[Nyerges is the author of 16 books, founder of School of Self-Reliance, and an outdoor field guide. He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or at www.schoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]
I am not an academic authority on “Socratic Dialogue,” but I believe that I have a good general sense of it. When reading Plato’s account of the life of Socrates, and the events leading up to his trial, we get a good sense of how Socrates interacted with others.
Socrates would ask a series of questions, and each subsequent question was based on the answer to the previous one. It was a true dialogue, where Socrates listened carefully, and responded appropriately. Socrates said that he was trying to get to the “truth,” the “truth” that others claim to have found. His questions attempted to draw-out from the other person the knowledge or facts that were presumably available within that other person. That is, Socrates was doing sometimes called educing – the root of the word “education.” This suggests that all knowing can be acquired by thinking, and careful research.
I’ve had at least a few teachers who were skilled in educing, constantly engaging in a give and take, where eventually a full picture emerges about a subject.
In the beginning of undergoing this process, I felt silly and frustrated when I was asked to draw these answers from within. But by attempting to be a part of the dialogue, rather than simply listening to a teacher, I learned that I knew a lot more than I realized. In time, I realized that I began to think more clearly and systematically about things. I learned that there were ways to know if I only applied my mind to a given subject with research, application, and concentration.
I once went to lecture at a renown metaphysical center. The topic was Socratic Dialogue. The lecturer was clearly in love with himself and the sound of his words, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I raised my hand to ask a pertinent question and he shushed me. “No, I’m composing,” he said, and then went on with his monologue.
I sat there thinking about this for a few minutes, and realized that I would learn nothing about the Socratic Dialogue from this man. I got up and left. His demonstration with me was the opposite of Socratic Dialogue. To be fair, this had been billed as a “lecture,” not a demonstration or practicum of Socratic Dialogue.
In my classes, I have tried in my limited way to employ Socratic Dialogue. When I am asked a question, I am inclined to ask the student, “What do you think is the answer?” Sometimes I get blanks, or, “I don’t know; that’s why I’m in this class.” But occasionally a student will try to answer their own question, and then we go on from there, step by step, working together to draw from the student the answers – or bits of answers—that were already there inside. (And for the record, I may or may not know the answer, but that’s not the point.)
A man who once attended my classes mentioned me in his book called “Emergency.” It was an excellent book about his quest to learn about survival in the broadest context. In his book he described my teaching method, suggesting that I didn’t want to give answers to students but just wanted to lord over them that I knew it all! He didn’t quite get what I was doing, unfortunately.
Things didn’t go so well for Socrates either.
Even though Socrates changed the life of his lead student, Plato, and the millions of “followers” who read about Socrates through Plato, those leaders and priests who brushed up too closely with Socrates felt that he was somehow exposing or disrespecting them. These “leaders” of ancient Greece trumped up some charges that Socrates was “corrupting the youth of Athens,” and put the philosopher on trial. Socrates lost, of course, was imprisoned, and fulfilled the death sentence by drinking the prescribed hemlock tea.
I’m still a big fan of Socratic Dialogue, not because of how it turned out with Socrates, but because it is a method that can open us up to our own inner mind, and allow us to experience true education.
Public schools are too large with too many students per teacher, and too controlled, to do Socratic Dialogue. Public schools tend to fill the students minds with facts that they must memorize.
Anyone today who comes through the “school system” as a clear-thinking, creative individual does so in spite of the school system, not because of it.