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The Socratic method is passionate, not dry.


You have found the fourth and last entry in my series of posts on the nature of Socratic method. I’ve argued in previous installments (1, 2, 3, . . .) that a discussion involving the Socratic method is first of all open-ended, not predetermined; secondly, hopeful, not skeptical; and thirdly, honest, not posed. The fourth point derives from those three points coming together: Socratic discussion is passionate, not dry.

A few years ago, I made a horrible mistake in leading a discussion on Machiavelli’s little book, The Prince. Because I knew The Prince often provokes passionate responses about whether rulers ought to always do what’s right or ought to sometimes do wicked things out of necessity, I tried to force students to be dispassionate about their initial responses. I was afraid that the discussion would blow up into warring factions attacking or defending Machiavelli’s teaching, so I began the class with five minutes of silent thought about the question of whether Machiavelli teaches that princes should be wicked. But in my desire to keep the discussion from getting out of control, I stopped the discussion before it ever got started.

Socratic discussion runs contrary to the modern impulse to control everything, including the classroom. The truth is, however, that, like many things, the classroom should not be controlled.

The students were in a discussion on an important topic that was open-ended, hopeful, and honest, and I expected it to be dispassionate. In retrospect, it's easy to see my mistake: In being fearful of students’ passion, I unwittingly forced the students to adopt a pose of detachment when, in fact, they were not. I wanted to be able to control the discussion in the classroom, and I ended up killing the discussion.

It turns out that Socratic discussion runs contrary to the modern impulse to control everything, including the classroom. The truth is, however, that, like many things, the classroom should not be controlled. When teachers try to control discussion in the classroom, they stifle their students.

I hasten to add--but, perhaps, too late if you believe that teachers must always be in control of the classroom--that passionate discussion is no excuse for bad behavior. Rudeness is not excused simply because someone feels strongly about something. Teachers need to protect the vulnerable students in their classes, and they should also encourage students to speak out on behalf of what they believe. Not because we want students to gain eristic victory, but because we will not discover the truth hidden at the heart of our discussion if we do not say what we believe.

In discussion, passion often manifests itself in strong disagreements, but that's only one manifestation. Students who take off on flights of fancy can be exhibiting passion. Those who speak strongly and eloquently often do so out of passion. As teachers, we must learn to recognize these moments for what they manifest. Often such spirited moments are discredited by teachers and students alike. We might say, “Well, that was interesting” or “Things got a little out of hand.” No! Or rather, yes! Things did get out of our hands, but that's good. Most things are almost always out of hand in an open-ended, hopeful, honest discussion.

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