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