Julian Petri or Socrates? Whose trail to philosophical questions is better?

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The first day of Julian Petri’s tenth-grade Humanities class started with a thought-provoking question: What would you do with the next 24 hours of your life if you knew the world was to end the next day? That question alone kept the group discussions going for a while, about half of the class period! Students’ answers followed common paths. Some said they would spend time with their loved ones and friends, like Flynn Meyer and Dominik Giapis. Eamon Lee said he would follow whims, such as skydiving or sitting on a plastic chair on top of a roof. Crystal Aviles would spend extreme amounts of money. Others would seek dangerous pleasures: a couple even mentioned doing drugs and having sex.

Petri’s follow-up questions made everyone reconsider: What would you do if you knew the end of the world would arrive in a week? A year? 70 years? A handful of students, considering the more time they were given, said they would relax and think about what they truly wanted to achieve in their lifetimes. Others argued that knowing the amount of time they had left would change nothing about their previous answers. Knowing the end was to come at a certain time would be enough to do the things they have on their bucket lists. Everyone, however, seemed to consider a new question: What is holding us back from doing what we aspire to do now, since our days are in fact numbered?

It seemed clear from day one that Humanities 2 would be a class that poses big questions. Petri said, “Humanities is the rigorous study of meaning, from poems, to writing, to life,” and believes more people should ask themselves these questions and that it is the job of students at school to investigate them. As well as that, his course syllabus states that “In Humanities 2, we will think about how to answer these questions for ourselves by exploring some of the most influential answers ever given. Those answers, which still shape the world, were given thousands of years ago by prophets, poets, and philosophers.” Petri wants his students to think about what the meaning of life is and if we know what comes with the responsibility of being a human in this ever-changing world. Do you ask yourself tough, overwhelming, beautiful questions about life or are you simply along for the ride?

Humanities 2 pushed students beyond easy answers on that first day. Both Petri’s A- and C-block classes began to offer a string of you only live once clichés: we ought to live every day as if it were our last, live life to the fullest, and all the rest. Gradually, though, students came to see the weak logic in these platitudes. One student pointed out that calling your loved ones every single day to say goodbye would be absurd. Eventually, your loved ones would stop answering your calls.

Petri quickly made the questions more pointed. Why were the students at school today at all, if they lived every day as if it were their last? None of the students had said they would spend the next 24 hours, or the last week of their lives, in the class, yet all of them found it important enough to be there.

Zack Wacker, in C-block, argued for the importance of school, suggesting that 13 years of school must have benefits in the long run. To which several others argued that most were not there for the benefits, but because they had been forced.

Suddenly, the conversation was about why we do what we do. Petri’s questions had students admitting that they cared what other people thought; indeed, that they felt compelled to be at school because of what other people thought of them. In which case, students wondered, are we doing things we choose for ourselves, or living based on ideals merely handed to us?

This tenth-grade writer, Remali De Silva, spoke out her desire to get a tattoo at age 15. Inspired by Petri’s relentless questioning, the class asked what she was waiting for–someone else’s permission or recognition? She was just scared about what her parents would think, she said, even though she was among those who said they were “living every day like it might be her last.”

Petri brought this planned discussion to a Socratic conclusion: as it turns out, his students demonstrated to themselves that they had a pretty weak idea of why they did what they did, of the philosophy that guided their lives. As to where the class would go next, this also took the form of a question. Would Petri lead his Humanities 2 students into a maze he did not know how to escape, or, like Socrates, did he know the direction he was leading?