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Philosophizing among Refugee Students in the High School ELL Classroom

Introduction: Mythic Consciousness and Philosophy

Philosophy is commonly misunderstood as one subject among many that you might take up in school; it is often confounded with whatever “Doctors of Philosophy” know about, and colloquially it has come to mean whatever each of us professes when we tell others our opinion about what is important. However, the word “philosophy” originally meant the “love” (philia) of “wisdom” (sophia). At its inception, philosophy was thought to arise most especially in the soul whenever we are led to wonder about who we are and why we are.

Famously, Socrates is said to have claimed that philosophy begins with wonder (thauma, Theaetetus 155d). Wonder is a key experience for us; it cuts through our pretences to knowledge; it awakens our spirit of inquiry (zetesis), and in precious moments it reveals to us through flashes of insight the intricacy and profundity of our relations to all other beings throughout time and space, as well as our identity with the eternal. In narrative form, myths are designed to conjure and recapitulate these experiences of wonder. This is why Aristotle told us long ago that the “lover of wisdom” is not dissimilar to the “lover of myth” inasmuch as both are enthralled by wondrous sights (Metaphysics 982b18).

Now as then, stories or mythoi remain a source of wonder for human beings. Myths connect us to what is timelessly old, boundless, and unfathomable both in the world and in ourselves. Consciousness of these precious, foundational elements of existence is precisely what aspiring lovers of wisdom seek to cultivate. Mythic speech and storytelling are quite unlike many other modes of communication, for what we express and what we receive through myth does not simply concern the small or the large; neither does myth pertain to one particular thing, nor to a myriad of things. Rather, mythoi invite us to wonder about the whole of being. Not coincidentally, this is also Josef Pieper’s most succinct definition of the nature of the philosophic pursuit. For him, philosophy is best described as inquiry into “reality as such.”[1]

Myths direct our attention towards the eternal in the temporal and the immortal in the mortal. They divulge to us how manyness is reconciled with oneness; how beauty undergirds all ugliness; how evil is reconciled to good, how justice abounds in a world rife with injustice; how hatred and fear are only illusions; and of how Love is the ultimate source for all that is. The vision (theoria) provided to us by myth astonishes.

Mythic consciousness is characterized by astonishment. As such, myths are particularly well-suited to cultivating the “love of wisdom,” for philosophy thrives in such astonishment. When myths are told earnestly, and when they are listened to both openly and attentively, they can ripen our minds and our hearts so that we may begin to learn deeply what we did not know and what we have not understood. Myths astonish in order to educate, and they educate in order to heal; for in helping us to see who we are and why we are, myths make available to us a divine gift (donum). This gift is a kind of seeing (theoria) that clears away our false understandings. The proverbial scales fall from our eyes all at once in a vision that reorients our minds, our hearts, and our actions in relation to others and the world around us.

Mythic seeing can undo much of our pain, fear, and anxiety. It can remedy our sense of isolation, as well as help to resolve our deep feelings of sadness by reconciling us to what is. Without attunement to mythic consciousness, we may often feel the presence of a great, unbridgeable chasm between ourselves and other people, as well as between what is and what should be. It is easy to find ourselves incapable of overcoming this rift that we recognize between ourselves, each other, and the world; moreover, the variety and intensity of suffering and injustice that permeates the world may have broken each of us in many ways so that we are left feeling alienated and unable to embrace any notion of the world (let alone ourselves!) as cosmos. Although we may have learned from reading books or from hearing speeches about a “good order of things” that has been generated by a wholly perfect and loving God, without seeing this cosmic order for ourselves, such words seem entirely abstract, merely intellectual, or patently naive. However, when the gift of mythic consciousness or seeing attends the hearing of such stories, a Nietzschean love of fate (Amor Fati) may come to us effortlessly and joyfully. All fissures between ourselves, cosmic being, and the divine are healed through the direct experience afforded by such a vision. This is why openness to mythic speech is crucial for our happiness as human beings.

Myths can work these transformations within us because they are revelatory: they reveal to us who and why we are. They bring us precious self knowledge. Various philosophers, cultures, and religious traditions say that myths are a “medicine” (pharmakon) for soul care.[2] Stories perform their healing work by shaking us out of ordinary consciousness, which is a lived ignorance that is much akin to sleep. Amidst ordinary consciousness, we take much for granted; we live by dint of habit, and we make decisions by a kind of shorthand assessment. Most especially, we generally suppose that we already know who we are and why we are.

