The Value of the Socratic Method
Updated: Aug 25, 2018
Do you generally prefer to expound in a long uninterrupted speech of your own whatever you wish to explain to anyone, or do you prefer the method of questions?—Plato Sophist 217c
Does society value an individual’s ability to read critically, analyze carefully, and integrate factual content into well written pieces? Do schools value these? Do parents? Failure to incorporate these values into our pedagogy diminishes future generations from discerning the essence of what they see, read, and hear. How do we form good citizens? We do this by challenging students’ notions and precepts through a series of questions that probe the very foundations of their beliefs—the Socratic method. However, they must be poised to perform this exercise in a manner that reveals beauty, truth, and virtue. With a constant barrage of information ranging from social media platforms to cable programs, to traditional print publications, will our children be easily led astray, or will they have the necessary tools to critically evaluate the world around them? How do we address these issues today? The Socratic approach is a dialectic technique that engages a discussion among two or more people seeking truth by using the maieutic method.
Many people have heard of Socratic learning, but how does this fit into an educational framework? How important is such a model, and more significantly, why should we use it in education? The structures of contemporary Western Civilization began in the ancient world of the Greeks, who prized the ability to speak and persuade. Presocratic philosophers turned to observation, reason, and science to answer profound questions about their world: who are we; from where did we come; what is our purpose? The Socratic period focused on moral issues: how should we be governed; how can we know truth; what is justice; how do we live with virtue? Plato thought beauty, truth, and virtue as immutable qualities that do not change over time. This began a centuries-long tradition of a persistent search for meaning contextualized as the human endeavor. Socratic methods ebbed and flowed for two millennia through the rise of Christianity and into the Enlightenment. Progressive thinkers held sway over educational institutions through periods of development, from Medieval universities, to the nineteenth-century German paradigm, to the twentieth-century deconstructionists. However, the core of the Socratic method never lost its value, and Plato has had a profound influence on educated readers through the ages.
Is true knowledge demonstrated by the recitation of facts, or by explaining a logical progression of arguments based upon a deep understanding of how the world works? I propose that it is the latter, which raises the question, “How do students accomplish this task?” Seminars are often used by academies and colleges as an application of the Socratic method, whereby students participate in rigorous discussions on subjects such as geometry, philosophy, literature, science, art, and history, all while learning rhetoric. In classical education, this process is called the Trivium, as preparation for the Quadrivium. This approach begins with facts, proceeds to logically organizing these facts, and leads to expressing ideas to others. This training teaches us how to assess primary sources, interrogate the ideas behind the writings, and present the results of a structured analysis to others for evaluation, and of course, further questions.
How students articulate their conclusions is just as important as to how they arrived at them. Well-written responses, with proper grammar, organized into a digestible work is paramount to persuade others to adopt the espoused viewpoints. Not all pieces are penned, thus students must convince others by verbal argumentation, either in speeches or debate, both formal and informal. Opinion and op-ed pieces, stump speeches, news anchors, commentators, and analysts all deliver their work through one, or both, of these mediums. This demonstrates that students of the Socratic method must not only think critically, but write and speak convincingly.
Passive learning techniques include lecturing and memorization, with the measurement as objective testing models, which reflects our contemporary education system. The Socratic method engages the student directly, and requires active participation through individual thinking. This allows students to intentionally create their own structures as to how to meaningfully think about questions that cannot be framed by rote answers. This is especially useful in questions of morality and ethics, as reasoning skills are applied to life in the context of inquiries regarding the human endeavor in a Christian society. This approach clearly takes more time than traditional schoolroom practices, which makes it ideal for homeschoolers. The Socratic method has its detractors, but many institutions still use this technique such as St. Mary’s College, St. John’s College, Thomas Aquinas College, Boila’s Torrey Honors Institute, the University of Notre Dame, and many law schools including the University of Chicago and Washington University.
We can expect the results of Socratic education to be profound. Our students will recognize and know how to respond to key issues that permeate society: rejecting junk science out of hand, exposing false equivalences propagated by those hiding the truth, avoiding mindless bandwagon agreement that lacks thoughtful interrogation, and critically assessing political platforms and economic proposals that pursue emotional over logical agreement. Without the ability to think critically, people can easily fall prey to others who would do harm.
Since the fifth century BC, the ancient Greeks valued oratory, as Lysias, Demosthenes, and Aeschines, the greatest rhetoricians of their day, significantly influenced their societies. The decline of the Pan-Hellenic world gave rise to Rome, a culture where political and military leaders were one in the same. These men populated the Senate—the only body for debate—therefore rhetoric became the most important skill in law and politics, spawning superior orators such as Cato, Cicero, Gaius Julius Caesar, Pliny, Claudius Aelianus, and Quintilian.
Roman law, education, architecture, administration, and socio-political institutions established the foundations of Western Civilization. Even though educational techniques and models have changed over time, the Socratic method offers a unique learning opportunity. Although one must look long and hard for the application of this technique today, we should not discount its ancient precepts. Our society is best served by educating citizens with the finest tools available. Without critical thinking, and the ability to express the results in rhetorical and written modes, what type of society will we have?
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