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History Students Put Socrates on Trial

Experiential Learning Bridges Historical Gap

pluto and socrates
Plato, left, played by Derek Winslow,  and Socrates, right, played by Mike Gustafson, wore their formal robes to Prof. Ethan Spanier’s ancient Greek history class.

By Julia Gavin

The year is 399 BC and famed Athenian philosopher Socrates is on trial for corrupting youths and other charges. He has been brought before a jury of his peers who will decide his fate. As the trial proceeds, odds are not in the thinker’s favor.

Now, the year is 2011 and Prof. Ethan Spanier’s Ancient Greek History class is retrying Socrates,  played by Mike Gustafson, on the lawn of Coburn Hall. The defendant’s future is still uncertain.

Spanier, knowing that history can seem removed from modern students even as it affects their daily lives, encourages students to bridge the gap by becoming their subjects. Gustafson did just that by donning a toga to become Socrates and defend his historical character.

“There’s something different about acting the text out instead of just reading it,” says Gustafson. “You get a sense of the relationships between the people and events involved and it makes the history real.”

Gustafson, who debated his innocence with half of the class while supported by the rest of his peers, enjoyed studying his subject to prepare for the trial. He also had an unsettling taste of what it felt like for Socrates to be accused of crimes by his former friends. 

The students debated the merits and dangers of Socrates’ educational practices by taking on the roles of those involved and using texts from their class to support their stances. The students expanded the story by analyzing and adjusting their lines to react to the scene as it unfolded. 

Unfortunately for Socrates, history repeated itself and the philosopher was sentenced to death by a jury of his peers. After the decision, Gustafson got the last word, agreeing to the punishment but predicting that his peers would one day regret their actions. 

Experiential Learning at Work

Spanier counts experiential learning as a key aspect of his teaching methods, especially when trying to engage students with ancient worlds.

“I try to have debates in all of my classes. I think it’s an important tool and the classes become more exciting when students are immersed in a character,” says Spanier. “Experiential learning is how scholars in the 21st century can reignite the imaginations of students without using technology.”

Spanier, who uses technology to create a paperless class and round out the experience, sees it as a tool while experiential learning can be “a venue to get students inspired and help them connect to history.”
After the trial, students discussed the significance of Socrates’ trial, comparing his death as the first martyr for free speech to the U.S. Constitution. They also saw the Socratic method as the basis of a liberal arts education. Spanier says that an understanding of ancient Greek society and thought is important since they are the basis of Western Civilization “most famously in political thinking, democracy, drama, art and philosophy.”

“I really learned a lot in the trial, especially in the crossfire with Aristophanes,” says Gustafson. In the heat of the trial, Socrates and the playwright, played by Mike Krustapentus, debated the nuances of satire versus comedy, a relationship still discussed today.

Plato, a pupil of Socrates played by Derek Winslow, says that while reading specific texts and meeting with classmates to plan their responses helped him prepare to defend Gustafson, he used his own ideas about ancient Greece in the trial.

“The trial was a culmination of everything we’ve learned in the class and we’ve been encouraged to develop our own ideas about the society,” says Winslow, adding that Greece’s turmoil was part of Socrates’ greater picture. “He was exposing the façade of their democracy, which they didn’t really have, because you can’t have a democracy without public involvement.”
Winslow and Gustafson say they felt connected to their roles.

“The death of Socrates was a transcendent act,” says Winslow. “After all, we’re still talking about it today.”