The Socratic Classroom for an Activist Age

Socrates roamed the streets of Athens offending. The youth of Athens, who were intoxicated by his bristling brilliance, and drawn to the spectacles he created as he unmasked his fellow Athenians’ claims to knowledge, trailed behind to watch and later imitate him. Their puerile and abrasive reproduction of their idol’s interrogations led to the charge that Socrates had “corrupted the youth” of Athens. Together with the equally specious and contradictory charges that he was an atheist and worshipped Gods other than those of Athens, this accusation provided the citizens with the cover they needed to convict and execute Socrates by the administration of hemlock.

Socrates was no ordinary provocateur, no garden-variety nonconformist. Nor was he a gentle interlocutor. His questioning laid raw the connective tissue of beliefs that unified the proud Athenians. Socrates cared not a whit about the sensibilities of his opponents or audience. He meant to confront, provoke, and disturb. He had no hesitation in speaking about, and directly to, the “power elite” of Athens. He engaged several of the city’s leading poets, rhetoricians, craftsmen, and politicians in colloquies that exposed their illogic, or their charlatanry, or both.

The humiliated representatives of these professions, in high dudgeon, brought forward the formal accusations against Socrates that led to his execution. Nor were the ordinary citizens of Athens spared. They felt his rebuke in their marrow. Athens executed Socrates because Athenians knew that his judgment that they lived unexamined lives was sound. His pursuit of truth exposed their life of lies. They thought that if he was out of sight, he would surely be out of mind.

It was a stunning error. Socrates failed to persuade the Athenian jury, but his lifelong apologia for a particular strain of philosophical skepticism, reasoned challenges to authority, critical thinking, and (by extension) liberal education have, if anything, grown stronger as they have resonated across time. Coupled with John Stuart Mill’s case for untethered freedom of expression, the Socratic ideal forms a central vision of education at serious, respected and self-respecting universities. That ideal is that truth is elusive, that what humans can know is limited and tentative, and that free expression is central to the confrontations and conversations that are the only means humans have to get at what we might claim to know.

More technically, Socratic skepticism as an approach to free and critical inquiry is a peculiar mix of empathetic attachment and critical reasoning, questioning and provisional conclusions, doubt and confidence. It begins with the acknowledgment of ignorance or what might be better called philosophical wonderment. Awe inspires inquiry. Inquiry begets interrogatory. Reason steers, but empathetic thinking is also important.

The pursuit of truth by the earnest Socratic requires her to give herself over provisionally to the passions and ideas of others. Feeling with and thinking with others is part of her effort to strain every nerve to transcend her prejudices and necessarily parochial views to understand others as they understand themselves. Questioning establishes mostly only what can be rejected. Reason drives forward to conclusions that are sincerely and firmly held but also always recognized as contingent. Eventually, disputation brings us full circle to “I know only that I do not know.”

This “resolution” is adopted by the earnest Socratic philosopher—the genuine philo (lover) of sophia (wisdom)—because she understands that truth and wisdom are not butterflies to be caught and collected. Instead, they cross the mind more like a passing wind. But remarkably, the true Socratic is not made timorous by her doubts, by her certainty that she knows only that she does not know. Like Socrates, she fights no less fiercely for what reason affirms and reaffirms. Like him, she does not flinch from the possible consequences of her approach or her steadfast fidelity to the pursuit of truth.

She realizes that we can often tell the moral courage of the true Socratic from the moral preening of the pretender by examining which one was fired from her job, run out of town on a rail, or, like Socrates, put to death. She also recognizes, however, that the depth and, even more, the character of her skepticism means that the arduous task of inquiry and reflection must begin anew with every real challenge.

As the American academy would be well-advised to remember, the Socratic ideal of skepticism and free inquiry are deeply implicated in the enterprise of liberal learning and in one of its most familiar and effective teaching methods. More broadly, liberal learning rooted in Socratic skepticism initiates students into the cultural inheritance of their own civilization and confronts them with others, alien and peculiar. It thereby pulls them from their intellectual provincialism.

But it has a broader and still nobler goal: the development of the rational autonomy of the student. The freedom that liberal education promises to students is a form of autonomy in which they are able to use reason to make up their own minds about what they should believe and how they should live independent of, and if necessary in opposition to, authority. This is true whether the source of that authority is government, culture, priests, parents, or, yes, professors. The true Socratic realizes that any of these authorities and institutions may obfuscate truth, foster injustice, and thus be in need of Socratic rebuke.

Socrates is again the ideal. Long before he stood before the demos at his trial, he stood alone as the only Athenian who refused to obey an illegal motion to collectively try a group of generals who had neglected to pick up the bodies of dead Athenians after a battle. Later, he disobeyed an unjust order of the government during the reign of the 30 tyrants to bring in one of his fellow Athenians for execution.

Inside the classroom, the teacher who adopts the “Socratic method” or elenchus begins conversations that can easily escalate into confrontations. As students answer, she peppers all sides with relentless questioning as Socrates questioned his interlocutors. The Socratic teacher may hazard her own beliefs and understanding but she insists that those, too, be treated as provisional and open for challenge.

No one leaves the genuinely Socratic classroom on any day with answers because neither teacher nor student pretends to have them. The point rather is to put conventional and unconventional definitions and interpretations before the students, to lead them in an exploration of the limitations and strengths of each, and to employ and thereby hone the skills of rational inquiry and discourse.

Exacting attention is paid to what type of claim is being made and to the standards of evidence needed to prove it. If the Socratic teacher is doing her job, students will be taught to read carefully and critically, to speak with verve, and to think and write clearly. Armed with an array of ideas and the tools to evaluate them, they will learn to exercise the moral autonomy of a rational agent in making up their own minds.

Conversely, the Socratic teacher dispenses no dogma and champions no causes other than the approach she (imperfectly) embodies. She may be an activist, but not inside the classroom. She denies that the pursuit of truth and her efforts to act impartially within the open classroom are really just another ploy to further the advantages of privilege. She stands as an animate alternative to her colleagues who treat the lectern as a pulpit or soapbox on the unwittingly dogmatic premise that, because impartiality cannot be completely achieved, conversations should be steered in service of the causes they favor.

The Socratic teacher believes that, Howard Zinn notwithstanding, you can indeed strive to “be neutral on a moving train.” More important, she believes that her students will be better off if that is her goal.

She concedes finally that, unless she can miraculously summon Socrates’ wit and intelligence, her class might lack the glamour and the galvanizing, identity-forming power of the social justice seminar. Indeed, she must concede that students initiated into liberal learning through the Socratic method are sure, at some point, to feel bewildered. There is no guarantee that all students will come to understand the reason that they have been so directly and relentlessly challenged. She consoles herself with the hope that her students will look back and thank her for improving their ability to think and write clearly and for respecting their right to make up their own minds.