Documentary Review: A Northern Irish headmaster tries to make each student a “Young Plato”

The school’s halls are decorated with inspirational quotes from Socrates, Aristotle and Elvis. And in class, boys of 8, 9 and 10 raise their hands to be today’s “concept mapper” or be in today’s “Socratic Circle.”

“Question of the day,” their headmaster and philosophy teacher announces, ‘Should you ever take your anger out on someone else?”

The kids ponder the question and the answers vary. A lively debate is facilitated by passing a tiny soccer ball to whoever raises his hand to speak.

Welcome to Holy Cross Boy’s Primary School, Ardoyne, Belfast, Northern Ireland, a place with a bloody history and an uneasy present, but where headmaster Kevin McArevey is the proverbial boat against the current. He teaches kids the Socratic Method, visits their families to get parents involved with employing it to question their children, and gives the kids the tools to “think for themselves” and even question their parents about “the way things have always been” in this troubled part of the world.

“Young Plato” is a classic “fly on the wall” documentary about this working class Catholic school, following kids into class and onto the playground where, by universal law, little boys play and roughhouse and the roughhousing gets out of hand. Victims and bullies are counseled by either the headmaster or the counselor (Jan-Marie Reel). Tears are shed, comfort is offered and occasionally Kevin McArevey is interrupted by “Unchained Melody,” “Jailhouse Rock” or “If I Can Dream” or whatever ring tone by The King he’s using this week.

Because “When Elvis interrupts, it’s ok,” he jokes. From the bobblehead in his car to an office wholly adorned with Elvis clocks, posters etc., the man’s a fanatic. But as he’s a master of the Socratic Method, you can bet your béaláiste he can wholly justify his mania even under the most intense questioning.

Filmmakers Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin give us context, snippets of archival news coverage and even classroom-sampled showings of documentaries on “The Troubles.” Small boys debate what they know, what went on before they were born and what still happens, occasionally, today. They’re in an Irish Republican neighborhood, but given a forum and the tools that pointed questioning sharpens, they and we can see this teaching getting through as they grasp both sides and the flawed thinking that leads to violence.

A fight breaks out on the playground, but some kids rush to separate the combatants and others move to comfort those being picked-on. Some of this is forgotten during the COVID lockdown break, but these lessons come back to them when they return to school.

The counseling sessions afterwards often bring kids to tears — sometimes in embarrassment because they have to acknowledge that they know better.

Mr. McArevey may live by the Socratic saying on “The Philosophy Room” wall — “The greatest thing I know is that I know nothing.” But when he’s teaching, Seneca and the Stoics come in handy — “10 ways you can control anger.”

There’s nothing particularly representative about this school, its population and their parents. Aside from the uniforms and the school name, we see more that’s “Irish Republican” than Catholic. Northern Ireland’s source of conflict is as particular and specific as it is universal. And we’re reminded that school can only do so much, as there have been kids expelled for grievous offenses, and a former student’s suicide is cause for reflection and a day’s questioning in The Philosophy Room.

But that’s why “Young Plato” is a guardedly optimistic film, showing us a tiny sample of the Platonic Ideal, a school with a small enough teacher-to-student ratio, with respected, committed and compensated educators working to impart not only the facts of history, geography, math and life. They’re teaching children to reason, debate and think for themselves and take on the responsibilities of citizenship. If the Northern Irish are still learning from the ancient Greeks, maybe the rest of us should give them a listen, too.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Kevin McArevey, Jan-Marie Reel and the teachers, parents and boys of Holy Cross Boy’s Primary SChool, Ardoyne, Belfast

Credits: Directed by Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin, scripted by Etienne Essery, Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin. A Soilsiu release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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