'Teaching Plato in Palestine' Marks a Valiant Effort, but Falls Short of Consolation

Carlos Fraenkel champions two causes: the first is a culture of debate; the second is an allegiance to the principle of fallibilism. Unfortunately, both are hard to come by.

Teaching Plato in Palestine

Publisher: Princeton University Press
Length: 240 pages
Author: Carlos Fraenkel
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-06

I really wanted to like Carlos Fraenkel's Teaching Plato in Palestine; after all, like Joseph Campbell's mythical hero, Fraenkel sets out on a noble mission. He seeks answers to timely questions and is willing to travel from Montreal, where he teaches, to dangerous and far-off places in order to find them. Indeed, the title of the book is a bit misleading: only the first chapter of the book takes place in Palestine; from there, he travels to Indonesia, New York, Brazil and a Mohawk reservation in Canada.

"I'm trying to find out if one can use philosophy to address real-life concerns and have debates across cultural boundaries," he explains.

"At first view," he says, "much here [in Palestine] seems adverse to a life of contemplation. I wonder, though, if the permanent state of collision, affecting all aspects of life, might not ignite philosophical inquiry into concepts like justice, rights, power, and so forth. Couldn't clarifying these concepts help navigate the conflict and move toward a solution?"

Judging by the responses of many of his students, the answer is affirmative, but the title chapter ends almost as quickly as it began, and shortly after he departs from Palestine, the Second Lebanon War begins, and all the reader is really left to ponder are rhetorical questions: "How many books could have been translated from Arabic and into Arabic with the hundreds of billions of dollars that the United States put into the Iraq War? Surely we would have reliable translations of Plato to work with. How many exchange and scholarship programs between Western and Arab schools and universities could have been established? For anyone who is serious about democracy in the Middle East, isn't this the way to go?"

Fraenkel knows he risks playing the part of the orientalist academic setting off to educate the world's "uncivilized" masses, and to his credit he cites his interlocutors readily. Fraenkel may start the conversations with his questions, but invariably his students have questions of their own.

"So what's in it for you?" one of his Hasidic students asks directly.

"Don't we have better things to do than discuss philosophy for hours?" a Mohawk objects.

"Learning how to read and write and basic mathematics is useful," a Brazilian high schooler says. "But why should I care about Plato's concept of the soul?"

Time and again, Fraenkel patiently and effectively responds to such challenges, and at the end of his sojourn among the Mohawk, he asks: "So were our four-hour discussions a good use of your time?"

"We don't seem to have reached any conclusions," a female student replies. "Yes," another agrees, "but I feel we got greater clarity on what the issues involve. And a taste for looking at them from different angles."

Despite Fraenkel's intentions, however, too often the reader does feel as though s/he is witnessing "one 'civilization' educating another".

"The role of philosophers is not to guide," Fraenkel argues, "but to assist in integrating the practice of philosophy into our individual and social lives." This may be true in theory, but in practice, the distinction may be more a question of semantics. Though he insists that the experiences he shared with students revealed his own presuppositions and prejudices, at no time does Fraenkel not seem to be the one in control of the situation.

Fraenkel pars philosophical thrusts with the grace of an expert fencer: students challenge, and "I assure students that" or "I remind them" or "I suggest" or "I propose". Occasionally, we are told that a consensus could not be reached, but little else. The result for the reader is an experience completely devoid of suspense and all too similar to, well, Plato. This is not, of course, to say that Plato makes for dull reading; but Socrates's interlocutors are clearly foils, and at the end of the discussion, we know who will carry the day.

Throughout, I found myself wanting to know more about Fraenkel's students and their lives, but in Fraenkel's hands they remain merely part of the dialectic, their biographies limited to a few lines or excluded altogether.

On more than one occasion, Fraenkel makes observations that one would want him to pursue more thoroughly, as when he mentions the books on display in numerous Indonesian bookstores. "On offer are not only Indonesian translations of Danielle Steele's latest novels and American self-help books about how to get a successful business off the ground, but also a wide range of old and new anti-Jewish texts, including Mein Kampf, a history of the Waffen-SS, an abridged version of Henry Ford's The International Jew (which comes with a free brochure of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), a book titled Holocaust--Fact or Fiction? ....Some of the books sport cover quotations and pictures from Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself the hero of various monographs."

At the end of the chapter, Fraenkel assures the reader that "the assortment of anti-Jewish literature in the airport's bookstore looks a bit less unsettling to me", though whether this will be true for his readers is doubtful.

The last chapter of Teaching Plato in Palestine consists of Fraenkel's case for teaching philosophy. At 50 pages it is the longest in the book, and while readers will agree with almost everything Fraenkel says, the unevenness of the overall text calls to mind a doctoral dissertation with its longer, theoretical chapter juxtaposed to shorter chapters documenting the theory as it was put into practice.

Fraenkel champions two causes: the first is a culture of debate; the second is an allegiance to the principle of fallibilism. Of course, he admits, a culture of debate "is incompatible with an approach to religious traditions that seek their truth in the literal meaning of the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas, and so forth, and takes that literal meaning to overrule our considered beliefs in cases where the two are in conflict. A culture of debate presupposes that religious and cultural traditions are open to interpretation and that interpretations, in turn, are open to revision."

Which is precisely the problem, isn't it?

He continues: "The only nonnegotiable 'liberal' principle is freedom of expression. If citizens cannot say what they think without fear of punishment, a culture of debate is not possible."

Fraenkel's conclusions are not merely anti-climactic, but shockingly banal. He returns from the hero's mythical quest, but without the boon.

Professional philosophers will discover little of interest in the book, and while it would be unfair to expect Fraenkel to come up with concrete solutions to the crises now taking place especially in the Middle East, general readers will probably find more reasons to despair than to be optimistic.

Or worse.

When words fail, communication tends to take place physically, often violently. And at that point, so much for philosophy.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.