“It’s very hard to be right in philosophy.”
I was in college when I had my first class in philosophy. We may think philosophy too hard, esoteric, or maybe even a waste of time. But in the documentary Young Plato, filmmakers Neasa Ní Chianáin and Declan McGrath, take us to a primary school in the North of Belfast that thrives on bringing philosophy into the lives of the students and their families. At the center of this is a headmaster whose office is filled with Elvis memorabilia and who reads The Daily Stoic.
At Holy Cross Boys Primary School, Head Master Kevin McArevey and his staff teach boys ages 4 through 11 how to deal with the issues of life by applying the questions of philosophy. When two boys scuffle in the school yard, they are brought to McArevey who takes them to the Philosophy wall to discuss the whys of behavior and consequences. Philosophy here takes on flesh and blood to become an important tool to address the past, the here-and-now, and the future.
The school is located in a predominantly Catholic area of the city. The neighborhood was a place of violence during The Troubles. The parents of the children grew up with that violence. There are still Peace Walls that separate various blocks. There are many murals that go back to that time, or are meant to memorialize the violence. There is also an incident when a pipe bomb is found near the schoolyard. The neighborhood is also somewhat decayed. There are drugs. There is an above average suicide rate.
McArevey talks to the boys about such serious concepts as death, violence, anxiety. He asks them to think about the whys, and also about the what-should- we-do’s. Sometimes this in in one-on-one encounters, especially following a boy resorting to violence at school. Other times it is in a class filled with students.
The students (keep in mind the oldest are 11) have a remarkable ability to analyze. When he asked them to refute Heraclitus’s statement “You can’t step into the same river twice”, they come up with two examples of things that never change. (I won’t share them with you. Can you think as well as these boys?) When McArevey talks to them about Seneca’s (a Roman contemporary of Jesus) Ten Ways to Control Your Anger, he asks them for ways, then compared them to Seneca (and they get several of them).
He also challenges the boys to question everything—even their teachers and parents. He tells them to “what if everything you hear”. Often boys who fight will tell him that they have been taught that if they are hit, they must hit back. That is certainly a common idea, but especially in a place such as Belfast with its violent history. He tries to show the boys how to talk with parents about such teachings.
The history of violence in the neighborhood comes up often. McArevey shows them news reports of things that happened there. He encourages the boys to share the stories of their family in those days. For them, The Troubles are not limited to the past. That time is an ever-present part of their environment. It is only by learning to view that history critically, that the boys can help to change the culture they are in.
The publicity for the film identifies McArevey as a Stoic. Stoics believe that happiness is found through virtue. In a place such as Northern Ireland, that may seem like a radical idea. But we see that such an approach to life can be fruitful.
I know that education is a complicated endeavor. But watching what happens at Holy Cross offers a glimpse at a possibility that might be transferable to other settings. It makes it clear that children—even as young as these—are capable of very sophisticated thinking. We may be right that philosophy is hard or esoteric, but it does matter. And the Boys of Holy Cross are better for it.
Young Plato is in select theaters.
Photos courtesy of Solisiú Films