In our current 5th and 6th grade unit “The Odyssey and Western Philosophy,” we are reading Homer’s The Odyssey and are exploring a different philosophical concept for each story in the epic poem. This unit was inspired by the book The If Odyssey by Peter Worley.
This week, we read the story of Aeolus and the Bag of Winds this story to discuss the concepts of democracy and autocracy. In this story, Aeolus gives Odysseus a mysterious bag before he and his crew set sail back to Ithaca. However, as they approach home, Odysseus’s crew becomes suspicious that the bag contains gold and silver, and they are resentful that Odysseus has not offered to share the treasure with them. They begin to argue whether to obey Odysseus’s orders to not open the bag, or whether they should follow popular demand and open the bag.
Given that most Americans (including children) are likely predisposed to favor democracy, I felt that a simulation would be the best way to stimulate an open-minded discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of both of these systems.
I chose an activity called the Magic Carpet challenge, the premise of which is as follows:
This tablecloth has turned into a Magic Carpet! However, the Magic Carpet is going the wrong way, because it is upside down! Your task is to try and turn the carpet over without stepping off the carpet, jumping, or carrying any other group member. All class members must be on the Magic Carpet at all times.
We did two rounds of this challenge. For the first, the group was instructed to function as a democracy — each person has a voice, and everyone can share their opinion. For the second, the group functioned as an autocracy — only the leader (selected by the teacher) could give instructions and make decisions.
For the democratic round, it isn’t surprising that some chaos ensued as many different ideas were tried — sometimes at once!
The autocratic version went a bit smoother, and much more quietly.
Students were then asked to reflect on the activity and make a list of the pros and cons of each system. Some of their comments included:
- The democratic round had a greater variety of creative opinions and ideas
- The autocratic round was much quicker to solve the challenge, due to the fact that there was some arguing and differences of opinion in the democratic round
- Not everyone’s voice was heard in the democratic round (which then prompted the question — whose voices are marginalized in “real-life” democratic systems?)
- Even in the democratic round, natural leaders tended to emerge.
It was encouraging to see that middle schoolers can reflect in a thoughtful and engaged way on political processes. We will strive to bring this same spirit of inquiry towards our future discussions in this unit!