Sunday, May 27, 2012

What is the International Philosophy Olympiad?

IPO Students & some teachers in 2012 at Oslo Handelsgymnasium.

The International Philosophy Olympiad (IPO) is an annual essay writing competition for high school students from around the world. Students and philosophy teachers from as many as 40 countries gather in a different host country each year and have done so since 1993. The main event is the four-hour student essay writing completion, on one of four philosophical topics written in one of four languages; English, French, German or Spanish. Any one of these languages may be chosen except the student’s national language. So, for example, a Frenchman may not write in French. In Vienna in 2011, the two students from the USA wrote in Spanish.

To quote from the IPO Website (

“The objectives of the IPO are:
- to promote philosophical education at the secondary school level and increase the interest of high school pupils in philosophy;
- to encourage the development of national, regional, and local contests in philosophy among pre-university students worldwide;
- to contribute to the development of critical, inquisitive and creative thinking;
- to promote philosophical reflection on science, art, and social life;
- to cultivate the capacity for ethical reflection on the problems of the modern world; and,
- by encouraging intellectual exchanges and securing opportunities for personal contacts between young people from different countries, to promote the culture of peace.”

The United States has participated in the IPO six times in the 20 years of IPO history including Vienna 2011 ( and Oslo 2012 ( Before Vienna 2011, the USA competed four times until 2003. In 2001the IPO was hosted by the USA in Philadelphia. From 2003 until 2011, however, the USA did not participate.

This is the front of the IPO presentation area at Oslo Handelsgymnasium.

As I have written recently for the IPO Website about the IPO national selection process in the USA, prior to 2010 I was unaware of the IPO. At the 2009 December conference meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA), Eastern Division (of which I have been a member since about 2007) I met with APA executive director, David Schrader. I told David about the curriculum for a course I was creating; A History of Western Philosophy taught in Spanish for American high school students in their last two years before university. Over the next year, the course was approved by the Curriculum Committee at Dwight-Englewood School (D-E). I began to teach this course in 2010. At the APA December conference that year, I updated David who then told me about the IPO. As I discovered, William L. McBride, president of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie (FISP) and David Schrader had been discussing ways to reanimate the US philosophy community to re-enter the IPO competitions. Adding Spanish as an official IPO language was seen to be a possible key to doing this. Spanish was added to English, French and German on a trial basis before IPO Vienna 2011. At the IPO Oslo 2012 business meeting, Prof. Mc Bride formally proposed that Spanish be added to the only three previously official languages. It was approved overwhelmingly and is now the fourth official IPO language.

After 2003 there has been no US National Competition to prepare for IPO. In order to participate in IPO Vienna 2011, I chose two of my best philosophy students who also studied Spanish at D-E. I interpreted the regulations of IPO very strictly and chose two non-Hispanics to form the US Delegation. (I had students who were heritage speakers of Spanish born in the USA. I did not ask them to apply. I now believe that a more liberal interpretation of the IPO regulations might be possible.) Together my two students and I formed the 2011 US Delegation with the blessing of APA. This kind of selection is allowed by IPO regulations for countries that are newly entering the international competition. It is not, however, a condoned, long-term methodology.

The preparation for IPO Vienna 2011 was limited in time and format since I was only aware of it as a real possibility since December of 2010. We did have the help and support of both the APA and FISP. David Schrader at the APA and Bill McBride at FISP were invaluable in their support and guidance. They have continued to be supportive in the preparation for IPO Oslo 2012. Beyond this, I hope they will support and guide me as I prepare a proposal to create a format, set of standards, a plan and strategy for competition management, communication and grading for a United States Philosophy Olympiad (USPO).

I was de facto leader in the new participation of the USA in IPO 2011. I am now the official US Delegation Leader. As a member of both the International Committee and the International Jury of the IPO, I vote at annual IPO business meetings and am a reader and judge of IPO essays in English and Spanish, but obviously not the essays of my own or any US students.

Some IPO Philosophy teachers after reporting essay marks in Oslo.

I will continue to work now to development the necessary infrastructure and organization to establish an ongoing USPO. I am also working toward developing sponsorship to pay for the travel expenses for a maximum two US students, one teacher and one delegation leader in future IPO annual competitions. In-country expenses at the host country site of the annual IPO event is paid for by the hosts. I anticipate the continuing non-financial support of the APA and the cooperation and partnership of the APA committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy. The development of a national philosophy essay contest for American high school students is under way through the partnership of various organizations. I will discuss this further as well as local and regional essay contests in a near future blog post. In the months leading up to IPO Vienna 2011, I created a blog ( to be a hub of information and communication about pre-university education in philosophy in the USA, but also to be the source of information, thinking and communication about the US participation in the IPO.

Before Oslo, one student contacted me through my blog and I identified two students out of a pool of ten at D-E as possible US IPO candidates. But, of course, there remained the travel financing problem that we will have until we find serious and on-going financial sponsorship. So far the travel expenses have been paid by the families of the student participants and from D-E for the delegation leader. The one student who contacted me from Virginia fell out of communication after February 2011. He had read my blog and had been in email communication with me to request information about possible participation on the US team in Oslo. Throughout this academic year my own students were very interested and excited about the possibility of participating as a part of the US Delegation to Oslo. Unfortunately, neither of my two students was able to finally commit to participation this year. One of them advised me before my invitation to her that she could not participate. Since the other student had indicated high interest – I had met with her parents – I had assumed she would participate once invited and I was working under this assumption while making my own plans as the U.S. Delegation Leader, but as the absolute deadline approached, the candidate told me of a scheduling conflict. She ultimately could not attend.  Under these extraordinary circumstances and since I was already the official American IPO Delegate, I actually did participate in IPO Oslo 2011 as both an International Committee member and as a member of the International Jury.
Once the USPO organization is established, I have no doubt the number of students who will want to compete will grow and we will have at least a regional if not a national USPO essay competition from which we will choose two students to participate in IPO Denmark 2013.

The IPO essay contest and its various local, regional and national contests is one way of promoting and motivating pre-college philosophy instruction and explicit academic activity in the United States. The international aspect of it adds an important linguistic and intercultural dimension to the whole enterprise, which has both intrinsic and extrinsic value. To see a group of high school students from nearly 40 countries speaking scores of languages while sharing perspectives, music, stories and having fun together seems to be an event that can be transcendental in their lives.

Please consider becoming a follower of this blog by joining this site. By the way, I would love to read your comments. 

Now, to end, take a look at the assessment criteria we use at the IPO.  

IPO Essay Assessment Criteria.


Anonymous said...

Hello! Thanks for this blog, it is very informative and helpful.

I am currently a sophomore in high school aspiring to at some point compete in the Philosophy Olympiad. Is it at all like the linguistics competition, which requires no specific linguistics knowledge? Or should I take classes in philosophy before trying to enter?

Also, with regards to the language -- I am fairly proficient in French; however, I'm not sure if that will be enough. Do I have to be fluent, or will grammatical/vocab mistakes be forgiven?


Anonymous said...

I have the same questions as above commenter;) and how can I participate in Philosophy Olympiad?

Jessica Zhou said...

Hello there! Glad to have read this post becuase it detailed the info about America's participation in the IPO's --- I kept looking for an "official" website and this post made me realize this blog was what I was looking for! Would you consider linking this post to your homepage so it is more accessible to future visitors?

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