I realized, as I was closing in on the last day of discussing Gorgias in my Ethics class, that students were not quite as excited about this text as I am. Okay, that's an understatement. I suspected that they were lost and dazed and realized that this is not an ideal spot for students to be.
So, I decided to go with the following in class. I told them that some students leave this text with one overarching question <dramatic pause> "Who cares?" or, put in slightly more sophisticated form, "Why should I care about Gorgias?" I then appointed one person to count the number of people in the class who were in this position while I stepped out of the room. In my first class only 5 people admitted to being in this position while in my 2nd class 21 people admitted to it. The first class was, as far as I'm concerned, lying. But the 2nd class, 21? Sheesh.
Anyway, I then asked them to come with all the reasons someone might give for believing that they should not care about this text. After they did this (and I put all the reasons on the board), I asked them to now advocate on behalf of Socrates/Plato and respond to these reasons. I told them that some of the reasons while factually correct might not be good reasons for not caring and that others if they were factually correct probably would be good reasons and so the task with these was to figure out if the claims were factually correct.
The take away of this was for students to really focus on what this dialogue is ultimately about. I wanted them really thinking about how this is relevant to their lives.
The exercise worked quite well.
But, it worked really well (and for my amusement) in my 2nd class. The reasons given were (a) it was written too long ago; (b) it's hard to understand; (c) it could have been said more simply and briefly; (d) not directly applicable to my job; (e) too long; (f) too confusing; (g) have to work with others to understand it; (h) no obvious right answer.
Of course, there was also the 'not relevant to my life' reason, but the above reasons are all true of the dialogue while lack of relevance isn't obviously true.
So, as they were working on determining whether any of these were good reasons for not caring (a philosophical exercise since we are interested in what counts as a good reason for something). I zipped upstairs to get my copy of, wait for it, the Bible. :-)
Of course, as soon as they saw it, many immediately realized my point. As, well, it also has characteristics (a) - (h) above. And then, since many of the students in this class are interested in heading off to law school, I noted that the Constitution also has these characteristics. It was fun to see their reactions to this and to hear them say that they supposed that what they really were saying is that they didn't like to work and liked things to just be handed to them. Fair enough. Who doesn't?
Anyway, we then discussed what the dialogue is really about (beyond the plot) which worked easily since our first reading was a Pulitzer prize winning play and we'd already established that texts can be about more than the plot. They did admit the given the topic of the dialogue "how should we live life so that we are most happy with the life we have lived?" that maybe, just maybe, this is still relevant to their lives.
It was fun. They had fun and, I think, really learned something. What else can a person ask for?