First, every time I open a text I’ve assigned for the prison book group (or rather that the prison book group has selected from a number of options I’ve recommended) and begin reading, I am immediately struck by features of the text I’m quite confident would be silent or invisible to me teaching in my regular job at a small college of traditionally aged students, by which I mean 18-22, which at this point in American life is no doubt the exception rather than the rule about the majority of college students. Of course I critically prepare texts to teach them in my day job, and I think a lot about what students are likely not to know about history, the philosophical context, the structure of the arguments, vocabulary, and so on, all of which rise to the surface and glitter in their complexity as I prepare to discuss the works in my prison book group. But many more things likewise come to the fore that I’d not otherwise think about at all: the presumptions of safety, non violence, material comfort, choices about how to spend one’s time, family history, and of course not least crime history. Preparing for the prison book group also reminds me that even at my college my students come from many different backgrounds and experiences, and I should of course not presume to lump them all together under the heading of being the children of privilege either: for many students that way lies a constant struggle with double consciousness. And let me note here that the old joke that to hear the men tell it there are no guilty men in prison could not be farther from the truth, in my group at least. These men all cop to their crimes, in fact, are willing to talk about them in some case in ways that make me pretty uncomfortable; but more to the point, most of these men self identify as to the core, and first and last, Criminals, and our work on the world’s great religions and various theories of human nature have had a profound impact on some of their self images.
Okay, back to the main line of thought: the first general principle is that the audience for whom one is prepping to teach a text has a near miraculous effect on what one notices in the text, what becomes salient in the text. As I mentioned in my earlier post on this week’s meeting the importance this group of readers places on keeping it real, on honesty and integrity, could not have made the contrast with Socrates’s slipperiness in this dialogue any clearer. And that in turn put me in a tricky position: how far did I want to go to defend the Socrates (or Plato) of this dialogue? If you start any discussion by tearing down the work you risk alienating the audience from the text so totally that it’s hard to see why you had them take the time to read it and study it in the first place. On the other hand, if you defend the text (and persona who emerge in it) defensively, that too, can backfire. So — and here is where the prison group work converges with any classroom — the trick was to work together to show what is good and interesting about the text, including what we can learn from its weaknesses, and in this instance, because it is a weak dialogue, that required going to the blackboard for work on a critical reconstruction of the argument, thinking about the strategy, and finally stepping back to think about the takeaway points about, in this case, love and friendship. The analysis was quite empowering: first, because the group went from feeling tricked, confused, and frustrated, to being able to enter into the conversation to call out Socrates on some of his sleazy moves. Who among us hasn’t had those bad feelings about Socrates and even Plato? How do we respond to them? Acknowledge the limitations, learn the strategies, work on cultivating your own authentic agency. And what do we learn about love from Plato? More anon.