Young Plato: Teaching Stoicism in School

Young Plato is a documentary film that charts the dream of Elvis-loving school headmaster Kevin McArevey. Using philosophy, the maverick teacher sets out to change the fortunes of an inner-city community plagued by urban decay, sectarian aggression, poverty, and drugs.

The all-boys primary school Holy Cross in post-conflict Belfast, Northern Ireland, becomes a hothouse for thinking and questioning, as the headmaster encourages the children to see beyond the boundaries and limitations of their community.

Each day, McArevey sends his young wards home armed with the wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers, including the Stoics.

The boys challenge their school friends, parents, and neighbors to find alternatives to violence and prejudice, and practice healthy responses to their own emotions.

Seeing it in action makes you wonder why this approach isn’t adopted in every education system. Perhaps the documentary is the first step toward that becoming a reality.

The Philosophy Wall

In one of my favorite parts of the film, McArevey has to deal with an incident in which one of the boys has pulled a chair away from a fellow student causing him to fall on the ground.

By way of detention, the headmaster has the young offender report to the school’s “philosophy wall.”

The philosophy wall consists of a whiteboard and marker pen surrounded by four questions:

  • What happened?
  • What should have happened?
  • What should you do now?
  • What is x? (Where x is the answer to the previous question)

Rather than sitting out detentions completing mindless tasks, boys who transgress are instead encouraged to think through their actions and come to some conclusion about how they can improve their behavior.

In this instance, McArevey provides guidance as the remorseful boy writes his answers on the philosophy wall.

He summarizes the incident and what should have occurred instead, before deciding that what he needs to do now is say sorry to his friend.

The final question he considers is “what is saying sorry?”

With this, the boy thinks more deeply about what his apology really means and, in doing so, completes his detention.

Seeing how this situation played out — how it led to careful self-reflection and ultimately a positive conclusion —I can’t help but think we should all have our own philosophy wall.

Seneca and Stoicism

In another excellent scene, McArevey draws from the work of Seneca. Noting their responses, he has a class of pupils guess ten of the Stoic philosopher’s recommended methods for controlling anger.

After a collection of impressive answers that align well with much of the advice the Roman statesman outlines in his On Anger essay, the headmaster declares that Seneca would be proud of the class.

Continuing the Stoicism theme, eagle-eyed viewers will also notice the book The Daily Stoic make a couple of brief appearances in the film.

How to Find Yourself

Overall, I found Young Plato to be a fantastic documentary. It’s about a headmaster embarking on a commendable quest to teach children to examine their own thoughts and question the world around them.

There are certainly plenty of lessons the rest of us can learn too. Who among us wouldn’t benefit from thinking for ourselves, reviewing our actions, and carefully considering our responses to the situations we face in life?

As the camera pans away from Holy Cross at the end of the film, we see the crystallization of McArevery’s mission. The shot reveals a new school mural. The huge painting features one of the school’s pupils in the famous “Thinker” pose, similar to Auguste Rodin’s 1904 statue that is synonymous with philosophy.

Six words have been painted above the image of the young philosopher. The intention is that they remind the pupils of their most important responsibility as they enter the school each day. They are also words we would do well to remember ourselves. Those six words are:

To find yourself, think for yourself.

Watching Young Plato

If you’d like to watch Young Plato, here is a list of streaming services the film is available on.

You can also check out the trailer below: