Review: Young Plato

Pedagogical films, whether documentary or dramatic, always focus on the teacher-student dynamic; specifically, the way educational professionals address the personal foibles of their charges in order to impart knowledge that the charges have difficulty accessing because of those foibles. The most dramatic, and often stereotypical, situations take place in inner city milieus—the innerer the better—where the very environment works against the teacher’s best intentions due to socioeconomic deficiencies, family problems, and ambient violence, all of which are complexly intertwined. Exceptional instructors “break through” these obstacles and show their students the beauty and endless wonder of the human mind. Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin’s documentary about Kevin McArevey, the headmaster of the Holy Cross Boys Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland, doesn’t even bother with classroom business. We never see the students studying, and thus the movie never provides the breakthrough that pedagogical stories rely on to draw the viewer in. It dwells solely on the task of helping the children, who are all pre-adolescent males, overcome their environment, which is in an urban area that, as one middle aged lecturer puts it, was once as prone to terrorist activity as any place in the Middle East. 

Though Northern Island has been at peace since the late 90s thanks to a hard-won political process, the majority Catholic neighborhood of Ardoyne, where the school is located, is still subject to threats of violence from loyalists, and as McArevey suggests throughout the film, the forebears of the children he teaches—mainly the fathers and grandfathers, but the mothers and grandmothers, too—carry huge chips on their shoulders for having lived through the Troubles, and these boys inherited that “anxiety,” as he calls it. Having survived a youth of “fighting and drinking” himself, McArevey devised a routine that uses classical philosophical methodology, principally the idea of the Socratic Circle, to help the boys think on their own and understand how dealing with feelings that they find debilitating not only helps clear away the fear and hatred of everyday existence but opens up new worlds of possibility. For the most part, these anxieties manifest as dustups in the schoolyard, and the routine morning philosophical exercises confront questions such as, Is it OK to take out my anger on someone else? or Is it possible to think of nothing? The intention is to impart the concept that “everyone has a different way of thinking,” and that the basis of philosophy isn’t simply challenging one’s beliefs, but challenging what one “knows.” Though this idea sounds arcane, McArevey makes it relevant to the boys in a plain way, which isn’t to say it’s automatically and consistently successful. The anxieties for some boys are intractable: one kid is so self-conscious about his diabetes that he seems to attract abuse like a magnet; and two cousins always seem to be at each other’s throats even though they understand how stupid their internecine rivalry is. 

“There are no hopeless cases,” McArevey tells his subordinate teachers, who faithfully—nay, lovingly—apply his theories, which are informed as much by his love of Elvis Presley as by the teachings of Seneca, and the filmmakers perhaps put too much store in the methodology without actually investigating its scholastic fruits. It’s refreshing to see an academic environment where grades aren’t the gauge for evaluating development, but I kept wondering what kind of young men these boys would turn into in terms of intellectual capacity. Young Plato is an affecting, stirring showcase for McArevey’s ideas, and if they seem overly specific to this particular cultural and historical situation, then it only goes to show how adaptable the canon can be in helping young people improve themselves. Long live the liberal arts!

Now playing in Tokyo at Euro Space Shibuya (03-3461-0211).

Young Plato home page in Japanese

photo (c) Soilsiu Films, Aisling Productions, Clin d’oeil films, Zadig Productions, MMXXI

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