Myth challenges the dull and ordinary state of consciousness in which we regularly find ourselves. We are affected by myth in our experiences of amazement (thauma) and perplexity (aporia). Wonder pierces through our eggshell-thin suppositions, which previously appeared so solid and well-established. Thauma expands our awareness and broadens our consciousness. In wonder we are delighted, for having come to realize what we do not know — and in particular that we didn’t know what we thought we knew! — we thereby experience a kind of liberation of the spirit. As the saying goes: “The truth will set you free.” There is healing in this experience of truth.

Myth attunes us to our true nature. It awakens in us the search for our true centre: the eternal source that lies past death, and that is discovered on the other side of ego dissolution. Mythic inquiry takes us deep into ourselves. In principle, the practice of investigating myth is similar to philosophizing. During ancient times, Socrates was known to have called philosophy “the art of dying”[3] whereby we come to know our true selves. When we philosophize, our inquiry (zetesis) drives us through and past all that is transitory, divisible, and finite towards apprehension of that which always is. Put simply, we leave behind mortal things in search of what is immortal. This is also why Aristotle referred to philosophy as “immortalization.”[4] The “art of dying” and “immortalizing” is the true, original character of philosophy. And just as philosophy is a kind of descent or katabasis into death or being dead, so too is myth. Perhaps it is as children that we are first told tales of wonder, including myths about the underworld. As children, we initially hear such stories, and then all through life thereafter we remain beings in love with storytelling. This is how we become initiated into our story-telling and story-listening nature!

It is as lovers of myth (philomythoi) that we first learn to delight in katabasis. This ancient word names the sacred movement of the soul in search of itself. It is important to understand that katabasis isn’t “owned” by any culture, religion, or time period; it is a timeless part of the lives of all human beings who seek to know themselves. The word katabasis means “going down,” and it connotes the spiritual descent we all must make into the depths of our being whenever we seek to know ourselves.

Greek peoples in particular knew how vital katabasis is for self knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom. Each year for two thousand years, during the spring and autumn festivals they practiced collectively the mysterious art of dying in order to experience rebirth through a sacred vision of mythic reality. Writing about the ancient mysteries of Eleusis, Carl Ruck points out how initiates learned first-hand that “dying is a higher art than eternal life.”[5] Heraclitus likewise emphasized the importance of katabasis in spiritual journeying when he famously remarked how this “going down” is simultaneously a “going up” or anairesis. The ancients understood that death and dying is the route towards immortalizing (athanatizein), or discovering our true nature in the eternal. This up-down movement of the soul in between (metaxy) death and deathlessness characterizes the love of wisdom. For millenia, human beings held the mysterious pursuit of wisdom in highest esteem, and it was cherished as the most significant component of a humane education. We ought to learn from our ancestors. Loving wisdom is a spiritual practice in which we must imbibe each day.

Just as it is the religious duty of all Muslim peoples to attend the Hajj once during their lifetime, all Greek peoples were similarly expected to participate once in the Eleusinian mysteries. Plato was certainly no exception in this regard, and he is known to have participated at Eleusis.[6] He would most certainly have been familiar with the ancient chthonic myth of Persephone and Demeter, and like all the other initiates, he would have spent many months walking along the sacred road and through the sacred geography of Eleusis, first as one whose eyes were closed to the world (a mystes); only later, upon receiving the vision (epopteia) would he have become someone who had truly seen what is, an epoptes.[7]

Philosophy is a continuation of the mysteries. Like the mystery rites themselves, Plato’s dialogues too foster the love of wisdom, or the philosophic spirit. Plato’s vision of the whole in the Myth of Er is no doubt a product of the transformative revelations he received at Eleusis through his own mystical experiences of death and rebirth, or katabasis and anairesis. Plato’s concern in philosophizing is to see and to lead others towards the most true seeing (theoria) of what is. His dialogues are structured as long, preparatory roads winding through a sacred geometry that very often culminates with a grand vision of the whole. It is not surprising, therefore, that his works are full of amazing stories ripe with mythic consciousness.

In my past as an academic and a university researcher, I spent a good deal of time immersed in learning about “philosophic pedagogy.” I have come to think that the best way to invite students towards philosophic self-inquiry is by means of storytelling that connects deeply with their own personal experiences, for our lives too are stories. Following the ancients, I envision the practice of philosophy as a kind of initiation into the mysteries of our being. As at Eleusis, so too in the Platonic dialogues do we undergo long periods of preparatory work. Stories must first be learned by rote. But then they must also be lived or enacted in a sacred geography prior to the revelatory vision.

