Briana Toole stands before a small crowd in an auditorium at MIT, explaining why she volunteers her time to teach high school students philosophy. The room is dim, grotto-like; the walls are orange and the chairs are the color of burning embers. Toole is Black, in her early thirties, and accomplished. Most everyone in the audience is white, including myself. We have come to learn how she is transforming the field of dead white men—and why.
A couple hours before, Toole and I sat in her shared office a few stories above campus with a view of the wind-whipped Charles River, sipping hot green tea from paper cups. Toole, who is finishing a fellowship at MIT and has teaching jobs lined up at Baruch College and Claremont McKenna College, was affable and humble, brushing off talk of her coveted fellowship. She told me that she doesn’t believe philosophy should exist in a vacuum. She wants it to touch lives beyond the airy heights of the ivory tower, reaching people who are discriminated against, who live in poor neighborhoods, whom society treats as if their lives don’t matter. In teaching philosophy to teens, what she wants, she says, is to give them something she would have appreciated when she was their age: “the tools they need to be able to explain themselves and defend themselves.”
I’d been interested in meeting Toole ever since I learned about the program she founded in 2016 called “Corrupt the Youth”—a phrase that sounds like the name of a punk band or a strain of pot, but in fact refers to a criminal charge brought against the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates for encouraging the young people of Athens to defy authority and think for themselves. Unlike Socrates, who engaged almost exclusively with the rich and powerful men of Athenian society, Toole teaches high school students from low-income or underrepresented groups. A nonprofit organization, Corrupt the Youth has chapters in Austin, Los Angeles, and New York. The chapter in Los Angeles is geared toward LGBTQ students.
When Toole was awarded her PhD in philosophy in 2018, she became one of only 55 or so Black women philosophers to hold that credential in the US. She says it can get lonely, explaining that white philosophers often don’t understand the struggle of being Black in the field. Sipping her tea, she told me that in graduate school, when she heard a sexist comment, she didn’t have a problem finding a woman she could look to for eye-rolls of mutual acknowledgement. But when she encountered racism, it was different. “There’s no Black person for me to do that with,” she said, “and anywhere I go, I know that’s going to be the case.” Only five percent of bachelor’s degrees in philosophy are earned by Black people. Less than one percent of full time philosophy professors are Black. A few years ago, Tufts professor Lionel McPherson, who is Black, wrote about the hostile environment in a piece for an influential philosophy blog: “I cannot in good conscience encourage any Black student in the US (or UK) to enter the philosophy profession. The extraordinarily few who are determined to go should at least be aware of what awaits them.” Toole refuses to accept this situation, and she sees her program as a way to increase the number of Black people in the field.
I have a PhD in philosophy and taught for nearly ten years at the college level, during which time I researched long-forgotten women philosophers from the seventeenth century. I left philosophy a few years ago, in part because of the terrible job market, but also because I was disappointed to discover that systemic oppression—a topic I was increasingly interested in—was one many philosophy departments and journals treated as marginal. For a field devoted to understanding the human condition, its perspective is profoundly limited by the fact that most of its members are white and male. So when I came across Toole’s program one day on a philosophy blog, I was intrigued. Her efforts to use philosophy to improve the lives of Black people, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community moved me.
As we finished our cups of tea in her office, Toole’s head silhouetted against the clouds moving swiftly across the sky just out the window behind her, she reflected on what she calls “the gospel of philosophy.” Like the gospel, which literally means “good news,” Toole believes philosophy should be spread. “I want to bring it to others,” she said.
When I meet Toole outside East Side Community High School in Manhattan, it’s the sort of February morning that makes gloved fingertips go numb. She’s just arrived from Baruch College, a couple subway stops away. We enter the school’s warm lobby, where a seated guard asks us to sign in, and chuckles when we write “Corrupt the Youth Workshop” as the reason for our visit. Toole smiles; she’s used to this. She likes how her program’s name is both provocative and mysterious. “In the sense that Socrates was condemned, oh yeah, for sure we are corrupting the youth,” she says.
