“The measure of a man is what he does with power.” Plato – Power
Does power reveal our true character?
Being a good person is hard enough. It’s even harder when we occupy positions of authority. Authority gives us leeway to deal with others in whatever way we want, and carry through with punishments of our design. How we execute our power reveals our true values, because we have the power to choose otherwise. Yet, adversity and hardship test our values too, and sometimes uncover more of who we really are.
Join Dan and Steve Fouts for an unforgettable conversation about power using the Teach Different 3-Step method with guest, Andrew Swan.
Image source: Picryl | Creative Commons
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators who have created the Teach Different podcast to inspire all of us to think deeper, listen with more intention, and understand each other better. On this podcast, we model a conversation method using claims, counterclaims, essential questions, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with adults and students of all ages at school or at home, and is implemented using Google Forms. So, if you’re a teacher, parent, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who wants to think in new ways and help others do the same, then you’ve come to the right place.
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the Teach Different podcast this week, we are really excited to have a different author of a quote. I can’t believe we haven’t had Plato before. Well, that run ends tonight. It’s actually a quote that’s attributed to other people, but Plato gets the attribution more than anyone else. Before we get to the quote, we’d like to familiarize everybody with the Teach Different 3-Step method. We’re going to start with a quote, and work through the claim of the quote, interpreting it in ways in which we understand. Then, just when we start agreeing with it, we look at another way of processing the quote called the counterclaim. This is where the tension of the conversation comes. One thing about this method that’s really important for people to understand is if you don’t have tension, then you don’t have a conversation. You have people sharing opinions, and there’s nothing to resolve. That’s what the counterclaim is all about. We’ll end with an essential question to give you something to think about and move forward with. We are really fortunate tonight to have Andrew Swan as a guest. Andrew is a middle school teacher from Massachusetts. Andrew, I’ll let you introduce yourself. Welcome to the show.
Andrew Swan 02:27
Hi, Dan. Hi, Steve. Thanks for having me here. This month, actually in a few days, I’ll be starting my 22nd year of teaching middle school, which is weird to think of. I’m in a suburb of Boston and have been at the same school for 18 years. I taught ELA, but now I am teaching social studies. Recently, social studies changed in eighth grade to a full year civics course. So, that’s where we live. I’m co-director of The SSChat Network on Twitter, a member of the iCivics ed network, and run the Civics 101 podcast in my spare time. I’m really happy to be here.
Dan Fouts 03:10
Outstanding. I’ve worked with you, Andrew, to organize some Twitter chats. It’s always a pleasure to work with you and to see you at NCSS conferences when they’re live. It just went virtual, as you know, last week.
Andrew Swan 03:28
Sad, but true. That’s our reality.
Dan Fouts 03:30
But, we’ll deal. Well, here we go. Here’s the Plato quote, and then we’re off. “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” Andrew, throw it in the mix.
Andrew Swan 03:52 – Claim
Okay, so we’ll just take man and make it gender neutral, measure of a person. We’re just talking about people. We’ll be talking a lot about power, but I don’t know how you read into this. For me, measure seems to be an external judgment, it’s how we should judge a person from what we know about them. We, from the outside, rather than one measuring oneself internally. That’s how I’m taking it. So, we’re judging someone based on what they do when they’re in a powerful position or have some kind of power to use. I thought about different kinds of power. That could be physical strength, doing something with force or forcefully, like a weightlifter. There’s military power. I also thought of a screaming four year old, and what they can do. Kids have power. There’s emotional power, interpersonal leverage. Think of someone holding the keys, either literally or figuratively, to what someone does, and they have emotional power over somebody.
The other one is power and authority, which sometimes get conflated, but I think it’s worthwhile to see them as separate. Plato is talking about power, not authority. The screaming kid has power, but doesn’t have legal authority in a family. Authority is sanctioned, legalized, or recognized in some way, like a social contract. Power is separate from that. It can be physical or emotional. Plato is telling us to judge people by how they use any of those kinds of power. Ignore everything else, and just focus on how they deal with power. That’s my little two and a half minute bit.