Educationists are always “re-visioning” what education ought to look like nowadays. Plan after plan arises in the Ivory Towers among education elites and government executives, but all for naught, unfortunately. We modern human beings lack any sense of the sacred, or how to enact the sacred. Our lives in the public square are almost entirely secular and devoid of spiritual content. The public school (and for that matter, the private school) is no exception. We have destroyed so much in our rapaciousness and ignorance. During the colonial genocides we have wrought, we long ago stripped native peoples in the Americas of the spiritual traditions and languages in which they carried knowledge of their own cosmic centre (in Pueblo, the word is sipapu or “navel”); we likewise polluted and desecrated their sacred geographies like the Black Hills, carving them up for our own short-term economic gain, having long ago lost sight of our own cosmic centre (in Greek, the word for this “navel” is omphalos) and its geography.[8] Without any awareness of sacred things or sacred geography, how are we to philosophize? How are we to embark upon our own katabasis and anairesis? How can we once again offer a democratic, widely-available, healing, and humane education for wisdom?

Philosophizing in the classroom – if it is to start anywhere – must begin with recollecting lost stories. We must resuscitate our collective memories of the past in order to understand who we are. We must learn these stories by heart so that we can ruminate upon them. Furthermore, we must practice living with these stories. We must come to see ourselves as participants in these mythoi. We must learn to walk for months through their sacred geography in order that some inkling of the grand vision (theoria) will come out clearly for each of us, and so that we might receive the healing benefits of self-knowledge. Stories and practices in the classroom must recreate a sacred geography for students. Students must walk a sacred road. They must journey and journal as they move through many months of preparatory work so that a healing vision might be received. This is the underlying intent of my philosophic work with English Language Learning (ELL) and LEAD students in the classroom.

Wonders in the LEAD/ELL Classroom

Recently, I returned from post-secondary teaching to public education, this time as a novice ESL/ ELL educator. Lately, I have been working at a local high school right here in Calgary, Alberta, happy to be one of three teachers in the Literacy Education and Academic Development (LEAD) program. This is a specialized educational program for new Canadians and refugees who have experienced “significant gaps” in their education. And let me tell you: such a teaching placement is perfect for an aspiring “lover of wisdom”; there are ample opportunities for astonishment and wonder on a daily basis. Among some of our students, I have had the privilege of witnessing their first-ever exposure to school, which can be both shocking and beautiful. It must be akin to watching a fish at the moment it is released from captive waters into an ancestral stream: envision its gills flushing suddenly with life! We can only stand there gobsmacked as observers with no adequate words, watching it dart and rocket forward in a flash of silver lightning as innate and mysterious powers come alive all at once and full of vigor. The high school LEAD classroom is full of precious moments like this where students first encounter a formal education. For teachers, such wondrous experiences are not as likely at the college or university level, unfortunately.

In many other cases, however, LEAD learning does not come with eruptive, primordial force. Indeed, quite the opposite may be true. Often, it is as though intellectual growth and development among our students remains frozen in amber since the time of their traumatic childhood experiences. Many of our students have suffered through horrors, and they have lost a great deal that is precious to them. Their journeys to Canada have generally been long and hard. Some have lived for long stretches in refugee camps; a considerable number of them continue to face difficult struggles with poverty, mental health, PTSD, isolation, survivor guilt, and self-regulation in their everyday behaviours. If there is a metaphoric switch that flips in all of us when we are in danger, for many of our students, this switch seems permanently turned towards “fight” or “flight.” Learning can be slow and uncertain. Quite often, what is taught one day will be forgotten the next, just as sandcastles that are built during the day will invariably be swept away by tides the following night.

Rigorous learning is particularly difficult for LEAD students even after they transition into ELL programming. Imagine trying to focus on reading, writing, math, or science in the middle of a war zone, or as the walls and ceiling of your house are collapsing all around you. This is how our teenage students can be affected by events that transpired when they were only small children. Their challenges with integrating into school and peaceful society can be extreme. Such difficulties were things that I did not previously understand. Teaching in LEAD has helped me to become a better person. It builds empathy and a sense of connection with other human beings.

LEAD students may be broken in many ways, but they also demonstrate incredible strength and courage. As survivors, they have been resilient through the most difficult ordeals imaginable, and now they carry with them to Canada a hope for better things. LEAD students also love and respect their teachers. Their life experiences have generally made them empathetic towards others who are suffering; they recognize and identify with underdogs by second nature, and each one of them has an incredible story to tell. Many of these stories about their respective journeys are full of suffering, loss, and tragedy. But within each story there is also light, hope, and love.

