On the IPO and the Role of Competition in Education
Competitions like the International Philosophy Olympiad can help attract public attention to the discipline, but they shouldn’t obscure the true purpose of philosophy education.
This article is the second in a series on philosophy education in Chinese schools. You can read the first one here.
Dusk had fallen by the time we reached Rome, and it was drizzling as we dragged our luggage through the city’s streets. In the dim glow of the streetlights, I saw a mixture of exhaustion, anxiety, and confusion on the faces of the two students I was chaperoning, a sharp contrast with the laughing tourists all around. This made sense: After all, they weren’t there to sightsee, but to represent China as contestants in the International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO).
The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is well-known in China, but Chinese are much less familiar with the IPO. Held each year by the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP) and backed by UNESCO, the IPO is a global competition for high school students interested in philosophy. In recent years, it has also become a useful — if imperfect — barometer for the state of philosophy education within China.
Although the inaugural IPO competition took place in 1993, China didn’t send a representative until 2012. Even then, the selection process remained highly informal, with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy simply recruiting promising students to attend. As student interest grew, however, the process gradually became more standardized. Beginning in 2017, the Institute required prospective contestants to submit a writing sample and take part in an in-person interview.
This year, the selection process took another step forward. In late January, roughly four months prior to the formal competition, I organized a mock IPO for 34 high school students. The top two candidates would win the chance to represent China at the IPO in May. About one-third of this year’s participants came from schools in Shanghai, and four flew in from their schools abroad to take part in China.
The makeup of the contestant pool was broadly reflective of the still-limited spread of philosophy education within China. Out of the more than 24,600 high schools in the country, only about 125 offer International Baccalaureate (IB) programs in foreign philosophy. Compounding this problem is the fact that the study of non-Chinese philosophy generally requires students to possess fluency in at least one other language, in addition to Chinese. Consequently, only a tiny portion of Chinese students can learn philosophy in a formal setting or take part in events like the IPO.
The mock IPO was designed to mimic conditions students would experience at the real competition. We selected four quotations, one each from Plato, Aristotle, the Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, and the American lawyer and former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Participants were given 3 1/2 hours to write an essay in English on the quotation of their preference — on the real IPO, contestants have four hours, and may also choose to write in French, German, or Spanish.
The top spots ultimately went to Lin Yanying, who went on to win a silver medal in Rome, and Wang Shuyuan, who earned an honorable mention.
Over the years, I’ve met a number of exceptional high school students with a strong interest in philosophy, deep familiarity with the classics, and solid understanding of the field’s history. Many of them were also capable of producing outstanding essays. I never doubted that China would win a medal one day, even if I was surprised that it came so soon.
Yet, success at the IPO doesn’t equate to success at universalizing philosophy education. The standards of an international competition — whether it be the IPO or IMO — shouldn’t determine our educational priorities. The students most able to participate in the IPO are concentrated at a small number of elite academies, but philosophy is not a contest, and everyone should be able to benefit from it. It encourages a sweeping examination of the self, humanity, and the world. Philosophers — whether ancient or contemporary, Chinese or foreign — offer us new ways of thinking.
The opportunity to learn philosophy at a young age can only stimulate an individual’s intellectual and spiritual growth. As I see it, that’s where the true value of the IPO lies, and that’s why I’m so pleased to be a part of it. The results aren’t what matter; it’s whether the competition can help publicize and attract interest in philosophy among young people.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.