Teaching with Socrates

Posted on January 9, 2021


“Teaching” is the second of three missions of any university, the other two being “research” and “service.” You can read them on big letters in a splendid sign as you approach the University of Alabama on University Boulevard. This is the third in a short series on all three as the University, and all universities for that matter, move into 2021 and deeper into the 21st century.

In fact, let me suggest a way for UA (Harvard, Stanford, Florida, etc. can do it for themselves) to renew itself with vigor and imagination. UA should establish a Commission for the 21st Century to study where we’ve come from, where we are, and what we need to do for the future. Appoint a commission of alumni, faculty, staff, and friends to do this. Make it a large commission and assign specific areas to smaller groups within the commission.

The commission should be appointed by the Board of Trustees. Perhaps Governor Kay Ivey, as a political leader in our State and an ex-oficio member of Alabama’s Board of Trustees, could make the suggestion to kick it off.

We all do this in our lives: take honest stock of where we are, where we came from, and where we want to go. We need to do it as an institution as well.

I’ll be glad to give the Governor some ideas, and names, if she needs them, although I think she is quite capable of exercising her authority in this area.

Let’s turn to teaching as one of the three principal activities of UA. Never mind creating legends from television ads. That’s p. r. and marketing not education.

Among the three—teaching, research, service—I don’t think there is one more important than the other two. I’ve done all three for almost half a century in higher education and am still working on improving each day.

Teaching has long been near to my heart, as it has been to a lot, probably most, of my colleagues at UA. Let me briefly consider one of the greatest teachers in the history of humankind, Socrates the Greek. Socrates was one of the founders of Greek civilization and his methods have been enshrined in the phrase, the “Socratic method.”

Socrates’s “method” was basically to use questions to encourage students to think clearly and logically or teach “critical thinking” by which we evaluate and determine the truth. It has many variants, but is basically driven by questions and answers, the questions coming from the teacher and the answers from the students. It is a form of learning as the teacher moves the student along the path of thinking clearly and logically for herself.

I think I did it naturally as I taught, for example, about the discovery and conquest of the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Dozens of historical issues present themselves, from why did men set out in small ships into the unknown oceans of the world to the impressions of native Americans with the first Europeans, and vice versa.

The conversation could easily start, “well, how do we deal with strangers?” and follow that up with: “what happens to us in a strange land we may be traveling in?” And one could make the exercise remarkably modern: why, for example, are we so driven to go to Mars? You can easily get the drift.

The problem and the challenge, of course, is that the Socratic method, updated to the 21st century, is still an intensely personal experience, maybe limited to a small seminar, like they have in the Honors College for example. How do you reach a class of three to four hundred students? Or one given online, or a Zoom class where personal interactions are virtually non-existent? Electronic and virtual are not real communications.

At Columbia University, one professor, Andrew Delbanco, wrote: “I have this old-fashioned view that the classroom experience can actually give young people a better self-understanding and a greater awareness of the world around them,” and that “students …ultimately learn how to think and listen to competing points of view. This makes them better able to function in a democracy, which, as we are often reminded of now, is a hard thing to do.” Delbanco is basically applying the Socratic method in his seminars and classrooms.

Today, in search of marketable degrees, many are neglecting the humanities. To study philosophy or English literature in 2021 is basically a waste of time. For more google Delbanco’s name or go to the Teagle Foundation which is sponsoring a $7 million grant program over five years to expand access to classroom experiences that reckon with the purpose of life.

The purpose and meaning of life. It has a nice teachy kind of ring, totally unrealistic, of course, is today’s world that puts a premium on “practical education.” In a couple of weeks, we take up another great teacher, James the half-brother of Jesus, who had no qualms with telling his students, listeners, and disciples the truth, not necessarily qualified by what they thought as in a Socratic kind of approach.

Published as “Teaching with Socrates requires focus on questions” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Jan 10 2021.

Posted in: teaching