The Socratic Method Under Fire

The-Socratic-Method

I regularly use some form of the Socratic Method in my classes.  I often play “devil’s advocate” or try to speak from the perspective of an author of a text so that my students can better understand, and even empathize, with the author’s position.  I will continue to use this style of teaching, but it is apparently getting more dangerous.  Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins explains why.

Here is a taste of his piece “Tread Carefully with the Socratic Method“:

Whatever you may think of Neil Gorsuch as a jurist — or of his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court — there is one episode from his confirmation hearing that should give all faculty members a moment’s pause.

As readers who followed the hearing may know, one of the people who wrote to the Senate to object to his nomination was one of his former students at the University of Colorado Law School, where Gorsuch — then serving on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals — had taught as an adjunct professor. In her letter, the student accused Gorsuch of demonstrating bias toward women, based on comments he allegedly made in class. If you’re unfamiliar with the details, you can find them here.

Other former students, including women and self-described liberals, quickly came to Gorsuch’s defense, as did 11 of his former law clerks, all women. Some commentators pointed out that Gorsuch was merely utilizing the Socratic method, a common teaching strategy in law (and other) courses that seeks to draw out a student’s underlying assumptions and foster reasoned debate by asking pointed questions and assuming a contrary position. Gorsuch himself explained that in the particular situation raised by the objecting student, he had been using a case study from a popular law textbook.

Whether or not you believe Justice Gorsuch is sexist — personally, I don’t — this incident might send a slight chill up your spine. Because many of us also use some version of the Socratic method in our classrooms, in an attempt to stimulate critical thinking. What if a student takes offense to something we said — perhaps while we were playing devil’s advocate — and accuses us of some form of discrimination? On today’s hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.

I like Jenkins’s ending:

What I don’t intend to do, though, is stop using the Socratic method — or my own version of it — because it works. It helps students think more deeply about where they stand and why, understand the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, and gain a better appreciation for other points of view. Those are the cornerstones of effective argument. And if the ultimate goal is to seek truth — as I believe it is — then backing away from this highly effective method would be cowardly, not to mention a disservice to my students.

At the same time, I can’t help but regard the accusation leveled at Neil Gorsuch — apparently for employing a teaching approach that many of us use — as a cautionary tale. Because I also can’t helping thinking about one other thing: what Socrates’s enemies did to him in the end. 

Read the entire piece here.  The key phrase here is: “On today’s hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.”

One thought on “The Socratic Method Under Fire

  1. The danger of this method (and others) is that they are methods originally designed for use in small class settings—think Socrates surrounded by a few followers. More and more we are engaged in teaching larger classes or in using modalities like online learning where the opportunities for being misunderstood are exponentially higher. So, the effect of my role of devil’s advocate, for instance, gets lost in the crowd. When this is coupled with the “customer is always right” mentality now dominating mant university settings, and the administrative philosophy behind them, it is a particularly perilous situation.

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