It was a Saturday morning and I was sitting in my library, frowning over Aristotle’s Politics and scribbling at an increasingly furious pace in my commonplace book (I swear I’m not pretentious…it’s not like I was reading it for fun. I was reading it as part of a 10-year Great Books reading plan, which admittedly, I am doing for fun). My six-year-old came in, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Noticing my agitation, she asked me what I was doing.
“I’m reading a book by a guy named Aristotle. He’s talking about what it takes to make a good community,” I said. “What are you writing?” she looked curiously over my shoulder. “Well, I’m pretty sure I disagree with a lot of what he’s saying, so I’m writing out my response to see what I really think about it. I don’t know yet.” By this time my seven-year-old had joined us, and she seemed struck by the fact that I didn’t know what I thought yet. “What don’t you agree with?” she queried.
“He says that slavery is natural, that some people are meant to be masters and others slaves. What do you think?” I tried to present the argument in simple terms without reducing it to a straw man. My kids’ knowledge of slavery is essentially limited to what they’ve seen in Prince of Egypt. Predictably, they both disagree vehemently, but I found myself surprised at the strength of their convictions on a topic they’d never considered much. I slipped into devil’s advocate mode.
“Do you think everyone should get to be a master then?” Yes, they did. “But if everyone wants to be in charge, how will any work get done?” I could see in their eyes that perhaps the matter wasn’t as easily settled as they initially thought. “What if we change the words? What if we say some people are meant to be the boss and some are meant to be the workers?” They had much less of an issue with this.
“Is there a difference between workers and slaves?” I persisted. They said that there was. I asked about workers who don’t love their jobs but are forced to remain in them for various reasons. They concluded between the two of them that the difference lies in the ability to make money. A worker is not a slave because he can make money, even if he doesn’t enjoy his work.
“So what about a mom who stays home with her kids and cooks and cleans and does laundry all day? She doesn’t make money. Is she a slave?” My kids reacted to this question like I’d played a trick on them. They looked at me and at each other, clearly feeling that the “right” answer was a resounding “no”, but unsure of how to defend it given the definition of slavery they had just devised. They finally came up with something like “Sometimes there are chores people just have to do. It doesn’t make you a slave to feed and care for yourself and your family,” but they didn’t say it with the same assurance they had in the beginning.
They weren’t sure where I was going with the conversation if it wasn’t going to be a traditional lecture. Sensing that the spontaneous teachable moment was quickly waning, I let them scamper off instead of continuing to the part where Aristotle says men are the rightful masters of their families because of their higher rationality and loftier virtues, and that “silence is a woman’s glory.”
Why bother trying to have this conversation at all? To be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone of giving my kids the answers when I feel like I don’t have time to let them come to their own conclusions. This time, I mostly wanted to satisfy my own curiosity. What would they say?
It was intriguing to me that they had any ideas on the topic of slavery at all. How much can they really have thought about this? Are we born with an innate morality that tells us it’s wrong for one man to own another? I certainly had never told them so. The poet Kahlil Gibran comes to mind in these startling moments: “You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.” My children aren’t my product that I can turn into loving, functional adults with a prescribed set of inputs, even if those inputs include the best, most classical, nature-based, Montessori-inspired, Charlotte Mason-principled educational elements I can offer.
For example, as much as I might wish to make my children believe in the harmful influences of screen time or the banality of 21st-century pop culture, I cannot do so. Even more sobering, I can’t make them believe in the existence of God, the reality of hell, the seriousness of sin, or the sacredness of every life. My kids are separate entities from me, and they have their own thoughts. On the one hand, this is a relief. On the other hand, it’s terrifying. Is having kids really nothing more than a game of Russian roulette? Maybe you’ll produce the next Mother Teresa, but you could end up with the next Jack the Ripper too? Who on earth would be crazy enough to play those odds?
Enter Socratic dialogue. What I love about this method (besides having a natural propensity towards it) is that it does not set up the questioner as omniscient or superior to those being questioned. The questioner is a guide rather than an autocrat whose word is law and whose dictums must not be questioned by students. Using this method, the teacher stands alongside their students as a fellow learner, not in front of them as a personified textbook. I want my kids to know that I don’t know everything. I want them to know that I’m learning along with them in this great, splendid universe and that just like them, I will never know an iota of everything that’s out there. I want my own ponderings and musings and reflections to bring them along with me into a sense of wonder and awe.
As I sit and watch a world at war with itself over backstabbing politics, global pandemics, racial and class struggles, religious fanaticism, environmental crises, corporate greed, unbridled hedonism and the like, I desperately want my kids not to be taken in by mainstream narratives. I don’t want them to think that a smartphone and a Snapchat account are the highest attainable goods in life, but I certainly don’t want to oscillate too far the other way and raise them to be bitter nostalgists for Ancient Greece either, out of touch with both their own times and the past. What is the point of an education, especially a home education? Is it to raise our kids into robotic regurgitators of their parents’ opinions, or is it to help them develop into thoughtful, compassionate people capable of “testing what is bad and retaining what is good” using their own minds? As long as the answer is the latter, then Socrates is one of the best allies a parent can have.