“Reacting to the Past” in the Community College: Introduction

You walk into your class a few minutes before it is scheduled to begin. To your pleasant surprise, six or seven of your students arrived sufficiently early to arrange the tables in a large half-circle, in preparation for discussion and debate. They did this without your request, but it’s exactly the formation they needed today. You also notice a large portion of the students already seated, pouring over their copies of Plato’s Republic.  Some students are wrapped in white linens, in imitation of the tunics worn in Athens, circa 403bc. One has a garland in her hair.  Rather than walking to the front of class and introducing the day’s main topics, you instead quietly take a seat in the back and pull out your own copy of The Republic, turning to the pages on the goals of an excellent education: to make good citizens first, and to give them the tools so that they may contribute to society in the way they are specially suited as individuals. Though you have not provided specific guidance, most everyone is reviewing the same pages.

The minute that class is scheduled to begin arrives and passes. Nothing has changed. You are still sitting in seat, saying nothing, unless a student approaches to ask a question about the text. Otherwise, you can clearly see your students clustered in groups about the room, speaking in hushed voices, The Republic in hand. Occasionally, a student from one corner of the room stares menacingly to another cluster. A young, petite woman raises her fist and booms, “Athens is a city of democracy! The men who fought for us have the right to participate in government!”  A young man from the opposite group retorts, “giving the rule to the mob is giving Athens over to the passions of the appetite! That’s no way to rule wisely or justly!” A commotion begins, and chaos threatens. You continue to sit in your chair, taking notes about who is saying what. Ten minutes after the scheduled class start, you, the instructor, have yet to say a word.