Steve Fouts 06:09
I like it. I would add that power means you have the capability of executing something, without consequence. You have the ability to do something or not do it. There is nothing that would stop you, with the exception of your own conscience. That’s how I understand power, and that’s where I thought Plato was heading with this quote. Dan, I don’t know if you have a good way to say the claim quickly. I’m talking a lot here. How would you say the claim?
Dan Fouts 07:03
Well, I’m thinking of the word power, as you were just describing it, and I think both of you are right. There’s something about having power, it’s almost like agency. You can do one thing, or you can do another thing, and you have to make a moral choice. I feel like the measure of a man, or the measure of a person, is the choices he or she makes with that power. My mind went to moral, ethical, what’s right, and what’s wrong once you have the power to do something. My interpretation is making an external, moral judgment of somebody based on what they do when they have the freedom to execute power in some way.
Andrew Swan 08:04
Yeah. I was trying to think about how most students would take this, my eighth grade especially. I think this is one of those important terms that you have to start with, or at least touch upon. I think I’ve sort of gone around it by talking about leadership and independence. I think students would jump to presidents, kings, and emperors and what they do. Should President Truman have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We’re going to judge him based on that sort of power. To go to your point, Steve, there were no consequences for Truman. He wasn’t expecting retaliation, but there are still consequences. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. What does one do when they have that kind of power? That’s something we still debate today.
Dan Fouts 09:24
That’s good. I see how this quote applies to different curricula. The exertion of power is a common theme. I like helping kids recognize that they have power, and a lot of the kids know it. They might not call it power, but they have influence over other students. If somehow the discussion could help reveal that for them, then you’ve got them, because you can ask, what’s the proper expression of that power, once you have it? How would you want to be judged? Make this personal for them. Has anyone ever been in a leadership position on a team? What have you done with that power? Did you use it for the benefit of your team, or did you use it selfishly? Why did you choose one way or the other? What do you think of that, Andrew?
Andrew Swan 10:40
I feel like I’ve tried that. This will be my fourth year teaching U.S. history. We come to these concepts all the time, and those discussions typically fall flat. Thirteen and fourteen year olds have had so few personal opportunities. We can look at role models, parents, and school principals. We’re about to have a new principal for the first time in my whole time at this school, and I’m going to use that as a lens for looking at leadership. I don’t say this often, but I think they are too young to be able to have personal experiences to share. Maybe they had power on a team one time, and they don’t even know if they did a good job or not. How would they know? They didn’t get an exit interview for being the captain on a team.
Dan Fouts 11:37
You’re saying they would be better at judging other people who have power over them? That makes sense. People like coaches, teachers, and parents?
Andrew Swan 11:48
I think so. Steve, I want to get back to your point, because I hadn’t thought about it this way before. There’s a little experiment I’ve done with my class based on the cookie game. I’m blanking on the brilliant, beautiful mind, mathematician game theory expert. I give everyone a coin, and pair them up. They each have something in their hand, and on the count of three, they show their coin or not. Basically, if I put out my hand with a coin, and you don’t, then you get to take my coin and my points. If we both don’t show our coins, then we both get a zero. It’s rigged. The more you cheat, the more you win. The kids eventually figure it out. I call it the trust game, but in a way, it is like power. You’re reading the other person. Are they going to keep giving the coin to me, or are they not going to? If we both put out our coin, then we each get one point. If we both put out nothing, then we get zero points. There’s some incentive to put the coin out there, but if I put it out and you don’t, then you get my three points.
Steve Fouts 13:24
Interesting. I’d love to see a write up of that. It sounds like a really good mind game where both kids have agency. I’m going to say this quote is loaded; it needs some unpacking at the beginning. We try to have the kids rewrite the quote, as a claim in their own words, and this is an in depth quote. There’s a lot going on here. Do we want to try to do that right now? How would we say the claim in our own words?
Andrew Swan 14:15
The value of a person is what they do when they’re in charge, or how they act when they’re in charge. Maybe that’s better, how they act.
Steve Fouts 14:22
Good. The value of a person is how they act when they’re in charge.
Dan Fouts 14:29
That is great.
