A Good Teacher Reads Plato And Watches The Office

Nov 21, 2018

After a disastrous round of Take Your Daughter To Work Day, Michael Scott is giving the camera a run-down on how to manage children when he drops the following gem: “I don't get why parents are always complaining about how tough it is to raise kids. You joke around with them, you give them pizza, you give them candy, you let them live their lives. They're adults, for God's sake.” You can learn a lot about being a good teacher by watching The Office and doing the opposite of what Michael Scott does.  

One of the most important thing rookie teachers can learn from Michael Scott is that familiarity breeds contempt.  In my fourteen years teaching, I have seen a good number of teaching applicants do sample lessons when applying for jobs, and many of those applicants have graduated college quite recently. College is not really much like high school, nor can it be, but this is hard to remember while in college, especially when college is going really well.  

By junior or senior year in college, students have been to a few parties at professor’s houses, thrown back a few glasses of wine, and (sort of) been treated as equals by the old fellows, who are occasionally willing to talk shop in front of students, by which I mean complaining about the dean and the fact that Maya Angelou is overrated (a forbidden opinion). Juniors and seniors have taken part in small seminars, perhaps just six other students, where everyone sat around a table sharing their thoughts, communing, arguing, becoming, sorting out their sins. In such classes, the prof is somehow both sage and companion, dispensing wisdom, but also receiving wisdom, as well. “Why couldn’t high school be more like this?” the student asks, and then subsequently promises himself, “When I am a teacher, I am going to recreate this same open, familiar environment for my students. I’m going to do class just like Dr. Berkman.”

When recent graduates, who have lately enjoyed such friendships with their college profs, show up in high school classrooms to audition for positions teaching 9th grade English, they are often inclined to sit, to refer to the students as “you guys,” and to read the day’s text and then lob soft under-handed water balloons like, “So what does that mean?” The applicant quickly discovers that the same qualities which led to a convivial atmosphere among half a dozen adults back in college leads to chaos when attempted among twenty adolescents. I cannot blame the recent college grad for trying, though, because he has correctly identified a good thing as a good thing.

In the last month, in this column, I have addressed several critical comments toward the use of “Socratic dialog”, though I will note here that my principle concern is with the role of Socratic dialog in high school classrooms. In discussing “Socratic dialog” with friends, I have found the expression suggests at least three different things:

1. The questions a teacher asks to lead his students to particular, already determined Truths

2. Tools of inquiry which do not lead to the Truth, but merely other (allegedly better) tools of inquiry

3. An open-ended conversation wherein all participants have caught a glimpse of Truth and help one another track the Truth

Of these three options, the first is the only one appropriate to the high school classroom, the second leads to skepticism, and the third is actually Socratic, but simply not possible (or desirable, or safe) in a high school classroom.

We should all be honest enough to admit that what we typically call “Socratic dialog” among middle school students sounds precious little like the actual dialogs of Socrates. On the one hand, classical educators believe that learning (and teaching) comes by way of imitation. On the other hand, they are prone to say that “Socratic dialog” means less lecture and more questions. This is curious, though, because if Penguin or Oxford were to release an edition of Plato’s Republic wherein the words of Socrates were printed in red, the pages would be mostly red. After Book II, Socrates does most of the talking, and Glaucon occasionally chimes in to say, like an unwaveringly positive magic 8-ball, “It is decidedly so.” No one, myself included, wants a teacher to do as much talking in the classroom as Socrates did. 

Nonetheless, as I have argued before, the average teacher is simply not a competent-enough lecturer to sustain the attention of an audience for sixty minutes. I certainly am not. An ideal hour of class, so far as I am concerned, begins with a seven-minute recitation, proceeds to a brief review of the previous day, ten to twenty minutes of reading aloud from a classic text, ten to twenty minutes of lecture, and the teacher spends the remainder of his time (perhaps half the class) asking difficult questions of his students which are born out of the reading. The teacher asks for implications, explanations, comparisons, contradictions, paradoxes, contemporary applications. Classic texts are treated like holy Scripture, and thus have multiple layers of meaning which can only be derived from using different modes of interpretation. For the life of me, though, I am not sure why anyone would see this and call it “Socratic.”

For a moment, consider the fact that Plato’s Republic is a dialog carried out between a small coterie of adults, all of whom are allowed to leave the conversation (in disgust) if they so choose. The Republic is set in a private residence, on a festal day, and not in a classroom. Socrates ends up teaching, but he is not recognized as “the teacher.” He is wise, he is trusted, he is worthy of Glaucon and Adeimantus’s attention, but he is not the one who gives assignments and issues grades. Before Socrates speaks, he listens to the elderly Cephalus describe the many benefits of old age. Ultimately, Socrates takes issue with Cephalus’s definition of justice, but Cephalus departs to make sacrifices to the gods before he hears the end of the matter. Plato does not stage the Republic as a conversation between a teacher and students.