The stories of our students’ lives are ripe with manifestations of katabasis. Their personal journeys through darkness drive into the psychic depths, provoking the most difficult human questions that have no adequate response in textbooks, theorems, or scientific method. In their stories, we encounter all the wealth of myth: intimate experiences of faith, hope, and love for one’s family, friends, and countrymen; experiences of kindness in strangers as well as betrayals, slavery, abuse, and persecution; the darkest violence and hell that human beings have ever devised for one another; and always at issue is the silence of a God who would permit such torture and genocide to exist on Earth among His or Her children. Drawing connections between their own personal journeys and myth can help our students begin to see and to understand their own lives as stories. Myth can enable them to find meaning and connection between their own difficult and dark life experiences on the one hand, and the order of cosmic goodness in which we are all enfolded on the other. When students find themselves able to recollect their connection with goodness, truth, justice, and beauty, and when they are able to recognize themselves in a grand vision (theoria) as part of a greater, loving, and perfect whole, opportunity arises for their reintegration into a world that has been blackened and fragmented by pain. In mythic consciousness, students can be reconciled to an existence that otherwise seems wholly purposeless, cold, and uncaring. Myth may serve as a powerful healing pharmakon for soul care in the ELL classroom.

The State of Education Today

Prior to coming to LEAD and ELL, I had been a high school English Language Arts (ELA) teacher. Although I enjoyed that teaching specialization very much, it has long dismayed me how the efforts of English teachers are so commonly misdirected by institutional and collegial pressures that, in the name of quantifiable measurement and “accountability,” require students to perform “learning tasks” that demonstrate their proficiency in relation to a narrow band of government-mandated multiple choice reading tests and hackneyed writing forms. An official at Alberta Education tells me that each year, about 10 million dollars is spent on developing, field testing, administering, and then marking the grade 12 provincial diploma exams. This investment provides Albertans with “data” that supposedly indicates how well students are being educated, and a spokesperson for the Assessment Branch assured me that the public money spent on these tests provides good value to Albertans.

However, it is worth noting here that there are entire vistas of meaning and purpose in education that are not captured by these tests, and furthermore, that such a testing regime skews our attention towards the “outcomes” deemed most important while veering us away from other, more classical, liberal-arts focused, or philosophic goals. In the ancient world, Socrates is known to have said that a life without self-knowledge is not worth living;[9] however, nowhere in the government-mandated objectives is any attention given to the pursuit of wisdom or sophia; moreover, neither reading nor writing is undertaken with a view to “knowing thyself” in obedience to the old Delphic command that has motivated lovers of wisdom since antiquity.

Ask officials and most teachers and they will tell you that this assessment system functions well as a means of testing for literacy. Even the Alberta Teacher’s Association has congratulated taxpayers for financing one of the top ranked education systems in the world.[10] However, I suspect that in actuality, institutional pressures towards conformity with standardized assessments and bulleted lists of “outcomes” breeds among teachers an acquiescence to the belief that we all must do things similarly in order that the summative data gleaned from our exam results will be “optimal.” Indeed, I have long felt that these measures for “accountability” in teaching serve more than anything to shut down on other delightful and more humane possibilities: that they stifle both teacher and student creativity, discourage bold classroom explorations and experimentation, and especially inhibit the possibility of approaching education more authentically as personal inquiry for self-knowledge among everyone involved. After all, why would teachers lead students on such a journey if they lack any awareness or understanding of its significance? Our education systems, and particularly our teacher preparation programs, are entirely silent about philosophy. Indeed, most programs have moved to eradicate “Philosophy of Education” or “Education Foundations” courses from their itineraries.[11] It is therefore not surprising if students and teachers generally have a deadened relationship to both the reading and writing of stories for inquiry into wisdom as a result of their exposure to widespread high school learning procedures and systems.

Rather than being taught to ask their own questions or to engage in zetesis, the lion’s share of student reading and writing is focused instead upon learning how to respond effectively to the contrived, uninspiring, disconnected, and abstract questions generated by provincial “experts” and ELA assessment specialists. The result is that student learning becomes focused on how to write “well” in a format that teachers are indoctrinated to believe is the best indication of “writing proficiency.” In my experience, this fixation with accountability towards mandated forms does little to encourage any love for the art of composition. Certainly, it may produce a kind of “excellence” at conforming to educational standards and expectations; but it does nothing to entice students towards the joys of writing or the life of writing. It is, moreover, an entire disservice to the time-honoured “liberal arts” tradition through which we gain liberty from ourselves in our search to know who we are. This is the most saddening thing to me about our modern educational systems.

Students who may have enjoyed reading in elementary or middle school regularly have their love of reading quashed by high school assessments and the expectations they reinforce. In Alberta, for instance, “reading comprehension” has largely been reduced to multiple choice responses from students in relation to a canned set of questions in a test bank that take a specific form, have a specific length, target specific elements of learning following Bloom’s taxonomy, and of course, that are all “field-tested” as successful approximations of measuring to the mean level of student achievement. Teachers are pressured to suppose that adept performance in relation to these measures constitutes “excellence” in education.

