At first glance, it’s just like any other elevated walkway on a busy university campus.
This one happens to connect West Virginia University’s Personal Rapid Transit station to Stansbury Hall, the home of the WVU Department of Philosophy.
Dr. Sharon Ryan wants that walkway to link up some important thoughts and concepts, too. Which is why, every Friday afternoon for the past two semesters, the philosophy chair has enlisted the pedestrian bridge as a literal springboard to the big questions of life.
Make that,THE QUESTION .All caps.
That’s how Ryan is billing her project. It’s all uppercase, because these brow-wrinklers call for some capital cognitive power.
Motorists tooling underneath on Beechurst Avenue can look up to see banners adorned with brain-benders, a new one every week: Sure, there are standard-issue, Einsteinesque, eyebrow-archers, likeDoes God exist?andWhen is war OK?; but a bevy of bull-session musers are sneaking in, too, queries that make you fire off a quick answeronly to reconsider just as quicklyas you circle the brain cells for another go.
Teasers like,Are NASCAR drivers athletes?andWhat is a friend?
It goes beyond simple points to ponder, Ryan says. For the scholarly aspects of the study, she’s chronicling the answers by interviewing a ready, and surprisingly insightful, source: youngsters, ages 5 to 12.
Kids have great ideas,she says.I want to live in a world where kids are encouraged to try out their ideas while also opening themselves up to challenges. I want them to question the ideas of other people, and I want them to do that with confidence and respect to the other point of view.
And the major of philosophy couldn’t be better formed for just that, she says.
Even if, she says, we don’t always realize it.
Part of the problem, she says ruefully, is that philosophers are often maligned in movies and TV, portrayed, more often than not, astweed-wearing nut jobs saying all kinds of outrageous things.
The discipline hardly focuses on irreverent questions, she says.
We go to war and remove (or not remove) patients from life support,she says.We use our own answers to philosophical questions to interpret the Constitution, decide about stem-cell research and figure out how to treat other people.
The way treat one segment of the population, hardened criminals, prompted this interesting exchange between Ryan and one 9-year-old respondent as he considered the question,Is the death penalty wrong?
I know some people think that the death penalty scares bad people from killing,he said,but I think there are better ways to scaring people. Plus the death penalty puts people to sleep forever. Maybe that’s not even so scary. Maybe people would be willing to risk it.
Which bridges another question, Ryan says:Is deathbad’for the person who dies? After all, a dead person doesn’t feel pain or suffer.
The idea is to get them thinking,she says of the young interviewees.
At the present, since THE QUESTION is still in its formative stages, Ryan is handling the interviews herself, but plans to get her philosophy majors and other students quickly involved as the projects builds.
The children of WVU friends and colleagues are fitting the bill for now, but she also plans on opening the interviewing up to public schools across West Virginia and the region. Teachers from across the Mountain State, Pennsylvania and Long Island, N.Y. , have already shown interest, she says.
And lest one be intimidated by the whole intellectual endeavor of the exercise, here’s how Ryan came up with THE QUESTION :I was brushing my teeth,she says, chuckling,and thinking about ways to market our major while changing the world.
Ryan has been philosophy chair since July 2004. Under her leadership, her department has grown to 80 declared majors. The department is part of WVU ’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
For capsules of the questions posed and pictures of the respondents, visit the project Web site athttp://www.wvu.edu/~philosophy/thequestion.html.