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Vignette 29/52. How I Teach.

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
― Richard Feynman

I don’t use a curriculum. My sources are original material from Suetonius, Marcus Aurelius, and Livy. I use Simon Barker’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Rome. I piece together the rest through my own research and understanding the core themes that I want the kids to connect by exploring my own questions.

I assigned an Emperor, a Philosopher, and a Mystery Question to each of my students in my older teen group for weekend homework.

Julius Caesar/Marcus Tullius Cicero
What are Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics? Do you agree with the second one?

Octavius Augustus/Athenodorus
What is logotherapy and who developed it?

Tiberius/Lucretius
What are the “feel good” hormones and when do we secrete them?

Caligula/Pliny the Elder
What is a virus? What is a retrovirus?

Claudius/Musonius Rufus 
In chess, what does it mean to “seize the middle”? How is this a good strategy?

Nero/Seneca
What is the concept of reciprocity in physics?

Vespasian/Epictetus
What is the difference between jealousy and envy? How should we deal with envy at a personal level? How you can avoid being the source of envy for others?

Hadrian/Plutarch
What is good governance? Can you give an example?

Marcus Aurelius/Marcus Aurelius
Explain the “allegory of the cave” and who wrote it.

Diocletian/Hypatia
What is Europe’s “Right to be Forgotten”?

Constantine/St. Augustine
Who is Jimmy Wales and what did he create?

They came to class today and shared what they found comparing philosophies and lives of these notable figures. They also found answers to the mystery question. As they shared their research, I pushed the class with more questions.

Why is “seizing the middle” a good life strategy? How does it relate to Epictetus and Seneca? Was there an emperor that seized the middle? Is that a good strategy?

One student discovered our four “feel good” hormones: dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and oxytocin. She also found that two of them are more selfish and two are more selfless. An interesting fact she shared was that our gut creates serotonin when we eat plant-based and fibrous foods, and less so when we have an excess of carbs and sugar. Could this be a factor in selfish leadership? Their nutrition?

In order to define a virus, a student finds a wonderful analogy. She compares it to a seed. A seed is not alive yet it contains all the potential for life.

As they continue to share their research, their minds connect previous lessons – the normal distribution bell curve, the hormones secreted when we learn, left wing vs right wing politics, scale.

We dive into several disciplines and connect concepts. They are designing their own project by asking a question. This collective research helps them define their question. Some think about researching matriarchal societies and governance to compare against Rome’s imperial policies. Some are intrigued by the hormones and what actions would lead to more secretion in terms of leadership and decision-making. Some want to understand what underlies jealousy and envy biologically and how does it lead to dehumanizing behaviour? Some raise the question if Hitler was a philosopher king and if yes, do philosopher kings lead to totalitarianism?

The conversation heats up as we throw these theories and questions around of why Rome rose and fell. What pieces are we missing? How do we define good leadership? What does our evolutionary biology have to do with it? Or is it purely nurture and the culture you are raised in?

It’s the quality and relevance of the questions that drive them to seek the answers. How does what happened tell us about our own story today? About our humanity and the choices we make based on our definitions of liberty, dignity, and justice?

They tell me my questions are hard and make them think.

I tell them that their questions define the type of person they choose to become.

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