Saturday, June 29, 2013

Sock it To 'Em, Baby

The gang down at the law school spends a lot of time agonizing over "the Socratic method," or perhaps better "the dreaded Socratic method," whereby the professor attempts to liven up a somnolent classroom by actually asking a question.*  I'm not precisely sure where/when this obsession began; by convention it starts with the (putatively) brilliant and (clearly) half-mad Christopher Columbus Langdell who more or less invented "the case method"--the strategy of studying law via reported opinions of judges--back in the 1860s.  I suspect a more precise inflection point would be September 9, 1978, when the actor John Houseman took the TV screen as Darth Vader Professor Charles Kingsfield, the scowling, beetle-browed holy terror of the law school classroom who (Wiki catches the conventional wisdom here) "inspires both awe and fear in his students in his unremitting determination to prepare them for the practice of law."  It's one of the alltime great pieces of television schtick, and a whole generation of lawyers went through their entire professional careers under the sincere conviction that Professor K represents the truth of their own rite of passage, as distinct from anything that they really underwent.

A trifling sidebar set of questions, surely of no more than entertainment value would be: who was Socrates?  And what, if anything, was his method?  I will trust UB readers to be informed enough to gin up some sort of answer to the first question  As to the second, here's a fascinating little trifle that I just stumbled across in the notes to a schoolbook edition of a Platonic dialogue:**
The technique of [Plato's Symposium] is characteristic of the Platonic Socrates: self-deprecating and self-effacing; disarmingly complimentary; insistent on the need to agree at each step and on the recollection of essential steps;  courteous but firm in the rejection of hesitant answers; patient in making each general question clear by taking individual cases; swift and bold in forcing fallacious inferences and assumptions on the collaborator in the dialogue; motivated by the need to prepare the ground for doctrinal exposition and assisted both by the fallacies which the collaborator has himself committed and by the intellectual paralysis which strikes down the collaborator at any moment of Plato's choosing.
References omitted. So far, I would say this is bang on.  But the commentator continues:
A dialogue in which one speaker agrees at every step with the other, never offering serious resistance or making serious criticisms, differs in form from the type of continuous, authoritative exposition which Socrates decries [elsewhere], and differs (at least on a cursory reading) in the impression which it conveys, but does not differ in substance.
 I'm really not clear what the commentator is trying to tell me here.  I'll grant that at least the best of the dialogues are hypnotic reading: at times funny, magical, breezy seductive, deadly earnest and just about any other rhetorical or literary strategy you can imagine.  The trouble is that for the most part, they aren't really "dialogues."  True that Socrates' "questions" (really, expositions) are cameo masterpieces; still the stark truth is that his poor stooges almost never get a decent line and almost always wind up dumbfounded and empty-handed, like Hamilton Burger losing every trial to Perry Mason, or Ed McMahon responding to every one of Johnny Carson's assertions with a booming chord of "You are correct, sir!"  Socrates says all the stuff you wish you had said to the brute at the party; and the responder says all the things you wish the other guy had answered.   Maybe that is the problem with classroom dialogue, too.


*Or maybe they don't.    I may just be dating myself here, and references to "the Socratic method" may now be just as dated as references to "The Simpsons" or "the Presidency of Adlai E. Stevenson."

**Plato, Symposium (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, Kenneth Dover ed.).  I see that Dover's edition was first published in 1980. Could it have  been a response to--nah, that is way too simple.

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