Go Socratic

The oracle at Delphi stated that no man was wiser than Socrates. Socrates was so shocked by that claim that he went around questioning everyone in Athens, hoping to find someone who was wiser than he. He was such a nuisance, such a “doubter,” that he was put on trial.

Like the Athenians Socrates questioned, you can feel attacked when friends, family members, and colleagues question your choice to homeschool your children. And the pressure can increase when you choose to use a classical curriculum to do it. Friends can perceive your choices as a condemnation of what they are doing, and family members might be concerned that your children will turn out socially awkward, not be admitted to college, or not be able to find a job. At the Sodalitas Gathering this past August, where homeschoolers using Memoria Press’ curriculum met for several days, the participants even had a name for these people: doubters.

socratesThe temptation is to lose your cool when this comes up because it seems like the doubters are oblivious to all the thought you have put into deciding how you will raise your children. It comes across as a harsh critique in a world where everyone’s parenting decisions are under fire. Sometimes this critique is not explicitly voiced, it is implied. But everyone understands the point.

The tables can and should be turned.

Homeschoolers should take the role of Socrates for themselves. Socrates himself gives the example of how. If you read any of Plato’s dialogues (in which Socrates is the main protagonist), you will notice how Socrates is always asking questions. He rarely states a fact—and if he does, it is just to synthesize what has been discovered in his questioning. Questions, inquiries, and proddings are his tools of choice. His goal is to get whomever he is talking with to voice the truth that has been discovered.

The tremendous benefit of this tactic, if successful, is that the person being questioned ends up absolutely convinced of the conclusion that they were led to—something that doesn’t always happen in a lecture.

One of the problems with this method is that the person being questioned can get the impression they are on trial. Tread carefully. Another difficulty is not knowing how to steer the conversation well because you get a response you do not expect.socratic1

There was once a defense lawyer in the middle of questioning potential jurors for a trial. He asked if anyone had a favorite book. A woman volunteered that she did. He inquired when during her reading she decided it was her favorite—at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the book. “The middle,” she replied. Everyone knew at this point that the lawyer was in trouble. It was his intent to impress upon the jurors that they should not decide on the guilt of the defendant until all the evidence had been presented. To right himself, he asked if the book would still be her favorite if it suddenly changed genres at the end. She said yes—it was a very enjoyable book! The lawyer never got back on his feet—he had been beaten—so he asserted, “No one should make their decision before the end of the trial. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did, but at this point he had lost credibility with the jurors.

With that as a warning, take your “doubters” through a bit of Socratic questioning the next time they confront you on the way you are educating and raising your children. Gently ask if they think our educational system is successful, and if not, why not, and what the best way is to fix it. Ask them if truth, goodness, and beauty should be the inspiration for education. Ask if a child should be formed in the image and likeness of God. Inquire whether wisdom and virtue should be the goal of schooling. Ask them if all learning must be oriented towards a career or if it is worth knowing for knowing’s sake.

An exact list of questions cannot be given since the responses will be varied. The key is to get them to say in their own words that they agree with you. Make no assertions—just inquire.

You may find that from the beginning your doubters are blind to the problems that are rampant in schools. Or maybe they have just never heard of the liberal arts. Perhaps they don’t know that Mark Zuckerberg translated the Aeneid in high school and now considers it one of his favorite books, or that Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5-Hour Energy and a major philanthropist, went to a liberal arts boarding school. Maybe you will find assumptions that will take hours, weeks, or years to break down.socratic2

Patience is, without a doubt, essential to the Socratic method as it takes a long time when done properly. But even when time is lacking, just a couple questions can help. Your family members might begin to think about it and come back with deeper questions of their own.

Every human is a complex unity of reason, emotions, passions, memories, and more. Giving doubters a logical argument might never win them over. A shouting match will do even less. Tactful questioning can give the opportunity to deal with erroneous assumptions, emotions, and painful memories so the conversation can focus on truth.

Socrates had an attitude of desiring to know, realizing that his questioning was as much for him as it was for the person being questioned.

The next time you are confronted by a “doubter,” take a deep breath, put on your Socratic hat, smile, and ask, “What is the best way to educate children?” And thus begins a search for the truth.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher, Winter 2015-16 edition.

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