I follow Toole up a flight of stairs and through labyrinthine hallways bustling with students, until we reach her classroom. In contrast to the dark, gray sky, it’s bright here. The walls are off-white and the floor is the color of putty. I take a seat at a hard plastic desk near the back of the room, next to a teacher who tells me she gladly accepted Toole’s invitation to teach her class two days a week for the next eight weeks. This is Toole’s second time meeting with this group.
“She’s a gift,” the teacher tells me. “Not everyone can command attention.”
The twenty or so juniors in the class, who are mostly students of color, are seated in clusters of four desks each, waiting in a state of nonchalant disengagement. Some check their phones, one applies mascara while gazing at her reflection in a small compact, and another pulls a piece of bread from a plastic bag and eats it while laughing with a boy next to her. Her name is Camille, and like most public high school students, this is her first exposure to philosophy. Before the first class with Toole, she confesses, she thought it was “the study of bones.”
Standing before the class, Toole looked relaxed but serious, wearing a navy shift dress and knee-high brown boots, her hair up in a high bun and a mug in her hand. She announces the day’s topic: “What makes someone a good person?”
Last week, they learned about the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. As it’s typically taught, the allegory represents human ignorance, and how most of us exist in a cave-like darkness of opinion, spouting half-truths. Toole uses the allegory to diagnose a specific kind of intellectual thickness: white ignorance about Black lives. “There are some things that white people don’t know about police brutality,” she says now. To begin with, that it exists at all—not to mention that Blacks are more likely to be killed by cops than whites (three times more), and that most cops who kill someone aren’t charged with a crime (99 percent).
As they work in groups to brainstorm answers to the day’s admittedly abstract question, drawing on last week’s learning, Toole moves from the front of the classroom, peering over her students’ shoulders, reading their notes and listening to their conversations. She returns their industry with approving laughs and constructive criticism, telling them, “You can do better.” “I’ll be back in a few so you can redeem yourself,” she tells one student.
A student in a red Supreme t-shirt named Desmond is distracting the other members of his group, so Toole stares at him until he refocuses. “You a gangsta,” she says approvingly. He cracks a smile and keeps working. “This is the cutest class!” she says. In response to her encouragement, the students laugh and engage—and think hard. It’s clear that they admire Toole. “She sits with us,” says Noah, a student in a black sweatshirt and afro. “She takes us seriously.”
Her ease stands in stark contrast to the white male teaching assistant who is helping her today. With shaved hair, neat khakis and a brown sweater, he is quiet, hovering tentatively outside the groups. He doesn’t redirect students when they inevitably go off-task, and when he speaks, his voice hardly carries. I observe him with self-consciousness, wondering about how I could have better served my students of color. Earlier, Toole told me that one of the secondary benefits of her program is the way it teaches her assistants (many of them white philosophy students in college or grad school) how to engage with non-white students and learn more about some of the issues that matter to them. “Philosophy will benefit as much from being out in a community as the community will benefit from the types of thinking that philosophy affords,” she said.
After a few minutes, Toole asks the students to share their thoughts. What do they think makes someone a good person? “If you share food and you don’t want to share your food,” Camille says. More ideas flood the room as Toole writes them on the whiteboard with a black marker: being respectful, giving, and sincere. “Are there some people who seem like they have these qualities, but really they’re a bad person?” she asks the class after a few moments. Many students nod. “Serial killers manipulate people and make them think they have all these qualities when in actuality they don’t,” Kai says.
“Here’s something I want to know,” she says, taking a pause to look around the room. “Is it better to be a good person or to look like a good person?”
A newly focused Desmond raises his hand. “I think it’s more work to actually be a good person than to pretend,” he says. Noah adds, “To be a good person you need to decide to do the right thing, instead of doing the thing you might want to do.”
Toole nods. “Today we’re going to look at whether it is better to be bad and look good, or whether it’s better to be good, full stop,” she says.
