It’s been a lively and fast-moving start to the new term. The reality of the covid pandemic has meant that everyone has been kept very busy with ‘hybrid’ teaching, observing various protocols, teaching with masks or visors on, and adjusting to a pretty different new routine. Thankfully there’s been plenty of fun and learning going on alongside all the covid-related adjustments.
I’ve been meaning for a few days to write up a little account of a couple of fun lessons I’ve had with my sixth form Class Civ classes over the past couple of weeks. Here it is.
The pupils have this term begun to study the emergence of democracy in ancient Athens. We began by reflecting on the nature of democracy as a form of government over the course of world history, about its unpredictable career – both as an idea and as a reality – over time, and about some of its varied forms; how it first appeared in the ancient world, before (largely) disappearing out of sight for many centuries, only to re-emerge rather recently (and in new and different forms), and with spectacular and far-reaching results that touch all our lives.*
The first part of the course involves learning about the reforms of Solon in the early 6th century BC, reforms which – so it appears through hindsight – put in place some of the key building blocks (economic, political, legal, ideological) of the fully-fledged democracy that would later emerge in the city of Athens and its surrounding territory.
My approach in teaching this material has been to see it as an opportunity not just to learn some interesting and important facts about the past, but to try to encourage pupils to develop their own ‘democratic’ temperaments and skillsets. To study a political reformer like Solon, to appreciate what he seems to have done (the record of our sources is not unambiguous) and what he seems to have stood for, should not – I think – just be about learning to write good essays or enhancing one’s picture of history. It can also be about building life skills and a sense of self and other.
With this in mind, among other tasks the pupils have attempted over the past weeks, they have been asked – each in turn – to play the part of Solon (as pairs), speaking and acting as the man himself as he delivers his proposals for reform.
The setting in which they were asked to do this was the Areopagus council (a council consisting of influential aristocrats who – in various ways – presided over the city). This council had itself chosen Solon (as one of their own) to introduce some reforms in Athens, in order to allay the possibility of political revolution and the setting up of a tyranny.
But being chosen for the task wouldn’t necessarily make Solon’s job easy.
Pupils, playing the part of Solon, had to justify the reforms they wished to see enacted to some rather frosty council members (played by other pupils in the class, and me). We gave them some pretty robust opposition. Why these reforms? Why such radicalism? What, moreover, if anything, do the city’s aristocrats stand to gain?
More specifically: why should the debts of those who haven’t been able to repay them be, just, forgiven? Why should enslavement of the hopelessly indebted now be made impossible? Why should legal decisions which were made by wise Areopagus council members now be open to challenge in a court made up of ordinary rank-and-file Athenian citizens? Think of the dangers this might present!
Why, for that matter, should a new way of structuring society (around 4 different property classes), all of a sudden, be introduced? How would this pave the way for harmonious co-existence? And why, now, should anyone – in theory, provided they can earn enough money – have access to Athens’ prestigious archonships (i.e. magistracies)? These had previously been open only to the nobly born.
Pupils had to deal with some tough cross-examining from their colleagues on questions such as these. To help deal with this, they were encouraged to frame the news of the proposed reforms in a way that they felt would be most likely to appeal to the sensibilities of the Areopagus council. This, I wanted them to see, was a chance to develop their skills of diplomacy and persuasion, not just their public speaking.
Once they had done this, and after having just about persuaded a pretty nonplussed Areopagus council to go along with their proposals for reform, they were then asked – still in character as Solon – to head down to the agora, the Athenian marketplace.
Here they would deliver the news of the reforms, in person, to a crowd of ordinary Athenians. What sort of reaction might they expect now? What sorts of doubts, questions and responses would these ordinary Athenians be likely to have? How might they deal with different sorts of responses from different individuals? What might need to be different about addressing the agora, as opposed to addressing the Areopagus?
These were the sorts of questions I wanted pupils to think about – and they did an excellent job of exploring and responding to them. I don’t think anyone succumbed to full-on Machiavellianism, or to brusque dismissal.
These lessons, then, were fun occasions (I think for all concerned, even those who were a bit apprehensive about the ‘public speaking’ requirement). The chance to get into character, to do something fun with a role, was part of the reason for this. It was also good to have the opportunity to play the part of a difficult interlocutor, either as a member of the Areopagus or as an ordinary citizen, when quizzing one’s classmates as they played Solon.
But beyond mere fun, I think the experience of ‘being Solon’, of ‘doing politics’ in the classroom in this way, can feed (as mentioned above) into a developing sense of self, a growing confidence to speak and address an audience in a thoughtful and appropriate way, and a capacity to argue imaginatively and respectfully, but also directly with one’s peers about some weighty questions.
At a time when our public discourse can seem a bit thin on the ground when it comes to some of these qualities, it’s been good to see them put into practice.
* Two good books on democracy over the longue duree are John Dunn’s Setting the People Free and Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: a life.
The featured image is ‘Solon before Croesus’ by Nikolaus Knuepfer (c. 1650).