Benjamin Wasserman: Philosophy / Dynamics of Informal Education

Benjamin Wasserman
Philosophy / Dynamics of Informal Education
B.A. January 2012, cum Laude
Home College: Brooklyn
Faculty Mentor: Prof. Justin Steinberg, Philosophy, Brooklyn
Thomas W. Smith Academic Fellowship
Memorial Scholarship
Dean’s List

At 18, Benjamin Wasserman enrolled at SUNY Purchase. Having been dogged by his ADHD diagnosis for several years, however, he felt utterly lost there, and he continued to doubt his potential. He was forced to withdraw. Though feeling defeated, he placated his parents’ desire for him to go to college and immediately registered for the only course Brooklyn College would allow him to – Modern Philosophy. At the same time, he began to take on new responsibilities and roles at the Marks JCH (Jewish Community House) of Bensonhurst; chiefly, developing and leading informal and experiential education programming for children and youth, and designing and facilitating teen leadership groups focused on social justice and political action.

These two events were liberating. Through his work, he developed a new understanding of what transformative education could look like. Moreover, he found Philosophy to be completely engrossing; he loved being encouraged to be curious, and found himself academically challenged and intellectually satiated. Philosophy provided him with a means to not only develop his critical thinking skills, but also his spirit of political and social action, sense of self, and emotional literacy.

He continued to work at the Marks JCH and declared Philosophy and Jewish Studies as his majors – but he felt the course requirements were too limiting for his desire for a career in informal Jewish education. As he wrapped up his fourth year of undergraduate study with no clear end in sight, he overheard someone talking about CUNY BA where students design their own areas of concentrations. “Applying to CUNY BA the following week was a no-brainer, but I did not anticipate just how emancipating and empowering my experience would be,” he says.

The flexibility offered by CUNY BA allowed him to continue studying the history of philosophy and moral and political philosophy, and let him to add psychology, education, sociology, theater, and Jewish studies courses. He worked closely with his mentor Prof. Justin Steinberg, and landed highly competitive and prestigious internships with the Lipper Internship at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and CLASSP Internship in Special Education through Ramapo for Children. He was also invited to present his paper – “Philosophy: From Thought to Action – An Embodied Approach to Exploring Philosophy with Youth”- at two national Philosophy conferences.

Then in spring 2011, the Brooklyn College Philosophy Department and School of Education picked up his proposal for an interdisciplinary and interdepartmental initiative training philosophy and education students to develop and implement a pre-college experiential/service-based learning philosophy and social justice curriculum for NYC youth. Thus was born the PEACE Project: Philosophy, Ethics, and Community Education, where Wasserman is now Project Director and is teaching a class of fifteen high school students from East New York High School (PEACE is also partnered with the Educational Alliance’s Boys and Girls Club at The School of the Future in Manhattan). He has been collaborating with faculty, training and leading a cohort of ten undergraduate students at Brooklyn in curriculum development, informal education, philosophy with youth, and social justice education, and developing research models for the project. Recently he co-authored an article (published in Peace Studies Journal) with Prof. Priya Parmar about the project, and he has obtained funding from the Squire Family Foundation; both the Philosophy Department and the School of Education have committed to continue partnering with PEACE over the next few years.

Aside from PEACE, he is starting a non-profit aimed at promoting philosophy and critical thinking through public dialogue, while preparing applications to Philosophy Ph.D. programs where he hopes to specialize in political philosophy, moral psychology, and issues in agency and responsibility.

He says, “I have found CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies to be eye-opening, transformative, and empowering. The program unlocked doors for me to deepen my understanding of myself and the world, entrusting me with agency and control over my own education, and allowing me to nurture and nourish my unique interests. I never imagined that I would graduate with a degree in Philosophy and Dynamics of Informal Education. Then again, before my acceptance into the program, I couldn’t imagine wanting to achieve such a thing in the first place (because how would I have accomplished such a thing anyway??). In fact, before my participation in the program, I wouldn’t have imagined many of my present daily realities as possible. CUNY BA leaves an indelible mark on its graduates.”

A Brooklyn College article about PEACE can be found here:  http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/news/bcnews/bcnews_120521.php