A friend recently suggested that Socratic dialog might be better understood as a genre of literature than a model of teaching. No one I know takes the book of Proverbs as a classroom model. What would a classroom look like if Proverbs were taken as a model for teaching, as opposed to a genre of literature? Would the teacher simply say something pithy every few seconds or so for an entire hour, then dismiss the students, who had uttered not a syllable? This sounds perfectly dreadful, though it is not hard to imagine some die-hard arguing, “This is the way the wisest man of all time did it, so…”

Many times in my life, I have passed hours in conversation with close friends—all of our hearts were inclined toward one another— and we have collectively arrived at profound and arresting truths which no one could have arrived at independently. By the end of the evening, no one can remember who said what first, because our talk was an elegant round dance wherein distinguishing one partner from another became all but impossible. Such conversations are far closer to the dialogs of Socrates, for, despite the length of his speeches, one really does get the impression that Socrates is working out his ideas as he talks through them, and the little questions and minor objections from Glaucon and Adeimantus in the Republic do count for something. Imagine what Socrates could have done if Glaucon were half as clever as himself— but that’s exactly what the great conversations in everyone’s life is like. However, such conversations are only possible when there is a great degree of equality shared between all conversants. Such a condition will simply never be met in a high school classroom.

In recent weeks, several seniors at Veritas (where I teach) have told me of their long philosophical talks with one another that go into the small hours of the morning. They care for the Truth, but they disagree, and so they debate and argue and derive immense satisfaction from it all. At the moment, though, I could not offer them such conversation, because I am still their teacher.  

The relationship between a college student and a prof is fundamentally different than the relationship between high school student and teacher. If a high school student fails a class, his parents will complain to the administration on his behalf. If a college student fails a class, he has no recourse to his parents. A college student can be drafted, can vote, can go to jail for life, and, in moving out on his own, suddenly accrues a host of harrowing, vertigo-inducing adult responsibilities. If a seventeen-year-old high school senior starves to death, his parents will be charged with manslaughter. If an eighteen-year-old adult on a scholarship at Brown starves to death, not so. By junior or senior year, it is reasonable for college profs to speak to their students as though they are equals— even though this is something of a performance. Such a performance allows for something like the dialogs of Socrates to take place, if all the participants are willing to seek the Truth, regardless of where the Truth takes them. The college prof who speaks to seniors with ease is not truly being familiar, he is simply comiserating. 

To be frank, the average classical Christian school does not want teachers following the Truth wherever it takes them. This is simply one of the implications of having an ecumenical school with primary and secondary doctrine policies. A group of friends who enter a conversation on equal footing can follow the Truth wherever it leads, including excursions through rough underbrush, but their equality is what makes the conversation genuine. On the other hand, a classical teacher is the paid custodian of a conversation, and he ought to ask a host of both leading questions and open-ended questions which help students arrive at a pre-determined Truth— though I am not sure what this has to do with Socrates, who did nothing of the kind. When I have Socratic dialog with my friends, the conditions are typically quite similar to those describes in the first book of the Republic. We are in someone’s backyard, sitting face to face across a table, with a bottle of wine and several glasses between us. Neither of us must be there, but we have both willingly elected to do so, and either one of us can leave when we please. It is nothing like a classroom, and neither of us is anything like a teacher.   

The management mistakes which so many young teachers make, especially those just out of college, stem from the faulty belief that anything which is possible in a university classroom is possible in a high school classroom. But the third kind of Socratic dialog mentioned above occurs between people who have shared knowledge, shared commitments, a shared weltanschauung, and a shared stake in the world. They are both free to pursue the Truth wherever it may lead, because if they fail terribly in their pursuit, they are similarly culpable for the repercussions. High school simply does not meet these conditions, nor should it. If my arguments and examples have failed to persuade you of this, a brief experiment should be conducted in which high school students are afforded all the same discretionary freedoms which college students enjoy. You do not have to come to class, and if you do, you are still free to leave when you like. If high school bodies are not governed as college bodies, neither are high school minds governed as college minds.

There is a very wise and offensive proverb well-known among elementary school teachers which I only recently learned from a worthy and well-regarded classroom veteran where I work: Do not smile until Thanksgiving. The teacher must be sufficiently other. Do not call your students “guys.” This is a classroom. This is a nave. This is not Applebee’s and the teacher is not “taking care of you tonight” like Zach the waiter. Michael Scott underplays his authority whenever he thinks it will make him more well-liked, but when the cost of being well-liked is inconvenience or honesty, he invariably retreats back to his position as boss. So, too, the teacher who lives by familiarity dies by familiarity.

Absolutely none of this is a complaint against high school students, whom I love, and to whom I have now devoted a third of my life. I quite enjoy the particulars of high school, of teenagers, and the boundaries and securities of working at an ecumenical school. There is something at once very desperate and yet very grand about being sixteen, and it will have been the goal of my career to deliver the wisdom of the ages to these grand and desperate human beings. It is always my hope that graduates will want to keep in touch after they get their diplomas, though, and that I can set down the mantle of teacher and that we can be friends and pursue the truth together as equals, perhaps in my backyard, just like Socrates did.   

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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