In one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, the Meno, Socrates asks a young slave boy a series of questions to demonstrate that the boy has mathematical knowledge despite never having been taught. The dialogue suggests that knowledge is innate, and the goal of the teacher isn’t to instill knowledge, but to draw it out. There is another possible implication: We are all capable of true insight, whether or not we’ve been formally educated, and regardless of our level or lack of privilege.
Later, Toole tells me that her students intuit that things are unfair, but struggle to articulate it. “They have these experiences that they can’t name, and because they can’t name stuff, they don’t talk about it,” she says. Or the opposite happens, and they regurgitate soundbites. “They have opinions that they hold onto for dear life, but they can’t tell me why it’s their view,” she says. “We’re trying to give them the analytic skill set so they can say, ‘Yeah, this is a thing that is really happening.’”
She hopes her students will leave her class better able to advocate for themselves and their communities. She hopes they will have a deeper understanding of issues like police brutality, and become informed voters. She also hopes her students will go to college, where they can continue to hone their analytic skills. Many of her students have a hard time imagining themselves pursuing higher education, especially if their parents didn’t, or in some cases hadn’t even completed high school. Toole knows that possibility is something they can be taught, along with the confidence and skills they need to succeed once they’re there.
“I started Corrupt the Youth so they don’t have to play catch up like I did,” she says.
Toole grew up in Sneads, Florida, a town in the Panhandle that measures four square miles and has fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. Taking note of Toole’s accomplishments on Facebook, a friend from Sneads asked, “How did you make it out?!” Toole’s father James, an EMT at the local hospital, grew up in Sneads and describes it as “a laid-back community where the mentality is, ‘You grow up here, you stay here.’”
Toole’s family is working-class. Her father is white and her mother is Black, and they met while working for the army in South Korea. Her parents divorced when Toole was sixteen, which they each blame, in part, on the stress of racism they experienced as a young family. Sneads is mostly white, and Toole and her younger brother were harassed for being Black. Their mother, Janet, remembers taking Toole to her first day of school: White parents appraised her daughter, proclaiming, “She’s so clean.” Janet reflects now, “Of all the things you could say about someone, why would you say that she was clean? Why wasn’t it that she was enthusiastic about starting kindergarten?”
Toole remembers her white kindergarten classmates hurling racial slurs. In fourth grade, a white girl called her mother the n-word, so Toole twisted the girl’s arm behind her back, which got her suspended—though there seemed to be no punishment for the name-caller. When she was fourteen, Toole asked a classmate—with whom she’d thought she was on friendly terms—about his t-shirt, which depicted the confederate flag along with the slogan “The South Will Rise Again.” She’d seen other white people in their community wear similar shirts, but she wasn’t sure exactly what it was about. So she had another friend ask him for her, and he proceeded to explain, “It means we’re going to take back over, and Black people will be slaves again.” When Toole’s brother was in junior high, he was assaulted by a gang of white kids from school. The message was clear: they didn’t belong because they were Black, and white kids would be protected. That message followed Toole to high school, where she continued to be bullied. Even some of her own family members—white ones, on her father’s side—looked down on the Black members of her immediate family.
In the face of these persistent cruelties, Toole didn’t cower. She continued to participate in school events and was on the homecoming court. But she knew she didn’t want to live in Sneads forever. Education was her way out. She started taking classes at a community college when she was sixteen; after high school graduation, she got a college scholarship and went fifty miles from Sneads to Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Compared to her peers, she felt nervous and unprepared; a sense of inferiority dogged her. But she enjoyed her classes. She entered college thinking she would become a lawyer, which pleased her parents, who believed a law career could give her a steady income and help her build a life with fewer struggles than they experienced. But soon after she arrived on campus, she felt something inside her shift.
One day in her freshman year, Toole was on the phone with a guy she wanted to impress; he was smart and well-educated—traits she hoped to emulate. They were debating the merits of frozen yogurt over ice cream. (Toole worked at TCBY at the time, and was on team fro-yo.) It was a fun, throwaway conversation, low-stakes intellectual banter between smart friends. Tootle felt like she was holding her own. Until, that is, her friend said something about Plato. She grew silent on the line. Who is this Plato? she thought to herself. He seems important. That was followed by a wave of inferiority—I am dumb—followed by indignation: Why do I not know who Plato is? She felt inarticulate, uncertain. It was humiliating.