Similarly, the standards for good writing are uniformly enforced with attention to modelling using levelled student exemplars, and then through the practice of “standard setting” among colleagues. Scarce public dollars are taken away from the classroom every year and spent instead by our provincial masters to create, maintain, and administer these accountability structures. And for the most part, teachers seem to buy-in to this system, often marking Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) and Diploma Exams for the added monetary compensation, but also as part of their “professional development.” I know of many good teachers who take considerable pride in being able consistently to peg or score student compositions without significant “discrepancy” from their colleague markers.

It is doubtful, however, that all these conformity-enforcing assessment practices result in better, more thoughtful, authentic, or engaging compositions. What does result most certainly from such processes is that student composition simply follows a few prescribed forms that teachers are pressured to deliver and habituated to expect. The core value of education as a liberating force for the human spirit is easily lost. Teacherly openness to alternative modes of articulating, questioning, and investigating ideas is often eroded through years of “experience” with ELA assessment. Mostly, this means that teachers stop being able to see or to hear students except for how they conform or fail to conform with expectations. It may be the case that these exams provide comfort for teachers, who no longer are beholden to ask themselves the difficult philosophic questions, “What is quality?” or “What is the good?” Answers to such questions are already provided for them by the closed system of our accountability structures. Sadly, there is much about public education that is anti-philosophic by design.

The Myth of Er Writing Project

Formerly as an ELA teacher, and more recently as both a LEAD and an ELL teacher, it has remained my intention to find some manner of making “the writing life” available authentically for students. Certainly, LEAD and ELL students must learn the fundamentals of English grammar in relation to speaking, listening, writing, and reading. However, these technical elements should only be a means to an end so that students might be encouraged towards the life of the mind, and so that they might engage in self-inquiry.

A little while ago, I taught a level three group of ELL students who had already passed through the LEAD program.[12] We engaged in a number of smaller literacy projects together, moving from unit to unit while practicing reading, writing, speaking, and listening. However, always throughout that semester, we were engaged for a period of time each week with Plato’s Myth of Er in Book Ten of the Republic. It was my intention to lead students on a journey through this myth, and then to make connections between Plato’s tale and their own personal journeys. Along the way, we would practice myth-telling as a form of self-inquiry and soul care, first using Plato’s story, then drawing upon students’ stories and artwork, and finally by incorporating readings and re-telling practices from a selection of Indigenous myths, including a special visit to our classroom by a Blackfoot story-keeper.[13]

Our work together on myth would culminate in a published book in which each of the students would be able to see and to share the results of their literacy growth with others. I chose to guide students through this foray so that they might begin to see how their own individual stories could be integrated and in some way understood in relation to a grand cosmic story or vision (theoria). Moreover, it was my hope for the students that, having written a real book and having become published authors, they would be emboldened; I wanted very much to boost their confidence as they were about to make the difficult transition into mainstream English classes the following semester.

The results were heartening. My students knew that they had done something very special by reading and interpreting a Platonic text. They were very proud of their accomplishments throughout that semester, and when they finally received their own personal copy of their book the following year, they carried it with them on display all through the school, almost using it like a talisman to remind them of their new-found abilities towards inquiry and the writing life, and so that they might not to lose heart when the more formalized writing they would encounter in their upper classes posed difficult challenges for them.

To set up this project, it was necessary for me first to create an ELL-friendly translation of the original Greek text (which itself is included in the book alongside the English retellings of the students). Having this goal in mind, I sat down with the pertinent Loeb volumes, a Liddell and Scott dictionary, as well as a number of translations of the Republic in order to make comparisons. Over the course of several days in the summer, I hammered out a “kid-friendly” version of Plato’s text that I might read aloud to the students. Next, I created an accompanying Word/Google Doc that could be projected onto my classroom Smartboard, which included Plato’s text along with explanations, associated stories or myths, as well as helpful visuals related to key images and figures in the story. This working document allowed us to move slowly and carefully through each of the moments in the story.

In the span of around three weeks, I had read the entire story of Er’s journey aloud in small, daily chunks to the students. We stopped frequently during each class to think about Plato’s rich imagery and to discuss turns of phrase in the tale. As their teacher, I modelled what asking and responding to philosophic questions looks like so that students could follow my lead, and in order that they might try it out for themselves. I employed other simple techniques like “think-alouds” and drawing diagrams or taking notes on the board to record student input where appropriate. We also examined and discussed associated ancient, medieval, and modern artworks, debating the extent to which each accurately depicted Plato’s myth. To begin each class, students would write in their journals about something they remembered from the previous day’s reading, often using a prompt that I had supplied for them to get started. At the end of each class, students would draw, colour, or paint in their sketchbooks, attempting to depict particular scenes and images from that day’s readings. All this was done in order that they might recollect the myth, visualize its various scenes, and learn the story well enough to be able to tell their own version of it accurately in written form.

