Friday, October 6, 2017

Profound Plato: What Brings Plato to Life for Undergraduate Students?

Part of the joy of teaching Plato is seeing just how non-antiquarian his ideas truly are. I have to admit though, I hadn't always found such joy in teaching Plato and in fact re-discovered Plato when I started teaching Ancient Greek Philosophy about, oh, three or so years ago.

The very first time I taught the class was while I was VAP at East Stroudsburg University, teaching the class while also teaching three other sections of Intro with about 75 students in each section save for the large auditorium section which had 140 students. 145 students I believe, to be more precise. Yes I had two TA's, but they didn't do anything except complain how I put them to work editing a book I was working on at the time (within their scope of duties, technically).

Anyway, it was then that as I began teaching the class I first discovered a love for the Presocratics - which I always had given that a main research area of mine is the philosophy of nature. The Presocratics' various ontologies of nature has always fascinated me, but not until I actually started teaching them in-depth had I learned more than what I did as a foundation in my graduate studies. In the teaching-world that's common, however.

But, Plato was different. I, like many undergraduates, wasn't particularly excited about Plato when I was in my early college years. The professor who taught the Ancient Greek Philosophy class I took was himself quite ancient! And as an impatient young person I couldn't get myself too terribly excited about the class despite doing quite well in it.

Enter my graduate school days: a Plato seminar on the M.A. track had me reading once again the in's and out's of the dialogues and the Republic. But other than the very first class, the material just wasn't brought to life.

This brings me to my point: it is so, so important that - at least in one's undergraduate training, when one is first introduced to any philosophy, where that philosophy has even the remotest potential to be a turn-off to a student - that one approaches with great care how that philosophy is taught. It must be done very, very carefully. As it turns out, my belief is that how one teaches Plato is almost just as important as the content of Plato we decide to teach in the class. Now, obviously it is not up to the student as to how the material is taught - which is why so many young people miss out on Plato. Many professors simply don't know how to teach it. (Many, but not all.)

Not until my Ph.D. days did I even begin to glimpse the full power of Ancient Greek philosophy. I had taken a seminar on Aristotle (our doctoral program had us taking seminars in all of the major historical thinkers, whether Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, etc. etc.) where I noticed just how absolutely profound Ancient Greek thought was. That experience I can recount another day. But for now, it seems to me that it can certainly be a good thing that as we mature our approach to things we once liked (or didn't like), changes.

Sometimes this may occur in the case of, say, some sort of band or music one enjoyed as a teenager. There are plenty of things which I listened to then which may me cringe now. On the other hand, there are things I listened to then which I still listen to and enjoy now. Whether mark of quality or personal taste is unimportant when it comes to trying to pass on the value of something as we see it. But for philosophy I think it is different.

The sad part is when (as a youngster) one cringes at the good stuff when what they are cringing at is very, very good. Such is the case with Plato. (Perhaps, too, a case may be made here for classical music as well. By that I mean, despite one for example not having a taste for classical music, perhaps one's maturity and patience would allow them to see the beauty present in it. And as I always say, the more one learns about classical music, and one understands how it can be profitably listened to so that its true scope becomes present, then one's taste might possibly change to include it. This became true when I began re-learning how to play the piano as an adult after having studied as a child.)

For me, Plato brings to life philosophy in its most active but also troubled sense. In a book like the Republic for example, something as (supposedly) simple as the translation of "justice" features in such a way that, college age or not, the stakes of its meaning is absolutely relevant. And of course as any philosopher who has read Plato knows, not just politically but in moral terms - in axiological terms.

How does one bring Plato to life for students? Well, part of the trick is that one must be ready to teach Plato. This means one personally seeing the value in and importance of what one is teaching. I hadn't sat down to actually carefully read through the Republic again since graduate school. So not until I was reading it to prepare to teach it for my first Ancient Greek Philosophy class had I not seen it with eyes which were ready. But what made me ready? The fact that (hopefully) my philosophical eyes have matured abit? The mere fact that I was older and had more patience? I'm not sure.

I can say, though, that if one personally sees what is profound in Plato, one's students will too.