The Humility of Socratic Discussion

We spent the June session of the Pelican Society’s Office Hours pondering teaching with Socratic discussion. Socratic discussion and teaching is relatively new to me, I’m embarrassed to admit. 

This probably isn’t as true as I believe, for at its most basic level, Socratic teaching is asking questions, and doesn’t everyone ask questions all the time? Anyone who’s been around a preschooler (or been a preschooler, for that matter) knows this is true. Anyone who’s wondered something, or had a curiosity about something, is asking questions. 

But why? Why do we do this? What’s the goal of teaching and learning this way? What’s our end game? As educators, especially classical ones, one goal is to constantly be learners, therefore teaching our students to be the same. This requires a great dose of humility, a large helping of saying, “I don’t know,” a swallowing of pride and taking a submissive stance toward our subject matter.

I’d like to posit that another end of Socratic teaching is that it is incredibly humanizing, and it teaches us to humanize others. What do I mean? I’m glad you asked.

When we study a piece of literature Socratically, we first ask questions about the text in order to understand the text, and second, to understand the author. Then, and only then, should we ask questions to place value judgments upon either or both. As Missy so eloquently put it in her blog post from May, “Courtesy and common sense require that we read first to hear an author, asking questions when necessary only to better understand him and always letting him get to the end of his idea before we hijack the conversation to make our own statements and observations."

Well. Where’s the fun in that? I always want to jump to the “should" questions sooner rather than later. Rather than the proper first question of, “What does the main character want?” I jump in straightaway to, “Should he want that? Should he have done that?” What can I say? I like judging people.

I have to remind myself constantly that our initial goal should be to understand. Before we ask the “should," we have to constantly go back to the text. "Show me why you think that," I say to my kids. “Where did you get that from? What page?" There's not a lot that makes them roll their eyes at me faster. They don't want to do it. It's hard. It’s time-consuming.

But isn't that the point? Struggling to understand the author is going to take time. It's going to be difficult. It's going to be a little frustrating. But it shapes us; it humanizes us. And in the process of learning to go back, over and over, and support our statements and understand what the author says, it humanizes the author. 

If we have had the practice to ask again and again what the author meant, and the discipline and training to return to the text and say, “How do you know? I want to understand," how much more patient will we be (one hopes) when faced with another living, breathing human being who holds an astonishingly different opinion from us? 

If everything we teach our children is supposed to cultivate wisdom and virtue in them, what better training for how to treat those living, breathing humans that surround them on a daily basis than by studying literature properly? In order to see the image of God in others, we must get the image we’ve built of ourselves out of the way. Socratic teaching can help us do just that.

Spend five minutes on Twitter or Facebook, and we can see how helpful this is. Whether it's social issues or political views, friendships, our marriages, or our relationships with our children, we are quick to judge, to put words in the mouths of those with whom we disagree, to strawman others, to talk right past each other. We assume the worst, and respond accordingly (or is all that just me?).

The practice with literature, if we allow it, can transform us and cultivate in us the ability to extend our fellow man the same grace we give our long-dead, dusty, old authors. Before we judge our living neighbor's opinions, thoughts, and words, we must make sure we understand them. We can take these same questions and the same posture of humility we use when reading and discussing books with our children and apply them to our living, breathing relationships.

Yes, this is the harder work. We like to be the hero in our own story. We like to give precedence to our thoughts and opinions. Putting others first isn’t easy. Listening is often harder than talking. Understanding, more difficult than assuming.

But is that not the work to which we are called?  




Kristen Rudd is a CenterForLit Pelican Society member. She likes big books, and she cannot lie. Kristen lives in Cary, NC and is a homeschool mom by day. By night, she’s exhausted. She gets up at ridiculous hours of the morning to plug away at a novel that will one day, Kyrie Eleison, be finished. You can follow her on Twitter at @kristenrudd, where she is absolutely hysterical.