Socrates’ Argumentation — Method, Madness, or Something Else?

The common understanding of basic terms and ideas is often amiss. Sometimes that’s innocuous; sometimes it’s not.

Many in the field of classical education tout what they call the Socratic Method, by which they seem to mean a process that draws the student to the correct conclusion by means of a sequence of leading questions. The end is predetermined; for good or ill, the method is primarily a rhetorical strategy to convince students that the answer was their own idea all along, thus achieving “buy-in”, so to speak. As rhetorical strategies go, it’s not really so bad.

Is it also good pedagogical technique? I am less certain. The short-term advantage of persuading a student that something is his or her own idea is materially compromised by the fact that (on these terms, at least) the method is fundamentally disingenuous. If the questioner feigns ignorance, while all the while knowing precisely where these questions must lead, perceptive students, at least, will eventually realize that they are being played. Some may not resent that; others certainly will, and will seek every opportunity to disengage themselves from a process that they rightly consider a pretense.

Whether it’s valid pedagogically or not, however, we mustn’t claim that it’s Socratic. Socrates did indeed proceed by asking questions. He asked them incessantly. He was annoying, in fact — a kind of perpetual three-year-old, asking “why?” after each answer, challenging every supposition, and never satisfied with the status quo or with any piece or accepted wisdom. It can be wearying to respond to this game; harried parents through the years have learned to shut down such interrogation: “Because I said so!” The Athenians shut Socrates’ questioning down with a cup of hemlock.

But the fact is that the annoying three-year-old is probably the most capable learning agent in the history of the world. The unfettered inquiry into why and how — about anything and everything — is the very stuff of learning. It’s why young children learn sophisticated language at such a rate. “Because I said so,” is arguably the correct answer to “Why must I do what you say?” But as an answer to a question about the truth, rather than as the justification of a command, it’s entirely inadequate, and even a three-year-old knows the difference. If we consider it acceptable, we are surrendering our credentials as learners or as teachers.

The difference between the popular notion of this so-called Socratic method and the method Socrates actually follows in the Platonic dialogues is that Socrates apparently had no fixed goal in view. He was always far more concerned to dismantle specious knowledge than to supply a substitute in its place. He was willing to challenge any conclusions, and the endpoint of most of his early dialogues was not a settled agreement, but merely an admission of humility: “Well, golly, Socrates. I’m stuck. I guess I really have no idea what I was talking about.” Socrates thought that this was a pretty good beginning; indeed, he claimed that his one advantage over other presumed experts was that he at least knew that he didn’t know anything, while they, just as ignorant in fact, believed that they knew something.

Taken on this view, the Socratic method is really a fairly poor way of training someone. If you are teaching people to be technicians of some sort or other, you want them to submit to the program and take instruction. It’s arguably not the best tool for practical engineering, medicine, or the law. (There is now a major push in resistance to using any kind of real Socratic method in law school, for example.)

But training is precisely not education. Education is where the true Socratic process comes into its own. It’s about the confrontation of minds, the clarification of definitions, and the discovery and testing of new ideas. It’s a risky way of teaching. It changes the underlying supposition of the enterprise. It can no longer be seen merely as a one-way download of information from master to pupil. In its place it commends to us a common search for the truth. At this point, the teacher is at most the first among equals.

This makes — and will continue to make — a lot of people uncomfortable. It makes many teachers uncomfortable, because in the process they risk losing control — not necessarily behavioral control of a class, but their identity (often carefully groomed and still more zealously protected) as oracles whose word should not be questioned. It opens their narrative and their identity to questioning, and may put them on the defensive.

It makes students uncomfortable too — especially those who are identified as “good” students — the ones who dot every “i” and cross every “t”, and never seem to step out of line or challenge the teacher’s authority. These are the ones likeliest, in a traditional high school, to be valedictorians and materially successful, according to a few recent studies — but not the ones likeliest to make real breakthrough contributions. (The recent book Barking up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker has some interesting things to say about this: one can read a precis of his contentions here. Barker’s work is based at least in part on Karen Arnold’s Lives of Promise, published in 1995, and discussed here.)

In practical terms, education is a mixed bag.

There is a place for training. We need at least some of the “download” kind of instruction. Basic terms need to be learned before they can be manipulated; every discipline has its grammar. I really do know Latin, for example, better than most of my students, and, at least most of the time, what I say is likelier to be correct. But my saying so neither constitutes nor assures correctness, and if a student corrects me, then, assuming he or she is right, it should be my part to accept that correction graciously, not to insist on a falsehood because I can prevail on the basis of my presumed status. If the correction is wrong, the course of charity is also to assume good intention on the student’s part, and clarify the right answer in my turn. Either way, there is no room for “alternative facts”. There is truth, and there is falsehood. The truth is always the truth, irrespective of who articulates it, and it — not I or my student — deserves the primary respect. We must serve the truth, not the other way around.

At some point in their education, though, students should also be invited to get into the ring with each other and with the teacher, to state their cases with conviction, and back them up with reasoned argument and well-documented facts. If they get knocked down, they need to learn to get back up again and keep on engaging in the process. It hurts a lot less if one realizes that it’s not one’s own personal worth that’s at stake: it’s the truth that is slowly coming to light as we go along. That’s the experience — and the thrill of the chase that it actually entails — that constitutes the deeper part of education. That’s what the true Socratic method was — and still should be — about.

Two modes of learning are prevalent today in colleges, especially — the lecture course and the seminar. In the lecture, the students are, for the most part, passive recipients of information. The agent is the lecturer, who delivers course content in a one-way stream. It’s enshrined in hundreds of years of tradition, and it has its place. But a student who never moves beyond that will emerge more or less free of actual education. The seminar, on the other hand, is about the dialectic — the back-and-forth of the process. It requires the student to become, for a time, the teacher, to challenge authority not because it is authority but because truth has the higher claim. Here disagreement is not toxic: it’s the life blood of the process, and it’s lifegiving for the student.

At Scholars Online, we have chiefly chosen to rely on something like the seminar approach for our live chats. We have, we think, very capable teachers, and there are some things that they need to impart to the students. But to large measure, these can be done by web-page “lectures”, which a student can read on his or her own time. The class discussion, however, is reciprocal, and that reciprocity of passionately-held ideas is what fires a true love of learning. It’s about the exchange — the push and pull, honoring the truth first and foremost. It may come at a cost: in Socrates’s case it certainly did. But it’s about awakening the life of the mind, without which there is no education: schooling without real engagement merely produces drones.

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