopedic and unified. Consequently, the approach to seminar topics is interdisciplinary in scope, ranging across and throughout the arts and sciences. Depending upon the extent and possibility of each course, materials and readings will often draw from multiple fields: the arts, humanities and social sciences, the physical, earth, and biological sciences, history and law, economics and public policy, and the behavioral and cognitive sciences.


While our use of the concept “seminar” realizes its typical meaning: a group of students meeting for systematic instruction and discussion, our understanding of it appreciates its etymological heritage as a nursery ground, a place to sow and cultivate.[1]


The Senior Seminar is a group activity intended to increase critical thinking, self-responsibility and self-reliance: the qualities necessary to secure a functioning democracy. Enhancing the ability of students to participate toward the democratic ideal means preparing them to participate in both negotiating and communicative dialogues and encouraging their desire for the fostering of their own self-culture.[2]


Self-culture in this context simply refers to the inner shape human beings can attain when developing their aptitudes in touch with and through the agencies of the intellectual and moral resources found in their environment. The term not only implies the dimensions of learning, knowledge and skills, but also values, ethos, personality, authenticity and humanity.


Developing self-culture is also a process of assuming the responsibilities of an adult member of a community. It means becoming an active part of our continuous human history, to have a chance to participate in “the Great Conversation” of mankind. This conversation includes the complexities of current problems as well as the ideas, problems and mysteries that have puzzled and occupied us since the beginning of human experience. Aside from basic dialogic rules, the seminar does not attempt to teach a set of values. Its mission is to foster the intellectual dispositions or habits of mind that allow students to develop practical wisdom, that is, finding ways to act when confronted with a multiplicity of ideas and incongruent values. A fairly simple methodology is utilized to improve the complex interplay of dialogical and intellectual skills.[3]

We emphasize:

  • dialogic method and rules, a restrained form of the Socratic elenchus (ελεγχος)[4]
  • reading primary sources
  • instructor as co-inquirer and facilitator
  • student led analysis and discussion
  • close and attentive reading and listening
  • the fundamentals of thinking and writing: organizing, capturing accuracy, expressing depth
  • careful attention to differing justifications of beliefs (logical, emotional, psychological, spiritual)
  • critical analysis of reasoning structures –continual aim towards the more elegant, coherent and harmonious logical support
  • reciprocal encouragement
  • self-reflective and mutual critique


Our focus is on the texts and the problems the texts illuminate. The inspiration they provide allows us to develop and refine the following explicit skills:

  • comprehension
  • evaluative, logical, and comparative analysis
  • synthesis
  • expansion and summarizing


A typical semester-long seminar generally consists of 36 instructional or discussion hours with 500 to 600 pages of readings and 40 to 50 pages of writing. Students are graded in three general areas: participation and preparedness; weekly written summaries or questions of the readings; and three medium length essays. Throughout the seminar, participants aim for developing full student initiated analysis.

[1] Seminar: from the German seminar; group of students meeting for systematic instruction and discussion; adoption of  the Latin sēminārium, substantive use of the neuter of sēminārius, formed on sēmin, formed on the base of severe, past participle of satus, to sow.  Sēminārium: plant nursery, breeding ground. Also pertinent is seminary; place of production, cultivation, or education. Onions, C. T.  (1966). (Ed.).  The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. Oxford University Press
[2] I am indebted to Ann S. Philgren’s research into the methodological similarities between the Swedish Folkbildning, the American Paideia Seminar and Great Books program, and the German Das Sokratische Gespräch, all of which share similar objectives; that of preparing students to be active thinkers and civic participants. In particular see Pihlgren, Ann S. (2007). “The Features of Socratic Seminars.” Peer reviewed paper presented at the 13th International Conference on Thinking. Norrköping, Sweden June 17-21, 2007.
[3] Pihlgren, Ann S. (2007). “The Features of Socratic Seminars”. Also, Pihlgren, (2006). “Sokratiska samtal om att vara människa”, Familjedaghem. No 1, pp 27-31; Adler, M. J. (1984). The Paideia Program. Macmillan, New York.; Billings, L. and Fitzgerald, J. (2002). “Dialogic Discussion and the Paideia Seminar.” American Educational Research Journal. Volume 39, No. 4, pp 907- 41.; and Matthews, G. B. (1999). Socratic Perplexity and the Nature of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
[4] Elenchus, ελεγχος, (e len kis). The outstanding method of questioning in Plato’s earlier dialogues is the Socratic elenchus. ‘Elenchus‘ in a broad sense means examining a statement that someone has made by putting to her additional questions calling for further statements, in the hope that these will determine the meaning and the truth-value of the initial statement. This process normally results in a contradiction of the primary statement. Propositions to which the answerer feels she must agree have entailed the falsehood of her original assertion. Robinson, R. (1953). Plato’s Earlier Dialectic, 2nd edition. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Reprinted in Gregory Vlastos (1971). (Ed.).  The Philosophy of Socrates. Anchor Press.