“What is the responsibility of an educated person in a democracy?” This is the central question of one of my courses, which we begin by playing a game: The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC.
The Threshold of Democracy, or "the Athens game," as we call it, was developed at Barnard College. It is one of an ever-growing series of historical role playing games called Reacting to the Past, which have been developed over the last twenty years and which are played at more than 300 college campuses across the country.
The Athens game includes debates on a range of topics that seem eerily familiar: should Athenians allow foreigners to participate in their democracy? Should Athens increase military spending or use more funding for education and the arts. Should the Athenians build a wall to protect themselves? But the most revealing part of the game, in terms of how students revealed their attitudes, was the trial of Socrates.
Historically, the Athenian assembly levied two charges against Socrates. The first was impiety against the gods. For Socrates, the gods described in Homer and Hesiod, with their passions and pettiness, were as flawed as humans and offered no guidance for a moral life. He chose instead to listen to a voice inside his head, which we might call his conscience, but which Socrates called God. For failing to acknowledge and worship the Athenian pantheon of gods, and for replacing the pantheon with his own single god, the assembly charged Socrates with what the Greeks called asebeia, impiety. Because he was a teacher who expounded such radical ideas to his students, Socrates was also charged with the better-known crime of “corrupting the youth of Athens.” In 399 BC, jurors chosen by random lot found Socrates guilty on both charges and sentenced him to death.
We played the trial of Socrates in the penultimate game session. On the side of the defense, there were passionate arguments from Socrates’ supporters. Many of them advocated for the rights of free speech—a concept that was actually foreign to the ancient Greeks. (More on that later.) Like their counterparts in ancient 5th-century Athens, the student jury in our 21st-century classroom again found Socrates guilty. When it came time for sentencing, some of the students playing the game stuck to the views of their characters and argued for the death penalty. The character of Gorgias the Younger, a rhetorician, spoke against death, but only because he feared that Socrates might become a martyr and hence more popular and influential than before. Ultimately, the students chose to ostracize Socrates, to banish him from Athens for a period of ten years with no opportunity to return—at least not until long after they had graduated. Clearly, the historic verdict of death by hemlock offended the students’ liberal sensibilities (and rightly so). The students did show mercy, in a way, but they still chose to punish the teacher who had offended society with his words.
In the final game session, students chose to abandon democracy and elect a tyrant. One of the characters in the game had a secret mission. Throughout five weeks of the game, that student made backroom deals with other players in the game. When one faction supported education for democracy, the student claimed to support it, too. But they said the opposite to the faction that opposed education for democracy. The student supported those factions that wanted militarization, but also those who wanted to support the arts, even though the Athenian coffers could not finance both. The student flattered and made promises that could not be kept, told our 21st-century “citizens of Athens” what they wanted to hear, and in the end was elected as a tyrant, with absolute authority to make all decisions for the city-state.
None of the students in the class were old enough to vote in the 2016 election. Yet as high school students, most of them would have been torn between supporting the first female candidate for president, Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the socialist idealist Bernie Sanders. Very few, if any, would have backed Donald Trump. I say this with some confidence because that’s the kind of student that Augsburg attracts: liberal, progressive, activist, sometimes radical. So why did they choose to elect a tyrant as their final act in the Athens game? This might have been ironic, just to game the game, as it were, to do something outrageous just because they could. But I think there was more going on here. I think that, having tried direct democracy, with its muddiness and conflict, its frustrating slowness and disappointment, they chose in favor of getting things done with as little friction as possible. It didn’t matter that the tyrant who promised this life likely could not deliver. Unlike 2016 America, the game was over and no one would have to wait around to find out.
The Athens game is truly a work of genius. It energizes students to take charge of their own educations and I only wish that I had been clever enough to invent it. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to link the game’s outcomes to the moral and political sensibilities of its student players. It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of the games outcomes over the last twenty years. Would students in the George W. Bush era have supported remilitarization in ancient Athens? Would students during Obama’s presidency have supported payment for civic duties so that more citizens could participate in democracy? I acknowledge that my interpretation here might be a load of crap, influenced by the events that recently happened in my classroom. I am definitely looking for answers, for an understanding of what happened. I could be wrong here, but the hypothesis is at least interesting.