The telling and retelling of sacred stories with fidelity has been a highly-prized skill in all ancient and tribal societies throughout the world where oral traditions are strong. Such stories are widely recognized as not coming simply from the creative imaginations of human beings, but as having been received from beyond through inspiration, by way of revelation, or else as having been given to human beings by divine forces. Unlike other forms of literature, myths are distinct in that they are understood as divine gifts, and numerous world cultures also recognize them as medicine. Experience has taught them that when we come to understand a myth in relation to our own lives, we are empowered to overcome many problems: troubles like fear, hatred, greed, addiction, intemperance, lasting sorrow, resentment, and pain. Sacred stories have been a source of strength, health, and wisdom for countless generations of humanity, and so the importance of conscientious attention and respect for the integrity of stories, as well as the ability to tell stories skillfully has been long affirmed among those concerned with the preservation of traditional knowledge.

Many of the students in my level three class understood the significance of oral storytelling well, as it had long been a key value in their own respective cultures. For instance, some of them had practice with memorization and recitation of the Holy Koran; others had done similar things with the Bible; still others knew and could tell the traditional stories handed down in their tribes. But even apart from these things, all of the students carried important memories and tales about the difficult journeys they had made with their families — or sometimes alone! — through adversity and towards their new life in Canada.

Reflecting upon personal journeys in light of Plato’s myth was our main task. We came together at the beginning of the semester as a team during our work on the Myth of Er. I asked each of the students to choose a passage from the story and to become a master of telling that portion of the myth in their own words. The key here would be to demonstrate fidelity to the text (i.e., not adding anything, and not leaving anything out) while at the same time creating easy-to-read, grammatical constructions and complementary artwork that we could publish as a book together. These measures would help us to complete the first part of our book, which would be a collective student re-telling of Plato’s myth. The second part would consist of personal re-tellings of student journeys to Canada. These narratives would be gathered through the use of individual student conferences after our myth re-tellings had been drafted and were on the way to completion. Three full weeks were devoted to intensive reading and discussion of the myth, student composition, and artistry in relation to the images and events in the story. However, every Friday throughout the semester after this intensive period was set aside for follow-up work, discussions, revisitations, and the preparation of our manuscript.

Authentic writing and processes for self-inquiry are not generally part of a formal education. Mostly, students are prescribed what to write by their teachers, who themselves take their pedagogical marching orders from government dictates in the Program of Studies. Students ordinarily are given all the assessment criteria for individual assignments in advance. Formal instructions and a rubric typically lay out the teacher’s expectations in relation to the assignment, and each assignment is usually timed in order to pressure students to complete assignments, but also in order to expose them to the harsh reality of testing so that, at the end of the semester, they will have had some practice with exam-based writing prompts.

However, when the love of wisdom or philosophizing takes precedence over typical classroom processes that are designed to serve the formal, mandated education “outcomes” which are, undoubtedly, of less value than wisdom, a different approach towards the development of literacy must be implemented. Such a shift envisions literacy developing through genuine engagement in the writing life as a wisdom-seeking activity. When wisdom-seeking is our pedagogical intent, students must adopt daily writing practices and attitudes that are harnessed for the purpose of self-inquiry; this means thinking about writing not as a product at the end of a rigid (and normally quite short!) time constraint, but as a process that unfolds slowly and uncertainly. Normal accountability structures for “getting things done” and “staying on schedule” do not apply here; indeed, anyone who writes for self-knowledge knows how days and nights may pass dryly and lacking productivity while inward processes churn mysteriously, and as we move through periods of both barrenness and frenzied activity. Teacher expectations around writing must shift considerably if the love of wisdom is to be nurtured in a classroom environment.

Teachers are taught that the achievement of formal curricular outcomes must be clear and “evidence-based.” We require hard data, proof of accomplishments, facts, certainty, and accuracy in our assessments. Real philosophic work with writing processes, by contrast, is mysterious because it inquires into the unknown. In the activity of philosophizing, even the teacher does not know! Real writing in search of self-knowledge requires far more time and patience than is acceptable for typical school writing in relation to canned prompts and bulleted lists. Nor do students relate to philosophic writing in the same way as they do canned writing. Generally speaking, canned prompts turn students off; more than once I have overheard them mocking the ridiculously convoluted and vapid questions that are posed in exam-based writing. Of course, certain other students, like their teachers, appreciate these canned prompts because they are predictable and familiar; there is a simple formula for their solution, and students who can apply themselves to these gymnastic exercises generally fare quite well.

Unlike in canned writing where the goals are obvious — i.e., just look at the teacher’s expectations and meet them! — the focus in real writing should not be on the check marks made by the teacher in relation to an array of benchmarks or outcomes, but rather upon what the story inside of us wants to say and how we ought to say it.[14] This can be more terrifying and frustrating both for teachers and students, however. What if I don’t know what story is inside of me? What is my story? What does my story mean? How is this myth we are reading also my story? Who am I? As writers, we must attune ourselves to the story that lies within. We learn about ourselves as we listen to this story and work with this story. This process of listening to, telling, and re-telling stories is mysterious and ongoing. It demands considerable time and patience — two things that are not ordinarily nurtured by our education systems.

There is a good deal of reading, re-reading, re-thinking, and tweaking involved in the writing life. School practices generally militate against such processes. The busy school schedule and the demands of the curriculum (from the Latin root curro, meaning “a race course”) does not encourage teachers to slow down, but pressures them to speed up for greater productivity. We therefore press students for faster writing that uniformly accords with exemplars. School writing routines teach writing processes (pre-writing, drafting, revisions, editing, and final copy), but these are practiced only in a cursory fashion. After all, when “the rubber hits the road” in an exam situation, there is no time for extensive writing processes, and once a composition is completed in the allotted hour or hour and a half, it is done. There will be no further writing in relation to this assignment. Hence, students are indoctrinated to think of writing a story like having a bowel movement. Once it is done, it is done, and one should never look back! Recollecting, revisiting, and re-telling stories serves no purpose in school writing.

School writing, after all, is about meeting “outcomes” and hitting “benchmarks.” Although school systems and teacher training programs pay lip-service to “metacognition” in the classroom, generally speaking this is code for thinking-about-your-thinking in relation to the assignments that the teacher has given you as these assignments are measures of your achievements in relation to the mandated outcomes. The purpose, in other words, is not self-knowledge, but student performance in relation to bulleted lists of learning goals. Metacognition in schools has no stated relation to self-inquiry, which is never a finished task, but is always ongoing. Working authentically with myth, by contrast, puts the stated outcomes and benchmarks aside as secondary considerations in favour of attention to self-knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom. Philosophy in the classroom is therefore a subversive activity that contravenes the stated functions of education and the legislated role of the teacher.

Literacy work must be reconceived when we are concerned with fostering philosophic zetesis through the writing life. Unlike in the mainstream ELA classroom where major writing assignments are most commonly timed in order to approximate the conditions that accompany diploma exams (which are once again under our new government worth 50% of each student’s grade!), in a truly zetetic classroom, we must take our time. We first compose in our journals, asking daily questions and making connections between ourselves and the text under study. Next, we draft our selected passages from the Republic in Google Docs, where I help each student with revisions and editing. Sometimes, individuals stumble with difficult passages — especially the part of the story where the whorls are discussed (616d-617c)! At such times, collaborations with other students and guidance from the teacher can be of great assistance to a young writer or artist who has encountered such challenging descriptions of the cosmos.

During each day’s writing and sketching period, I will meet with individual students for writing conferences. If a student is having difficulty getting started with a re-telling, I will ask him or her to tell me the story out loud so that I can scribe it for them. Students often are able to speak a story far better than they can write it. When they see how what they have said aloud may be transferred onto the page with relative ease, this tends to lessen their anxieties and feelings of inadequacy as ELL writers. If their writing has stalled, scribing often will help them to overcome a blockage. Next, we go over some of the grammatical challenges students are encountering, and we often discuss questions posed by the students concerning what each passage means.

Another valuable function of writing conferences is that they can be used to conduct student interviews. I made particular use of interviews after all the main drafting, revisions, and editing work had been completed for the first part of our book. During these recorded interviews, I was able to ask students about their own life stories that we would include in the second part of the book. We would talk about some of their best memories and their most difficult times, as well as about what they think is most important. Personal narratives are powerful and impactful writing. When they are positioned alongside Plato’s myth, students are able to find parallels and to draw connections that help them to deal with pain, suffering, and losses that they have endured. In my experience, refugee students demonstrate a great deal of compassion and understanding for the souls of the dead who wait in the camps on the Great Plain of Hades. They recognize the pain and suffering of those in Tartarus. They are wary of the foolish who, having gone to the Isles of the Blessed, come back and choose poorly for their next life, and they are enthused by the prospect of themselves picking a new life at the end of their own long, arduous journeys through Hell and back. Refugee students can identify with Plato’s great myth more keenly than just about any group of students I have ever met. They are ripe for philosophy, and they take the lessons of Plato’s myth about justice seriously.