In one sense, being unfamiliar with Plato was a trivial problem that an internet search could quickly resolve. But it was hard for Toole to dismiss. Growing up, she had seen how white kids often came to the same situations far better-prepared than she was. Like the time she attended Girls’ State, a leadership program, and discovered that individuals could run for office—something the white girls already seemed to know, arriving with elaborate materials and funds to help them campaign. Her friend who name-dropped Plato had also gone to a better, wealthier public school. But no one in Toole’s circle growing up had heard of Plato, or even knew that philosophy was a field of study. Or, at least, no one had bothered talking to her about it.
The reason she took her first philosophy class was to help her succeed at law. An advisor told her that history, English, and philosophy majors did well on the LSAT. Another reason was so she could join the student government: she noticed that there were no philosophy majors running for a seat, meaning she could run uncontested. So she double-majored in law and philosophy. “It was the easiest way to get elected, which I thought would also be great for my future legal career,” she says. The next semester, she enrolled in an introductory course on political philosophy. It was in a big hall, and the professor paced back and forth while she lectured, but Toole remembers learning about the utopian thinker Robert Owen, who described how faulty social systems created criminals and then punished them for being criminals. She discovered she enjoyed studying philosophy more than law—the latter, she thought, didn’t ask deep enough questions, like whether the laws themselves were just, or whether those who made them did so in favor of one social group over another based on their own social identity. There’s no way I can be a lawyer if these questions haven’t been settled first, she remembers thinking. In her junior year, a philosophy professor took her aside and told her she had talent, and recommended she apply to graduate school. But even so, she wasn’t sure she was ready to give up law.
That summer, she signed up for an FSU program designed for students who were interested in spending some of their break helping others rather than partying. Toole went to Spain to help make meals and care for people with HIV/AIDS. She packed lightly, as she planned to travel around Europe with some of the other students afterward. One of the few things she carried with her was a moral philosophy textbook from a class she’d taken the previous year. On trains and waiting in stations, she read the book and roped in others for discussions about it. “By the end of the summer, it was pretty clear that I was very excited to do philosophy, but not very excited to do law,” she says.
When she told her mother that she’d decided to forgo law school and pursue a master’s degree in philosophy, Janet didn’t know what to make of it. What did philosophers do? After an online search revealed that they spend their time asking questions like “What is the most real?” Janet became alarmed, believing philosophy would derail the promising future her daughter had worked so hard to build. “How will she be able to take care of herself with a degree like this?” she remembers wondering. “I was so angry, I wanted to go and meet the philosophy teacher and ask, what have you done?”
Toole was accepted into a master’s program in England, and then a doctoral program at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the top PhD programs in the country. With these recognitions, her mother began to come around, too. While at UT, Toole dove into questions of how social identity influences perspective, and the effect that has on moral reasoning. An argument with a male colleague about how to handle men who had been accused of sexual harassment was especially enlightening: he argued that they should be allowed to stay in their job until proven guilty, while Toole thought they should be removed while under investigation, since there was a possibility they could harm other students. “It just seemed to me that the real issue wasn’t that we disagreed about values, but it was a clear place where our gender was preventing us from fully understanding each other,” she explains. She found it riveting, the way people could have divergent views and not understand quite why; she wanted to find a way to articulate that philosophically.
But it was during the two-year gap between those programs, as she worked for Teach for America and prepared her PhD applications, when the glimmers of Corrupt the Youth began to form in her mind.
With Teach for America, Toole was assigned to teach English at Capitol High, an inner city school in Baton Rouge with an all-Black student population and a graduation rate around 55 percent. “I had a hard upbringing,” Toole says, “but these kids had a really hard upbringing.” She noticed that most of her students struggled in school because of the troubles they faced at home. Many of them had parents who never attended college, let alone family members who left their community. Toole herself hadn’t felt prepared for college: although her parents had set aside some money for her education, she didn’t know about the application process until the day applications were due, and didn’t realize until later that requesting a dorm room was a separate process, or that she should apply to more than one school. The experience, she said, was like feeling around in the dark, and she saw that her students felt it tenfold. For them, college was riddled with unthinkable unknowns.
