NUTLEY, N.J. — 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.
The contest was started in 2000 by John Davis a former art center director who also launched an adult version of the program called the Great American Think-Off in 1993 because he worries that in today's society the average person "is too far removed from philosophy."
Far from being a strictly academic pursuit, philosophy "is about shaping opinions, how we feel about life, and it's so important, especially post-Sept. 11," Mr. Davis says.
He says he was inspired by his grandfather, a former oil-industry executive, who taught philosophy to children as a volunteer after retiring. Davis and his grandfather often played cribbage, and as they played his grandfather pushed him to think more deeply and question the world around him.
"We underestimate what kids can do," he says. "We need to unlock the creative potential and ideas that rest within all of us."
Davis spends about $10,000 annually largely raised through donations to fund the Kids Philosophy Slam and currently hopes to find a national sponsor to help with the costs. Publicity for the event is mostly handled through word of mouth or contact with the group's website at www.philosophyslam.org.
But while Davis would like to fine-tune the logistics of the program, he never questions its success, asserting that listening to Vineetha argue her case this year was a reward in itself.
As for Vineetha, she says she's just a regular kid who happened to enter the contest because she took a philosophy elective in school. She admits, however, to being a voracious reader who enjoys tomes like Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand.
She also loves traditional Indian dance her parents immigrated from southern India 22 years ago and plans to attend The College of New Jersey in Ewing next year.
Her major will be premedical studies. However, she adds with a smile, she may pursue a minor in philosophy as well, just for pleasure.
"Philosophy challenges you, makes you think about things you overlook," she says. In a way, though, she says, her background as a double minority an orthodox Christian growing up in an immigrant family has always pushed her toward an examination of ideas.
"I've learned to listen to lots of different ways of thinking," she says.