Steve Fouts 14:30
That’s fantastic. Andrew, here’s the fun part of Teach Different. The minute we figure out a claim like that out, we get to negate it.
Andrew Swan 14:44
It’s time to break it. All right.
Steve Fouts 14:46 – Counterclaim
We’re going to break that beautiful building that you just created. I have a counterclaim. The value of a person is shown by how they go through hardship, which is not the same as being in charge. It is about going through experiences where they are tested in some way, and they show more endurance, or perseverance. I think that is equally reasonable.
Andrew Swan 15:31
We, common everyday folks like us, can relate to hardship more than we can being in charge.
Dan Fouts 15:40
I believe we also judge people favorably who are able to endure suffering. We look up to them. We venerate them. Think of the civil rights leaders and what many of those leaders had to endure in their quest for justice. We clearly look at that and value that in a way that is pretty profound.
Andrew Swan 16:13
Just to throw out a counterclaim, the true measure or value of a person is how they respond to power or rules. Not how they are leaders, but how they are followers. How they cooperate, whether in hardship or not. It may be something like what do we do when no one’s looking?
Dan Fouts 16:42
Did you say how you were a follower?
Andrew Swan 16:45
Dan Fouts 16:47
I love it.
Andrew Swan 16:47
Based on how they follow others, and how they cooperate with others. In contrast to Plato and how someone leads, or dealing with people in charge.
Dan Fouts 16:59
It’s interesting that you mentioned that, Andrew, because just today, I have a problem student. He loves to commandeer discussions, and he wants to talk about what he wants to talk about, not what anyone else wants to talk about. So, I approached him after class and said, you’re going to join me and lead the discussion on Thursday. You’re going to sit right next to me, and we, you and me, are going to lead it. Hopefully, after he has that experience, and it goes well, then he’ll be a better follower. He will have had the experience of being in charge, and now it’s time to go to the other side. That’s a measure of a person. I can’t believe you mentioned that, because that actually fits very well into my experiment, so to speak.
Andrew Swan 17:58
You said, you hope it goes well, but if it doesn’t go well, that will also still prove your point. Leading is hard. Have some sympathy for my situation every day with you guys.
Dan Fouts 18:07
Fair enough. I think another question you could ask the students is who they respect, or who they look up to. That would reveal a bit about whether or not they have a good notion of someone who has influence and power. Maybe they would say, I respect my mother because she’s very religious, and goes to church. She’s always telling me to do the right thing, and that I should follow rules because it’s good for me. If you respect someone like that, it seems like you would be closer to the counterclaim than you would the claim. That would be revealed in who kids respect. Many kids are going to say I respect the guy or girl everyone else respects, or celebrities, or people with influence.
Andrew Swan 19:19
Yeah. There’s a difference. Someone with power is not necessarily a leader. Influencers have persuasive power, or a power of attraction, to get the most likes and views, but that doesn’t make them a leader. Maybe this is a way to help students differentiate the two.
Steve Fouts 19:54
Dan Fouts 19:56
It could flow into a conversation about what leadership is. This is what happens with these conversations, Andrew. You don’t know where they’re going to go, which makes them sometimes terrifying, but mostly exciting.
Andrew Swan 20:18
I have four sections a day, and they’re always going in a different direction. It’s never boring.
Steve Fouts 20:25
Andrew, you filled out a pre podcast activity for us to get your mind thinking about this stuff. Part of our method is that we encourage everybody to have the conversation once before they have the conversation with their students. I wanted to add one other thing about Plato, because he’s my guy. He’s the philosopher that I’ve read the most, and that I’m most entranced with. So, let me give you what I know about him very quickly. It may or may not help with an understanding of the quote. It really deals with leadership. Plato’s big insight in his book, The Republic, which is his famous book, is that the best leaders are reluctant. If you want to get a good leader and a good person, you have to find someone who has power, but doesn’t want it. The minute you get that, you’re going to get a person who is going to do things for the right reasons. They’re not going to do it selfishly. They’re not going to do it to take advantage of people. They’re going to do it out of a sense of otherness, and duty, most of the time. Reluctance was his insight. The best leaders are reluctant.
