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Socrates

Despite decades of “critical thinking,” the anecdotal and statistical evidence is that Americans in general, and Christians in particular, have an aversion for thinking. In a recent article, the evidence is that many, if not most students, simply do not want to think. In truth, the students are merely mirroring the broader culture and the entire university ethos. The article highlights the essence of the Socratic method and why most fear and disdain it by saying that “It is an interpretive discussion of a piece of text during which the professor says very little…the professor chooses a rich piece of text and plans an interpretive question as he opens the discussion…in general, it is a guided dialogue.” 

It surprises my Freshmen when I tell them that the modern university is among the most anti-intellectual places on the earth. Think in terms of Socrates. The university is that place where lots of people are certain that they know lots of things. This certainty is a formula for disaster. Usually by the half-way point through their Junior year, they believe me. After a few semesters of sneers and jeers from fellow students and not a few faculty, they long for a community of thinkers.

Again, one need not despair. While most schools put the phrase “critical thinking” in the course syllabus and then pride themselves with T/F, fill in blank, and multiple choice tests all the time dodging numerous opportunities of genuine thinking, there are schools, classes, professors, assignments, and exams where questions force the students to think through the issues and ideas. There are a few places where a few students are actually conversing with one another, their professors, Great Books and Great Ideas. Happily, those who yield to the Socratic way are changed. There is no going back once you have experienced true learning.

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6 replies to this post
  1. Again, one need not despair. While most schools put the phrase "critical thinking" in the course syllabus and then pride themselves with T/F, fill in blank, and multiple choice tests all the time dodging numerous opportunities of genuine thinking, there are schools, classes, professors, assignments, and exams where questions force the students to think through the issues and ideas. TRUE…I THINK THATT MC TESTS ARE ACADEMIC JUNK FOOD. THEY STRESS SUPERFICIALITY, GUESSING and let's be honest CHEATING is much easier.

    There are a few places where a few students are actually conversing with one another, their professors, Great Books and Great Ideas. Happily, those who yield to the Socratic way are changed. There is no going back once you have experienced true learning.
    ALSO TRUE….people who read can be free. We see this in the conservative community. Unfortunately it also helps create a bitter divide in American culture and politics.

  2. I had one class at the large state university I attended that used the Socratic method. It was a Contemporary Southern Fiction and Culture class. The professor was the former chancellor and had free reign over his classes. Twice a week ten of us would meet in the conference room adjacent to his office and discuss the literature and culture of the South. We read at least eight works of fiction that semester, wrote numerous papers, watched a movie (as a class, but outside of class hours) made from the book or that went along with the theme of the book, and also read many essays on the importance of literature in the South. For me it was balm to my soul. Although we were not studying the Great Books, I could have done worse than study Walker Percy and Eudora Welty.

    It is only now that I am homeschooling my children, and desperately trying to teach them using classical methods, that I realize why I have such fond memories of that class and why 15 years later I still treasure the 2" spiral bound syllabus that came with the class. It was the Socratic method used to teach the class that changed me and changed the way I thought about learning. I only pray that I can provide this sort of education for my children.

  3. They wouldn't kill him; he just wouldn't get published. I require students to write a paper analyzing an issue from contending points of view, and then reaching their own conclusion based on the evidence. One student turned in a paper with sources and opinions from just one side. I flunked it for not meeting the requirements clearly set forth. The indignant student protested, "I've never had to look at issues from both sides; I've only done analytical papers!"

  4. This spring I am finishing up an MA at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. As many here might be aware, the Socratic method as described in this article is precisely the method used at St. John’s in the study of the Great Books. It has been one of the most (if not THE most) enriching experiences of my life; far greater than the confused, unguided and relatively unenriching experience that was my undergraduate education studying political science at a large state university.

  5. University students are a mixed bag. I generally required papers in my Contemporary Moral Issues classes. A few were very good (one woman student, age 28, wrote a brilliant & well-researched paper on factory farming from which I was able to learn something!). Most, however were mediocre & gravitated towards subjects that are beaten to death, like abortion. Most students are unused to having to do anything except spit back memorized material for the test. I didn’t find that faculty teaching these courses get much support from their institutions, if support is reflected in living wages. I was an adjunct, teaching for a while at two institutions with a workload spread across three campuses. Note the past tense throughout. I gave it up & have moved overseas.

    The bottom line: the U.S. is basically an anti-intellectual society whose anti-intellectualism is reflected across the educational system (geared towards either big business or big government), mass media, business / the marketplace, the culture generally.

    Since the U.S. came out of one of the great political-philosophical debates of all time & had a specific set of political & moral foundations which it requires a real education to grasp (read the Declaration of Independence; read the Articles of Confederation; read the U.S. Constitution; read both the Federalist Papers & the so-called Anti-Federalists), the “killing” of philosophy, history, & related liberal-arts subjects is now working against the country. It is true that these subjects don’t help corporations make big money, create loyal Republicans or loyal Democrats, or enable future government employees to function in a bureaucracy. But if that’s all that’s wanted in the job market, then what you have is the present mismatch between what employers want & what graduates want to do with their lives. If education is tailored exclusively to the workplace, you may end up with a bunch of workers who can’t think, at least not about the major incongruities in the present U.S. economic system, where the extremely wealthy have never been wealthier while 47 million people are on food stamps. And for example: isn’t it reasonable to think something is wrong when the Dow hits record highs while companies are laying people off in droves, the average person is in debt up to his eye teeth, & college graduates with degrees in the sciences end up waiting tables because that’s the only job they can find? Unfortunately, because of the collapse of modern education at all levels, maybe one person in a hundred thousand is even able to analyze the situation.

    If the U.S. really does turn into a full-fledged dictatorship in the next few years, Americans can blame the political & economic power elites all they want, when what they should be doing when they want to assign blame is looking in the mirror.

    • “The bottom line: the U.S. is basically an anti-intellectual society whose anti-intellectualism is reflected across the educational system (geared towards either big business or big government), mass media, business / the marketplace, the culture generally. ”

      Aside from the concept of education as existing to create compliant workers, a look at our popular culture shows how little education is revered; most television shows and movies depict teachers (and most other figures of authority) in a foolish light and the school years in general as a time to have fun and party (starting in junior high up through undergraduate years). At the same time society tries to promote college as something that any person wanting to make good in the world must do. Why do we expect young people who have been raised to think that all their years of previous education were a stupid waste, and who have watched movies depicting college life as a non-stop bash, to suddenly have respect for education simply because they are in the once-hallowed halls of higher learning? (Especially if someone else is footing the bill.)

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