The Death of Socrates (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nothing excites me more than a student proving the ignorance of the powers that be.
On Monday, my room was visited for the great beauty pageant of education, the quality review. It wasn’t to observe me, though: the technology teacher had the class that period and it was mostly to observe her. I was sitting in the front of the room, doing some paperwork as if nothing was happening.
The reviewers entered the room, along with the four assistant principals, packed at four corners of my room. They observed, gawked, took notes, asked questions of some of the students. The technology lesson was supposed to be the focus.
My students, of course, stole the show.
As the teacher asked the students about the student surveys they would be taking online, one of my students rose his hand and explained, quite calmly, how the results can be manipulated to show students doing worse than they really are, so that it looks like they’re making progress. My supervisor laughed nervously. The other reviewers gasped.
I couldn’t be prouder. There was my kid thinking critically—with NO coaching—and noting the glaring flaws in the system.
Furthermore, it looked like the review team was looking less at the lesson and more at my room. Charts of Athenian democracy and Alexander the Great’s empire. Student-produced definitions of “civilization.” Projects about energy, including a provocative poster stating that nuclear energy “will blow your mind.” Quotes by Plato and Aristotle above the blackboard.
My supervisor darted to me as I was working at my desk. Usually very calm, she had a look of abject horror: “They want to know about what’s written on the whiteboard.” I had done an introductory class on Greek philosophy the periods before, and we came up with a list of philosophical questions, “big” questions that have no right answer. At the very top right was the ominous “Is God real?”
“It was a philosophy lesson, “ I explained. “Those are examples of philosophical questions they came up with.”
There was no reason to panic. A cursory look at the board would have given that clue: questions like “Where did the universe come from?”, “What happens when we die?”, “What is reality?”, etc. Yet questioning like this makes administrators panic—even as such thinking is critical to becoming a successful adult.
This is why I love philosophy. It makes kids smarter and scares the shit out of adults who think they know everything.
I’ve wanted to teach intro philosophy for a while, but I never found the right avenue: too many “kid-friendly” sites on ancient history are just that: too kid-friendly and not challenging enough. I wanted to use real texts, Plato’s dialogues and whatnot, but the translations were simply too inaccessible for my young kids.
In a weird way, my problem was solved through a rather profane little blog I came across by accident.
Philosophy Bro seems, at least on the surface, to be simply a Cliffs Notes of the great philosophical texts of Western civilization. It includes ancients, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, Russell, Marx, Hegel…you name it. If it were simply that, it would be a great place to get a snapshot of the works that shape Western thought.
Yet for classrooms, especially those in middle and high school, Philosophy Bro is much more.
P-Bro, for lack of a better pseudonym, could’ve easily just given a summary of the main points of each piece in a factual yet dry manner ala Cliffs or SparkNotes or any other study guide on the market. Yet he goes one step further. In a saucy, irreverent, often obsene manner, P-Bro gets at the essence of the text AS A TEXT, not simply as a repository of philosophical thought. He gets the cadences, rhythms, moods and style of each author—which makes his blog special.
Take Plato, for example…an example I used in class, after all. I could’ve easily gotten some thrown-together kid-happy reading piece about how Socrates made people think, and said things that weren’t popular and made people sad and forced him to die. Bullshit. I wanted to find an accessible text of Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ defense at his trial in 399 BCE. Mostly direct transcripts at first (which would make any middle schooler pass out after page 2), but then I stumbled on Philosophy Bro.
Now, to understand my enthusiasm: my intro to philosophy class at Georgetown was basically a boot camp in Plato and Aristotle. We read almost every dialogue, wrote a report on each one, tore it apart line by line. P-Bro nailed it. What’s even better, I got a two-fer: he also summarized the Crito, where Socrates talks his friend out of getting him sprung from jail. In both, Socrates’ zest and venom roll pure, even if the language can be puerile at times.
(Apparently, according to P-Bro, philosophy is naked without F-bombs.)
So I took his summaries, cleaned up the language a bit (quite a task) and presented to my students. They got it immediately. It was amazing how Socrates’ method, his ideals and his worldview rang true in a funny, bawdy way that kept the kids rolling.
The quicker you get students to think for themselves and to question the world around them, the better you’ll feel as an educator. Philosophy Bro was a great tool in allowing my kids to enter the world of Plato, Aristotle and the other thinkers of our civilization.
…and nothing feels better than scaring the shit out of pencil-pushing administrators.
Videos for the Classroom: Crash Course!
I cringe at the word “kid-friendly” — sounds like a bad Law and Order: SVU episode.
One of the constant missions of the Neighborhood is to find resources that tap into the caffeine-addled brains of young people. In the quest to find “kid-friendly” material, most of what I find is directed at…okay, I’ll say it…good little white children. Good little pasty white kids that sit still and believe anything told to them because a happy smiling face in a toga (or bonnet or Abe Lincoln-esque stovepipe hat) tells them so.
Today, even the good little white kids aren’t really that good nor that white–you can thank TMZ, MTV and YouTube for that.
So to connect with today’s kids, we need something a little edgier. Crash Course! is a series of films about history and science, told in an irreverent, snarky way by brothers John and Hank Green. The World History series I saw was pretty entertaining, although the producers do make clear that historical people have sex (they get around it with a folksy word that I forgot). They are, however, loaded with data, facts and historical debate, when necessary–these guys don’t hide their biases, and it’s important for kids to see someone unashamed of their opinions.
If it weren’t for the occasional sex references, I’d recommend Crash Course! to middle schoolers on up. It’s perfectly fine for high school, but you may need some discretion with younger viewers. I’ve attached the episode on Alexander the Great to get an idea. Enjoy.
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