Meet the US's Most Philosophical Student

Article excerpt

Vineetha Joseph - sporting black jeans and toe nails tinted with lime-green enamel - is carrying her title of "most philosophical student in America" rather lightly.

"Everyone is philosophical," she insists, shaking her curly black ponytail. "Maybe I've just been exposed to more philosophy."

But only days earlier Vineetha was being interviewed on national television, and shortly before that she was flown to tiny Lanesboro, Minn., to debate the question, "Is human nature good or evil?"

It may seem a weighty topic for a high school senior, but Vineetha and another student spoke confidently on the podium, arguing for the goodness of mankind against two other teens who insisted that evil dominated.

All four of the students - along with more than 4,000 first- graders through high school seniors - were participants in the 2002 Kids Philosophy Slam, a contest designed to encourage young students to focus on basic questions of human experience.

Older students are required to express themselves in prose, but younger children can draw pictures and write poetry to express their thoughts.

Children from across the US, and from as far away as Turkey, Malaysia, and Spain, accepted the challenge this year. They seemed evenly divided between asserting that good acts and impulses shape human behavior, and fearing that evil is the true nature of humans.

Many students who argued for evil referred to the events of Sept. 11. Students are encouraged to include personal experiences in their reasoning, and one high-schooler from Massachusetts - a runner-up to Vineetha - cited the death of a close family friend in the terrorist attacks as one proof of the evil of human nature.

A fourth-grader from Minnesota penned a heart-wrenching poem that asked, "Why can't the world just get along/ Or let people sing a song?" and then concluded "That is why people are bad/ It is very very sad."

A third-grader from Pennsylvania drew a picture of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and wrote that their destruction proved that "deep down inside people are evil."

But Vineetha argued that people are essentially good - corrupted only by society - and that acts of kindness and altruism are hints of true manhood. "Believing that the nature of humankind is good also gives a goal for all human beings: to strive to purify or recover their essence of good," she concluded. …