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Exploring Philosophical Perspectives in the 10th Grade Salon Project

Photo of Seattle Academy Upper School History students in the classroom for the Salon Project

Written By: Gena Wynkoop, Editorial Content Manager

What would it be like to approach real-world problems with the mindset of a specific philosopher? That was the challenge 10th graders in Lisa Feiertag’s English and History class faced while diving into Seattle Academy’s infamous “Salon Project.”

“In the salon project, students learn about the social contract and roleplay a twentieth-century philosopher,” explained Lisa, SAAS’ History Department Chair and Upper School History Teacher, and SAAS alumna from the Class of 2002. “Their job is to become an expert on their philosopher's ideas and the historical context of their thinking. Then they discuss their philosophies with other thinkers, similar to the social gatherings of intellectuals in salons during the Enlightenment.”

The project consists of an essay where students dive into their philosopher's ideals and are tasked with creating a metaphor that describes those ideals.

“The students write a short critical essay in response to questions about their philosopher's perspectives,” said Lisa. “The questions asked them to articulate the ideas and probable views of their philosopher on a variety of contemporary questions so they can converse with other 20th-century philosophers in the spirit of intellectual inquiry.”

The preparation for the project is dense. Students take a deep dive into the philosopher's writings, learn their objectives and ideologies, and essentially embody them. And why is it called the salon project?

“There’s a whole background behind the name because back in the 1800s, people would go into salons and watch philosophers discuss different topics in a non-aggressive debate,” explained Stella Torres (Grade 10), a student in Lisa’s class.

“My philosopher was Ayn Rand. In my essay and to prepare for my debate, my summary was like, ‘My name is Ayn Rand, and I created objectivism. I really like to talk about myself, and I don’t care about anyone else because selfishness is a virtue.’”

In their essays, Lisa asked the students to make an analogy that explained their philosopher's beliefs.

“My analogy was that of a garden. Everyone individually is their own plant, and the government can’t tell you how to grow because that’s rude,” explained Stella.

For Jonah Salverda (Grade 10), his philosopher was Frantz Fanon.

“It was a fun task to essentially embody the spirit of a philosopher,” said Jonah. “Fanon was a very different thinker than I am, but seeing the world through someone else's eyes was really interesting.”

Jonah explained Frantz Fanon as “a Marxist, which is unique, and I’ve never had any experience with actual communism or Marxism.” Jonah explained Fanon as growing up in Martinique under French rule.

“He was very anti-colonialist because of his childhood,” said Jonah. “Then he was drafted for World War II under French occupation, so the people who occupied his country made him fight for them. After that, he started fighting against colonialism in general and was against the idea of oppression, class systems, and the hierarchy of people rather than any differences between individuals.”

Jonah used the analogy for Frantz Fanon as a shoal of fish because while each part is an individual, they come together to protect against predators. 

Stella explained her philosopher Ayn Rand as having a lot of opinions. “I think the whole thing behind Rand is that she created her own philosophy, objectivism, which is based on an objective reality. It’s all based on morals instead of emotions. You’re making decisions based on what’s the rational thing instead of what is the good thing to do.”

Something that was interesting to Jonah was Fanon’s views on violence.

“I did a lot of learning about Frantz's main mentor, Aimé Césaire; she was one of the first female revolutionaries in France and was his main inspiration in philosophy and anticolonial thinker, which was the base of his work,” said Jonah.

“Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire were very similar. He took a more radical approach because his whole thing was that violence was the answer. Violence is the only way decolonization can happen.”

Beyond violence, Ayn Rand has some other interesting philosophies that Stella learned in her readings.

“Ayn Rand had specific beliefs about who is the perfect person and how to better oneself. One of the things that she was very intent on is the complete demolishment of altruism and complete selflessness. For example, if you see a homeless person on the street and you give them money or food, that is altruistic. It’s not your obligation to give them anything. If they are homeless, that is their own problem.”

Personally, Stella thinks that sounds heartless but she did somewhat align with Ayn’s idea of selfishness and self-esteem. “Currently, we think of selfishness as a bad thing. Ayn didn’t think of it that way. It wasn’t about materialistic things or wanting everything for yourself. It was more about putting yourself before you put everyone else. It’s a more moral way of looking at selfishness.”

After diving into the philosophers and learning everything they needed to know, it was time to debate in the salon-style forum. In groups of four and five, students got up, were tossed prompts, and had to nail down the ideals with modern-day topics.

“We were given different prompts or ideas to argue with our philosopher's ideals in mind, but sometimes, we would get random and out-of-the-blue prompts like ‘What emoji would your philosopher use the most? Or like, ‘What is the meaning of freedom?’” explained Stella.

When Jonah got up for his debates, the topics were a little different.

“The topics from my panel were how our philosophers would feel about standardized testing and the involvement of government in education, government restrictions on carbon emissions for large corporations, and  government involvement on the price of health care and certain medicines.”

How would Jonah, or Frantz Fanon feel about these issues?

“His biggest thing was that the government shouldn't be involved in anything that the individual is a part of, so I went down the route of like, ‘Standardized testing shouldn't be a thing because the government shouldn't be in charge of what is classified as good knowledge and what is classified as bad.’”

For the healthcare portion, it wasn’t so straightforward, said Jonah.

“While they shouldn't be in charge of who has health care, they should also make sure that everyone has health care. So it gets convoluted because no specific person could have better access to health care than another but also the government couldn’t sway that either way.”

After learning all there is to know about their philosophers, both Jonah and Stella started to see how their ideals would play out in the modern world.

“[I notice my learning about Frantz Fanon] when we’re learning something new in history and recall Fanon talking about it,” said Jonah. “I wouldn’t say I have prejudice about some things but I already have some conceived ideas because I’ve read all of his work about whatever we’re learning.”

Similarly for Stella, “I think a lot about Ayn Rand now that the unit is over, which I surprised myself with. I think about her philosophy quite a bit. I think about how she would see things when I see current events on the news. It’s like wearing filtered glasses. I can see the world how Ayn Rand would see it and that has been an interesting experience.”