Students come up with stunningly good questions.
Sometimes those questions take over the class.
I just experienced this first hand during a discussion on Plato’s Crito and Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail (one of the required documents in the redesigned AP government course.)
In Crito the setting is the prison where Socrates rests after conviction by the Athenians for corrupting the youth. His friends have a plan to help him escape and try to convince Socrates to go along with it. Socrates resists and leads Crito along a logical path towards the tragic conclusion that he should stay and accept his own death even though he believes the charge against him was unjust.
We explored the question: What are the responsibilities of the individual to the state?
Socrates’ position is clear– an individual must obey the laws of the state and accept its punishments even though it may not be in his self interest to do so.
Fast forward 2,500 years later– same setting, this time a prison in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King is responding to a group of religious leaders who implore him not to move so fast towards social justice. He pens the famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
In the letter, King’s speaks eloquently about the obligation of the individual to pursue civil disobedience against the state when he feels laws are unjust. Waiting and hoping for change are fruitless and immoral responses to injustice. Going against your government is the duty of all oppressed citizens.
The discussion was running a predictable path when suddenly a student who hadn’t said anything to that point weighed in:
So who’s the real hero here– Socrates or King? Is it the person who exercises civil disobedience in response to a government’s unjust law or a person who obeys the law no matter what?
The word “hero” was the trigger that forced people to take a position.
This one question led to 20 minutes of discussion where we defended our positions with reasoning and evidence gleaned from the primary sources.
A quick summary of the fallout…
- Some argued for Socrates since he refused to bow down to peer pressure from his friends to leave the prison, knowing that if he did that and flaunted his government he would be giving permission for all people to do the same.
- King supporters struck back with the reasoning that when individuals consider laws to be unjust, then it is their duty to break that law with the expectation that the government will change its ways.
- Others suggested BOTH were heroes because they both challenged convention: King used civil disobedience to challenge unjust laws and Socrates used questioning to get the youth to think for themselves.
- One extremely perceptive student argued that BOTH Socrates and King believed in obedience to the law– the difference was that King obeyed a divine law.
Truth be told, some students said nothing or were fearful of taking a stand. But they were listening.
One question blew open possibilities for critical thinking and left us all fighting for answers. It is a reminder that the right question, asked at just the right time, with just the right word, can change the trajectory of a class– especially when it is a student leading the way. If only all discussions were like this!