Toole’s job involved having her students read books that were mostly written by white authors, and were mostly about experiences they struggled to relate to. At first, she found this frustrating. “How am I going to get my very poor Black kids to understand a book about rich white people, and how awful they are?” she said. “You can’t sell The Great Gatsby if you’re just saying, ‘This is a great literary work.’ You have to understand how they’re going to use it and make sense of it.” At the time, she hadn’t studied Black literature, and so didn’t know about alternatives. Looking back, she wishes she’d had them read Toni Morrison, but “you can’t teach something you don’t know exists,” she says. So she looked to her philosophical training, which helped her extrapolate from her own experience and consider how her students’ knowledge was shaped by their social context. “Realizing that my students’ social identity is going to impact how much they’re able to connect with the novel, and that there’s a base of knowledge that I have that they don’t, is a really good starting point.”
Her students, she realized, might relate to Gatsby after all. “We’re going to use this book to investigate why the social relations in Baton Rouge are the way they are,” Toole decided. “I’ll get them to empathize with Gatsby, because they know what it’s like to be poor and to want to be rich, and to be willing to do everything for it.”
Once she made that cognitive shift, her students were responsive and eager to learn more. So she put some of the curriculum aside and started to introduce philosophical debates on topics she knew were relevant to their lives, like abortion and police surveillance. She was nervous that a parent might complain, or that her supervisor would swing open her classroom door mid-lesson, demanding she stop. But no one came. Instead, her students’ fear and intimidation—often masked as indifference—was replaced by engagement, as they took genuine joy in learning. Two years later, when she left for her PhD program, she kept this in mind.
At the University of Texas at Austin, Toole dove into her studies, focusing on standpoint theory, which asserts that what people know stems from their social position—that a person’s race, class, and gender yield different, yet equally valid, perspectives. She was the only Black woman in the program (there was a Black man working on his dissertation, but he was off-campus and she never met him). She was making friends, but she was still lonely. During moments of personal frustration, she would revisit a note she’d put in her phone, reminding herself to do something good with teaching and philosophy, like she’d done in Baton Rouge. She started to put together a plan for a philosophy workshop aimed at underrepresented high school kids.
In 2016, the fall of her third year of graduate school, she launched the first Corrupt the Youth program at a local public school in Austin. “I want kids to be able to question authority, disagree with their teachers, and to say why what their teachers are doing is inadequate or unjust,” she says. “They can disagree with someone who has a position of authority over them. And philosophy is a first step towards that.” Just like Socrates taught.
To help her students think at that level, Toole is demanding. Her student Camille says, “She will always push you and pick on you to see if you know what you’re talking about.” After the class I observed, Toole pulled aside Dimitri, a smart but easily distractible student, put both hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye, then said something I couldn’t hear, but that seemed stern. He stared back and nodded. Afterward I asked Toole about it. “I told him, ‘If you don’t listen, I’ll come over and grab your ear in class.’” I thought I also overheard her tell him that he was smart. “Yes, he is smart,” she says. “I told him that when he’s not distracted, he comes out with these great comments.”
I can see how the pressure Toole puts on her students might cause some to buckle, but from what I observed in her class that day, they often rise to the occasion. Toole is one of those people who makes her students want to do better, because she so clearly believes in them.
“She’s a person who is very good at provoking thought, and pushing people,” says Toole’s husband, Alex, who is white and whom she met when they were both teaching in Baton Rouge. “I think it’s a skill to be able to concurrently charm people and push them into a space where they have to contend with thinking, or assuming, or acting in a way that’s a little different than they’re used to.” He would know. When they started dating, she gave him homework. “I gave him this arbitrary deadline and I put it in my calendar on my phone. By the time the alert came up, we had actually been dating for a bit. His homework was to try three new things that gave him joy,” she says laughing. “All I want is to be someone’s life coach.”