At the end of his own telling of Er’s story, Socrates comments: “Thus, a tale was saved and not lost, and it could save us if we were persuaded by it” (621c). By situating their own experiences within Plato’s grand cosmic vision, students gain a theoretic insight into their own existence. They can find meaning where before there was meaninglessness; they can spy hope where previously there was hopelessness; justice where there has only been injustice; and connection where before there was only fragmentation.



Aristotle. The Basic Works. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Brown, Joseph Epes. Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Heraclitus. Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Trans. Brooks Haxton, New York: Viking, 2001.

Pieper, Josef. In Defence of Philosophy: Classical Wisdom Stands up to Modern Challenges. Trans. Lothar Krauth, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966.

Plato. The Collected Dialogues. Edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.

Rieger, Sarah. “ATA says education funding pays off as Alberta students rank near top of global survey” CBC News. Dec 04, 2019.,to%20a%20global%20education%20survey.

Steel, Sean. “An Invitation to Philosophizing: On the Challenges of Philosophy of Education Instruction in B.Ed. Programs.” Voegelinview 2018.

___. “Chapter Thirteen: An Aporetic Ending? Assessment and the Pursuit of Wisdom in Education.” In Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses. Peter Lang Publishing, 2018.

___. “Designing Teacher Education to Promote the Love of Wisdom within a Competency-Based Assessment System.” In Koh, Kim, DePass, Cecille, & Steel, Sean. Developing Teachers’ Assessment Literacy: A Tapestry of Ideas and Inquiries. Brill Publishing, 2019.

___. “Oil and Water? Assessment and the Pursuit of Wisdom in Education.Voegelinview 2018.

___. Plato’s Myth of Er: A Personal Journey Re-told by ELL and Refugee Students. Eaglespeaker Press, 2019.



[1] Josef Pieper, In Defence of Philosophy: Classical Wisdom Stands up to Modern Challenges (trans. Lothar Krauth, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1966) 41.

[2] Plato frequently writes about philosophic discourse as a pharmakon or medicine, and he has Socrates announce in his defence speech that the philosophic life is “caring for the soul” (Apology 30b). Joseph Epes Brown has likewise noted how native stories are viewed as sacred medicine for the soul. See Joseph Epes Brown, “Silence, the Word, and the Sacred: Evoking the Sacred through Language and Song,” in Teaching Spirits: Understanding Native American Religious Traditions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

[3] Plato, Phaedo 67e.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, X.vii.8

[5] R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2008) 114.

[6] Ibid. 30.

[7] Ibid. 87-88.

[8] See especially chapter three entitled, “Fixing a Center: Native American Sacred Geography,” in Brown, Teaching Spirits, 23-40.

[9] Apology 38a.

[10] For instance, see Sarah Rieger, “ATA says education funding pays off as Alberta students rank near top of global survey” CBC News, Dec 04, 2019,to%20a%20global%20education%20survey.

[11] This is not to say that such courses would remedy the problem. Indeed, I know of very few professors in Education with any understanding of the true character of philosophy, even among those who are still “lucky” enough to teach courses that pay lip service to philosophy. For a model of teacher education that attempts to keep the ancient sense of philosophy front and centre, see Sean Steel, Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2019).

[12] Level three means that students have a language proficiency roughly equivalent to grade 5.

[13] In this article, I have chosen not to discuss the extended, cross-cultural element of this project and its Indigenous connections for lack of space.

[14] I have written extensively elsewhere about the problem of assessment in relation to wisdom-seeking. See Sean Steel, “Designing Teacher Education to Promote the Love of Wisdom within a Competency-Based Assessment System,” in Kim Koh, Cecille DePass, and Sean Steel, Developing Teachers’ Assessment Literacy: A Tapestry of Ideas and Inquiries (Brill Publishing, 2019). Also see Sean Steel, “Chapter Thirteen: An Aporetic Ending? Assessment and the Pursuit of Wisdom in Education,” in Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom: A Practical Guide for Education Philosophy Courses (Peter Lang Publishing, 2018); Sean Steel “Oil and Water? Assessment and the Pursuit of Wisdom in Education,” Voegelinview 2018 ; Sean Steel “An Invitation to Philosophizing: On the Challenges of Philosophy of Education Instruction in B.Ed. Programs,” Voegelinview 2018.

Sean Steel

Sean Steel is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and a Sessional Instructor at the University of Calgary and a public school teacher. He is author of The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education (SUNY, 2015) and Teacher Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom (Peter Lang, 2017).

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