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Reading Plato in Junior High

Between 6-8th grade at The Saint Constantine School, students in our Introduction to Great Books  course series will read over 65 great works of philosophy, theology, fiction, and poetry. While this set includes perennial favorites like The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia, our junior high students will also read twelve Platonic dialogues during this time.

While no one has raised an eyebrow at the thought of our middle schoolers reading Tolkien or Lewis, I’ve met several people over the last few years who have expressed surprise and even consternation at the thought of junior high students reading Plato. Here are some of the questions I’ve grown accustomed to hearing.

Isn’t Plato too hard for them?

There is a degree to which this is a reasonable question, and the answer is yes. If a student cannot comprehend a subject with 100% mastery, then I suppose you could say that it is in some sense too hard for them. But then, I’ve never met an educator I trust who thinks we should only teach what can be easily mastered.

Wouldn’t it be better to read that in high school or college?

Students in high school and college should be better equipped to read Plato than middle school students (though this is not always the case), but that doesn’t mean that junior high is too early to begin this encounter.

Looked at another way, this question is a bit silly. Is Phaedo difficult to understand in 7th grade? Absolutely, but only in the way that it remains difficult whether you’re in high school, college, grad school, or suddenly find yourself leading discussions on the text.

Don’t they hate it?

Do students hate reading Plato? Sure, some do at first, but not necessarily because of their age. The problem that I have with this question—and others like it—is that it reveals an unhelpful mistrust of young minds to engage in a meaningful pursuit of Truth. The speaker of such questions is most likely someone who would not be willing let a 12-year-old sit and grapple with a really hard question, and if that is the case, he may be the sort of person who is not willing to sit and grapple with a really hard question himself.

What can a 12-year-old possibly get out of reading Plato?

Quite a lot, it turns out, and Plato even asks me to consider whether a young mind might get more out of reading and discussing the text than I can; since they are young, they are less likely to be married to their ideas than someone my age. Now, if I am both older and have been faithfully pursuing Wisdom, I will be further along the path than my students; but if I have not been careful, I could end up more set in my ways, my soul encumbered by bad opinions that prevent me from seeing Truth clearly. Junior high students are naturally less experienced, but they also have the advantage of being intellectually curious, an invaluable trait that can too easily disappear if neglected in later life.

Despite these questions, I have come to be convinced that Plato is an excellent guide for middle schoolers. Here are my reasons.

Plato teaches us how to think without telling us what to think.

Students beginning middle school are also entering a new phase in intellectual development that, in the classical terms of the Trivium, is known as the Logic stage. Much to the chagrin of parents and authority figures everywhere, students at this age are developing the capacity for rational argumentation (though, as with all of us, the capacity for irrational argument remains strong). This means that they are capable of engaging with big ideas at an important level, because so many of the what, who, and how questions of the elementary years are now accompanied by why? They are moving beyond what have I been told? to why have I been told that? or why should I believe it? They are capable of reasoning, of making important distinctions, and of disagreeing.

While this may at times feel inconvenient or even threatening to those in authority, we should not lose sight of the fact that this growth is in fact a very good thing, and that these years are critical in equipping them to think and reason well. This is where Plato can be so helpful; rather than write lectures for us to receive passively that tell us what to think, he wrote dialogues that actively engage the mind and teach us how to think. Students must first work through the questions and proposed answers of the dialogue, and once they have discerned what is lacking in Meno’s definitions of virtue or Euthyphro’s account of piety, they must attempt to form their own arguments.

The fact that Plato is so often able to anticipate their arguments is exasperating to the students, but of vital importance in demonstrating how difficult it can be to speak accurately about the most important things. Plato not only gives young students the vocabulary to discuss ethics, the soul, ontology, cosmology, and all that fun stuff, he invites us to join actively in these discussions so that we can learn to think well about that which truly matters.

Plato wrote for lovers of Wisdom, not experts.

There were indeed “experts” in Plato’s day, men like Hippias, Gorgias, and Protagoras. These men belong to the set that Socrates frequently refers to as Sophists, and the most charitable way to understand this term would be “wise one” or “knower,” someone capable of delivering wisdom to others. But what Socrates found to be frequently true of these so-called experts was that they did not care about Wisdom for its own sake, but instead bent fragments of Wisdom to their own advantage to gain wealth, status, and acclaim. As a result, they did not truly know what they claimed to know, and deceived themselves and others.

Socrates does not appear to be interested in using Wisdom in this way, and would most likely consider this harmful both to himself and to those around him. Wisdom is worthy of our love—worthy of being pursued for its own sake. Plato did not write so that we might become sophistical experts, but so that we might learn to love Wisdom. When teachers believe that students are not as capable of learning to love Wisdom as we are, we deceive ourselves and are in danger of sophistry.

Plato’s dialogues are an ideal introduction to the depth and care with which Great Books are written.

Great texts reward not only careful and patient reading, but continual re-reading as well. When I tell my students that Plato put careful thought into every line and every word of his that we read, it is at first easy for them to doubt, and why shouldn’t they? We are often so careless with our own words that it is difficult at first to believe that such a profound level of mind and artistry are at work in the words before us.

But once we start discussing, we begin to see that there are immensely important answers in response to such questions: Why does the Republic begin with the words “I went down”? Why does the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur serve as the backdrop for Phaedo? Why are we told that that Socrates’ eyes are open when he dies? Why does Socrates cover his head during his first speech in Phaedrus? Why does Socrates call Meno a “rascal?” For Junior High students, these questions can seem like a strange but exciting dialectical puzzle, and they are likely to bring an enthusiasm to the search that is so vital to the pursuit of Truth.

The reading is difficult, but the discussion is illuminating.

Reading Platonic dialogues for the first time can be difficult at any age, but I’m willing to grant that it may be especially so for students of middle school age. Thankfully, we are not simply meant to read a dialogue to find out what Plato “thought”—that would be an exercise in folly—but rather to have the courage to pick up the argument and grapple with the questions posed in the dialogue.

When we first read Plato, students frequently come in saying that the dialogue was boring or confusing, but when asked, What is virtue? they suddenly find themselves having the best discussion they’ve had all year. This is a continual exercise in learning to love Wisdom for all of us, and the hard work in discussion is so much more rewarding because of the hard work done in reading. Too often in education, we let the thought “this is hard for them” lead to the conclusion “they can’t do this,” and this is a disservice to our students. Real growth is always difficult, but well worth the struggle.

We will be better men, braver and less idle, if we believe that one must search for the things one does not know. – Socrates, Plato’s Meno

After our third discussion on a particular dialogue, one student said, “When I first read it, I thought it was boring, or at least just confusing. But after we talked about it, I feel excited now when I read it because I know it’s important, even if I don’t know why.”

This was a wonderful thing to hear for several reasons. First, it reveals not only growth in the student, but an awareness of growth—something is there that wasn’t there before, and the student knows it. Second, enthusiasm had been inspired by following the Logos, giving new life and energy to the mind. Finally, a desire for Truth that was beyond the student’s grasp had been kindled, and even if she didn’t know exactly what that might be, she had the notion that she was now capable of finding it.

Another student, new to the program, recently asked in frustration, “Why doesn’t [Plato] just give us the answer?” This is a great question, and the answer given by her classmate (a returning student) was helpful: “he wants us to find it ourselves. Even if we don’t get it today, we’re getting closer.”

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