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UNC Philosophy Department helps educate community via outreach program

The Philosophy Department, located at Caldwell Hall as pictured on Nov. 4 2020, has launched an outreach program to counteract the toll of social isolation during the pandemic.

In the midst of a stressful year, the UNC philosophy department is offering new ways for people beyond the University to stay academically involved and think critically through its Philosophy Outreach Program. 

The initiatives the program offers include discussions with elementary schools, high schools and after-school programs. It also offers enrichment programs for correctional facilities, a public library philosophy speaker series and discussion groups in retirement facilities.

With the resources of the philosophy department and the Parr Center for Ethics, the Outreach Program is designed to help communities outside the University think clearly for themselves about a broad range of topics that impact their lives. 

Michael Vazquez is a professor and director of outreach for the philosophy department and the Parr Center for Ethics. He said the mission of the Outreach Program is to expand the scope of philosophical thinking by engaging community partners. 

“We aim to promote the University's mission as a public university and as an institution that sort of promises to be a public good for the community for North Carolina, of kind of producing and disseminating knowledge that benefits society,” he said. 

Z Quanbeck is a doctoral student in the philosophy department and one of the volunteers for the Outreach Program's retirement community initiative. 

He said one of his roles for this initiative is facilitating an open philosophical discussion among members of a retirement community about anything from free will to analyzing a philosophical paper.

“There's a sense in which philosophy is an activity that's done by academics and universities,” Quanbeck said. “But the philosophical questions that academics consider are the sorts that everybody needs to think about.”

He said facilitating these conversations and participating in them is an important way of connecting the University with the surrounding communities. 

Devin Lane is a doctoral student in the philosophy department who directs the philosophy speaker series, sponsored by local libraries.

The program started off in person, with guest speakers and round table discussions that actively kept the audience engaged and curious. But with the pandemic, Lane said the program moved online. He said adaptation allowed the program to introduce a philosophy pen pal initiative to local prisons.

“We can't go in person, especially not with, unfortunately, how vulnerable prison populations are right now,” Lane said. “It's just so difficult, but we still want to serve those communities.”

With the different initiatives that the Outreach Program offers, Vazquez, Quanbeck and Lane said they hope to take philosophical thinking further than an academic level. They hope to reach all parts of different communities that may not have the opportunity to access these ways of thinking.

“The problem is that it's hard for individuals who are not entrenched in this kind of academic philosophy,” Lane said. “Doing these outreach activities can just make it accessible. It allows people to see and get a grip on the important kinds of deeper issues that they think about in their own lives.”

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