In parts 1 and 2 in this series, I tried to show that teaching by means of the Socratic method has two characteristic features: First, it is open-ended, not predetermined. Second, it is hopeful, not skeptical.

Honest, not posed.

Now for the third part: the Socratic method is honest, not posed. What do I mean by this? The first thing I mean is that discussions involving Socratic method depend on all the participants being honest about what they believe. (I’ll assume for the moment that the participants are all willing to speak up, which is not always the case and creates other difficulties.) Socrates only had two rules for a good discussion, and one of them is to say what you believe. A discussion cannot survive long if the people involved in it do not discuss honestly, and this means that they have to say what they believe and not say what they don’t believe.

A discussion cannot survive long if the people involved in it do not discuss honestly, and this means that they have to say what they believe and not say what they don’t believe.

It’s our tendency to get that latter point wrong that can undermine the educational value of a good discussion: we frequently will assert what we don’t believe. The most common way of doing this is to repeat what we have heard from others when we don’t believe it ourselves. But if I’m not simply to repeat what I’ve heard others say, how can I figure out what I believe?

One of the best ways to see whether I believe something is to think about whether I am ready to act as if what I believe is true. For example, if I believe that the front door to my house is over there, then I’m ready to act as if it were true that the front door to my house is over there. So, if someone rings the doorbell, I move in that direction—that is, I act as if it were true that the door is over there. Happily, the door is over there: my belief is true. But if I insisted on telling you that I believe the door is at the other end of the house, you’d have reason to doubt that I truly believed that, especially if I never walk that way when the doorbell rings. You’d say to me, “Look, you say that you believe the door is at the other end of the house, but you don’t act as if that were true. So I doubt that you actually believe that.” And you’d be right to doubt that.

Although the location of my front door is important—especially in case of fire—I don’t think I’ve ever seriously wondered whether I believe that the door is over there. However, in discussions about important matters and things that matter to me, it is often the case that my readiness to act belies what I claim to believe. And in things that I don’t really have any interest in or experience of, I’ll frequently say I believe such-and-such, when the truth is that I’m just repeating what I've heard others say.

Here’s another way we often don’t report what we believe. Suppose we are having a discussion about the church. Good topic! And suppose that someone asks you, “Do you believe that it is necessary to be a member of a church?” Now, if you were a good Calvinist, you might reply, “Well, John Calvin has said that ‘for those to whom God is a Father the church may also be Mother.’”

If I were a teacher in this discussion, I’d need to be able to discern at this point whether you are articulating what you believe by quoting Calvin or whether you are merely quoting Calvin. If the former, then the discussion can proceed apace, though we might be better off either by dropping any reference to Calvin or by getting out the Institutes and turning to book 4, chapter, 1, section 1, to read what Calvin said. But if the Calvin-quoter is merely quoting Calvin, I would probably say, “Well, very good. But John Calvin isn't here to explain what he means or to defend his statement. So tell me what you think. Do you think that for those to whom God is a Father, the church may also be Mother?” Once I can get your honest answer to that, the discussion regains its vitality.

If I know that the other people in the discussion won’t, e.g., embarrass me for not knowing something, then I’ll be more ready to say what I believe.

As a teacher, I also need to be able to discern whether a student is merely quoting Calvin or posing behind a Calvin quotation. The former is relatively easy to work with. The latter can be supremely difficult. Students (or teachers!) who use references to Important Authors to pose as Someone Who Knows Things usually have an attitude problem: they don’t want to honestly engage in the discussion, but they also want to appear knowledgeable. This pose often cripples a discussion. The cure is to stop posing and start thinking about what you believe. Easier said than done, but this is why building a discussion group that genuinely cares for each other is important: If I know that the other people in the discussion won’t, e.g., embarrass me for not knowing something, then I’ll be more ready to say what I believe. If I don’t know that, I’ll be more inclined to hide behind my pose of Knowing Things.

One upshot of insisting that students and teachers in a discussion say what they believe is that we frequently are forced to say, “I don’t know.” Most people find that this response often ends a discussion, but it is precisely at this point that a genuine discussion is ready to take off. The ground rules for discussion do not require you to say what you know, only what you believe. Even if you’re not sure that what you’re going to say is true, say it! A good teacher won’t force you to defend to the death what you say in such a moment.

In response to a student who says, “I don't know,” I'll often say, “That’s okay. I wasn’t asking you to tell me what you know. I was only asking you to tell me what you believe.” If, at that point, a student is brave enough to say what he believes, then the discussion can really fly.

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