Andrew Swan 22:00
That was the idea with the founders. George Washington didn’t run for president, and neither did John Adams, Jefferson, or Madison. Andrew Jackson was the first one to campaign, and that wouldn’t be recognized today. So, you have two generations of leaders in the United States who didn’t outwardly express a desire for power. It was untoward to say you wanted power. That must have been the Platonic ideal that they were following.
Steve Fouts 22:47
Dan Fouts 22:51 – Essential Question
Reading your prep sheet, Andrew, I agree with you that this is a great quote. I think you could bring this up many times during the year. The kids can re-evaluate leaders in light of what they’ve learned about the leader. Steve and I have found with these conversations, that you don’t just use them once. You use them once, but then they come back around when you get new information that you have to apply to old themes. That’s when I think deep learning happens. So, this is a great one, what they call transferability. This will transfer to different parts of your class.
Well, great. We like to wrap these up, Andrew, with an essential question that leaves the kids and the adults thinking deeply about the conversation. So here’s an essential question we came up with in advance, does power reveal our true character? One thing you can leave with them to think about. We use those as exit slips after the conversation as a reflective activity. You can revisit that as much as you want.
Andrew Swan 24:18
I’m actually getting blocked by that one, because I hadn’t thought of essential questions as a yes or no. Of course, there is an in between. I’ve been taught that it has to be open ended. You’ve shattered my understanding of it having to be open ended.
Dan Fouts 24:36
I used to do the same thing. I find that the yes/no questions are the deepest, because the kids have to defend it. That’s when the depth occurs. Does power reveal our true character? Yes or no? And then it opens up.
Andrew Swan 24:57
Yeah. My instinct would have been something like what is the real meaning of power, but that’s almost too open. You’ve almost made it multiple choice. It’s A or none of the above, and then explain your answer.
Dan Fouts 25:11
I feel like kids are more motivated to answer a question like that, and then defend it.
Steve Fouts 25:19
You can take a vote. Anytime you can take a vote, you at least have a setup for a little bit of drama.
Andrew Swan 25:32
Instead of four corners, I do three corners. You have the yes, no, and the in-betweens. Kids can stand at yes, no, or within the gradations of how much they agree or disagree. That’s what I’m visualizing right now, so the kids can see where each other stands. Whoever is at the extremes gets paired up to discuss. The ones who are in the middle turn and talk. Why are you there? Why are you where you stand? I found that better than the four corners, because you get kids who try to go into the middle of the room, which defeats the purpose. You can also have them count off. If you have 20 kids, one through ten, one through ten. Then you get one of the extreme talking to someone in the middle.
Dan Fouts 26:35
Getting them up moving physically is huge. What am I saying? You teach middle school.
Andrew Swan 26:46
Not in Zoom world, but if you are in a real classroom, try that.
Steve Fouts 26:51
Face-to-face, because we’re doing it.
Dan Fouts 26:53
All right. Well, Andrew, thanks. This was great. We appreciate your thoughts, and coming on the show to share your wisdom. After 22 years of experience teaching middle school, you’re still with us. That’s amazing. It’s been a pleasure working with you over the years and I hope to continue doing that.
Andrew Swan 27:14
Yeah. We will. I hope you guys continue to do what you’re doing.
Steve Fouts 27:19
Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew Swan 27:20
I have all of these scrawlings from our conversation here to decipher and apply.
Steve Fouts 27:25
It’s all about conversations about things that matter. That’s what we hope we’re doing here at Teach Different. All right. Take care, Andrew.
Andrew Swan 27:38
Thanks, you too, gentlemen.
Steve Fouts 27:39
Thank you, Andrew.
Dan Fouts 27:41
Thanks, everybody. We hope you are walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and are confident that conversations like this are possible. With a little bit of planning and a 3-step method. Make sure you go to teachdifferent.com to learn more, and check out our library of conversation starters, where we’ve compiled dozens of quotes, each with their own claim, counterclaim, and essential question. Good luck. And don’t forget to teach different with conversations and make a difference every day.