Socrates lived in Athens 2,500 years ago and he died being faithful to what he taught. Perhaps that is why educators through the ages have looked to him for inspiration and as a model. But his attitude toward teaching has been transformed into a “method” and the ideal technique in the neo-classical movement. But what truly is “Socratic teaching”?
Today, words such as “discussion,” “questioning,” and even “facilitating” are used for what people used to call “Socratic teaching.” But all of these terms suggest a technique. When reading Plato’s Dialogues (practically everything known about Socrates comes through Plato), what shines through isn’t a technique, but rather an attitude: Socrates is seeking the truth. When Socrates has been condemned to death by drinking hemlock because he bothered the citizens of Athens with his questioning and taught his students to do the same, his student Crito tries to convince Socrates to escape jail and the death penalty by fleeing Athens. Socrates responds to him,
What we need to think about is whether we’re to do as you say or not; because I am the same person I have always been, one who refuses to listen to anyone or anything, however close to me, except the one argument, whichever it is, that appears best by my reckoning. (Crito, 46b)
Again, in the Euthyphro when he suggests a different word than Euthyphro used to define piety, Euthyphro acquiesces, saying, “Yes—if it gives you more enjoyment to call it that.” Socrates responds quite curtly, “It gives me not the least bit of enjoyment if it isn’t true [emphasis added].” (Euthyphro, 14e)
Socrates, though living before Christ, knew that the truth shall set one free. It was the truth he sought, above all else, even above the preservation of his own life. This is the attitude that should govern the actions of every classical educator. Truth was his muse and his guide. Without this fundamental orientation, everything else he does in the Dialogues just becomes a meaningless rhetorical device.
Given the attitude of unwavering search for the truth, examining how Socrates does so can be instructive.
The Dialogues are conversations. The Euthyphro starts with Socrates and Euthyphro running into each other near the portico of the King Archon, as they are both involved in court cases. Their conversation then quickly turns to what piety is and what it means to be pious. Euthyphro promises him the answers to those questions, so Socrates happily says, “Teach me!”
The Crito begins with Socrates waking in his jail cell and finding his friend Crito waiting there to urge Socrates to escape from jail.
These are not classroom situations. Socrates never “taught” in the way teachers do today. He often spoke with only one person and he bragged that he knew nothing and thus was the wisest of all.
His topics are about how one should live, not factual knowledge. He asks, “What is justice?” He does not ask, “What color is a giraffe?” He also lets the conversation go wherever it will. No lesson plans, no learning objectives, no standards to be reached.
Because of this, he very rarely comes to a conclusion. The truth that he constantly seeks is elusive. It is much easier to say what something is not than what it is, especially if the mode of discovery is through questioning. It can be said (and should be committed to memory) that the chief end of Socratic discourse is seeking truth through the correction of error.
The way he corrects error is through reductio ad absurdum (reduction to absurdity). This is a logical tool to show the conclusions of an assumption. When those conclusions are shown to be absurd, it is clear that the initial assumption was faulty. When Socrates reaches the absurdity, he asks the initial question again, seeking a new assumption to reduce to an absurdity. That is why a short conversation (with no conclusion) lasts 27 pages.
A difficulty in imitating Socrates in the classroom is that the example of him dealing with a child is singular: the slave boy in the Meno. In this work, Socrates leads a youth to an understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem purely through questioning. It is of vital importance to examine this interaction since it is the only one in which Socrates’ conversation partner is not an adult. Socrates and Meno are arguing about virtue: about what it is, whether it can be acquired, and if so, whether it is acquired by teaching or by practice. The discussion eventually turns to how one knows anything. Socrates posits an immortal soul, and that “learning” is purely “recollection” on the part of the student. To prove it, he alls up one of Meno’s young attendants. The type of question Socrates asks shifts drastically. To Meno he had asked questions like, “What, according to you and your friend Gorgias, is the definition of virtue?” and “You affirm virtue to be the power of attaining goods?” With the boy, the conversation begins:
Soc: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?
Boy: I do.
Soc: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?
Soc: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?
Soc: A square may be of any size?
Soc: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?
Soc: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?
Boy: There are.
Soc: Then the square is of twice two feet?
Soc: And how many are twice two feet? Count and tell me.
Boy: Four, Socrates.
With adults, the questions are open-ended. With the child, the questions are very specific. Socrates knows that to lead a child down the path of truth, there has to be a pre-planned route. He had a very specific path he wanted that boy to follow and the boy does not give long answers. In fact, he doesn’t say more than two words at a time.
Socrates also has no time constraints. He has not a care in the world other than the question at hand. This stands in stark contrast to the homeschooler trying to teach her several children while keeping them bathed, fed, and otherwise out of trouble. Or to the classroom teacher who has specific content that must be covered in just a couple hours a week.
Socrates did what was appropriate for the Agora of Athens (or the back porch with friends today), but many things he did are just downright impractical for today’s classrooms. Given that, what should the “Socratic Method” look like in a classroom?
1 A primary classroom should be conducted differently than a grammar-stage classroom (and logic-stage classes, and rhetoric-stage classes). Younger children need to be led like the boy in the Meno, step by step. Older students will still need that at times, but when more lengthy discussions are possible the teacher can lead the students down the same paths of reductio ad absurdum. The teacher, however, should have a final goal to which he is leading the child.
2 Questioning is the pre-eminent style of Socratic teaching. Questions can be narrower or more open-ended depending on the subject, the age of the student, and the intent of the teacher. Sometimes an open-ended question is asked and the student does not know the first step in responding. In that case, the parent or teacher should discard that question, take a step back to a more specific question, and once that is answered, ask questions until the student has the tools necessary to answer the original question. Different subjects and different exercises within subjects call for different styles of questions. Questions in math when reviewing a problem will be more direct: “What is the next step?” “Where did you get that 3?” Whereas in literature, the very question of “What is justice?” may actually come up. Or the more specific question of “Where in the text does Melville compare Captain Ahab to Jonah?” may be more appropriate. All of these questions make students active and force them to make the information their own.
3 Sometimes lecture is necessary. In the Crito, Socrates gives long discourses to explain his point. He does the same in the Republic.
4 All attempts to do “Socratic discussion” in a K-12 setting should be led by the teacher. The goal of a discussion (whether in literature, history, math, science, or another discipline) is to lead the students to a truth. The students are unlikely to arrive at it on their own.
Imitating Socrates is difficult. And he is the last person to say he should be followed blindly. Ask these questions of yourself before attempting another class discussion:
- What is the goal?
- Is this to seek truth through the correction of error?
- What is the age of the audience?
And after the discussion is all planned out, as you walk into that room, examine whether you are willing to drink hemlock like Socrates for the sake of the truth.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2017 edition