She means it as a joke, but it’s true that when it comes to her students, Toole is concerned with more than just class participation and homework. She makes herself available to parents for questions about the college process, and has offered a writing workshop for students to help them craft personal statements for college applications—something Toole herself would have appreciated at that age.
Back in the classroom, the students have read and discussed an excerpt from Plato’s Republic, the parable of The Ring of Gyges. It’s about a man who comes upon a ring that turns him invisible, and with this power he chooses to do bad things that benefit himself. Toole slightly reformulates the original discussion about “good” persons to “just” persons, to match the text. “According to G—that’s what we’re going to call Gyges—who is happier, the unjust man or the just man?” she asks. A number of students reply that the unjust man is happier. One student isn’t sure what Toole means by “just” and “unjust,” and she returns his question with another: “Do the rules of society reflect a particular interest? If so, is this just or unjust?” This helps. The student nods his head a few times and starts writing.
“If it’s true that unjust people are happier, why do we not do bad things all the time?” Toole asks the class. “The consequences,” says Natalie, a bright student with long black hair who has been following the conversation closely. Another chimes in: “The fear of prison.” Jarvis, one of two white kids in the class, says, “There’s, like, physical and mental consequences—we don’t want something weighing on our conscience.” Another calls loudly from the back, “Social consequences!”
“Y’all are very good,” Toole says, visibly impressed. She turns to the board, writing down their ideas.
At one point in the discussion, Toole pivots: “Let me ask you something. Do you think your teachers should be good people? How about nurses and doctors?” Students nod, and Toole nods along with them. “So, they should have good values. What about police officers?” she asks. A voice in the back says, “Well, of course, but some of them don’t.” Time is nearly up.
“I want you to think about: if you know people aren’t good people without a fear of consequences, what does that mean for professions where nobody is watching them?” she says. “How many times are you in a situation with people who we tend to think are good, but then they do things that are bad to you? That’s what we’re going to think about.”
Later, Toole tells me that the students concluded that this means cops should wear body cameras. But they also discussed how even when they do, police still get away with doing bad things. “It doesn’t matter if someone is watching the cops if the judges are corrupt,” Toole says, explaining what the students realized. “But even that kind of systemic thinking is powerful for kids, because they know that this solution isn’t helping us.”
A few weeks after the program ends, I call a few of Toole’s students to see whether they notice a change in how they think about themselves or the world. Natalie told me things really started to click for her when they talked about Descartes, who famously suggests that an evil demon could be deceiving a person about what they think they know. She realized, she said, “how racism is sort of like this monster that makes some people feel entitled to superiority, and not understand what other people go through.” But her favorite day in class was one where they discussed patriarchy. “We saw how women were treated as objects and men were told they can’t have feelings.” She told me she is considering majoring in philosophy in college. Camille told me that, overall, the class helped her “realize how people often have a certain view and won’t open their minds.” Noah said that “philosophy challenges what I’ve learned my entire life. What if everything you’re experiencing is a lie and you could be misguided? Why is everything the way that it is? Is change for the better or is it going to get worse?”
It’s a version of the latter question that keeps Toole up at night, worrying about the consequences of teaching Corrupt the Youth. “If I screw up, if I do a bad job, I could ruin their lives.” At first this struck me as an exaggeration: How could one teacher, who is exceptionally skilled and caring, harm her students? But then I was reminded of the story Socrates tells in The Republic, about the person who ascends from the cave of ignorance to the natural light of truth, and then returns to the cave to face death threats for challenging the status quo. Toole is leading her students into the light, but when they leave her classroom, they return to a shadowy world rife with ignorance and racism. She takes a lot of responsibility for her students’ well-being, and for her role in helping them recognize painful realities: the brutalities of racism and bigotry, and all the ways they are told that their lives don’t matter. What makes this process worthwhile is her belief that these students must understand the world before they can begin to change it.