A rite of passage for all American law students is experiencing the “Socratic Method” form of teaching, which is still popular in law schools, particularly in the first year.
This teaching method comes from Socrates, the Greek philosopher, and is famous (or infamous depending on your outlook) because the teacher asks students questions to probe their assumptions and understanding of issues, concepts, and principles, instead of merely providing students with the answers. Strict Socratic teachers never provide answers nor their own opinions. They want their students to do this hard work using the power of their minds and reasoning abilities.
While I hated the Socratic Method in law school, I’ve now come to appreciate its utility.
Some Professors utilize it more than others, but in its classic form in law schools, students are called on randomly to discuss the particular case being studied.
All law students have at some point sat in fear while the Professor looked at the seating chart to pick a student to question at random. Once picked, that student is on the hot seat, questioned about all aspects of the case in question. Countless times, I nervously looked down, trying to stay inconspicuous and waiting for those interminable seconds to hear the name of the unfortunate soul whose turn it was that day.
Because of the Socratic Method, we knew that once called on, our assumptions would be challenged, and we would be forced to defend what we were saying using our reasoning abilities. Even if we were fully prepared, the Professors always had tricks up their sleeves, using hypotheticals to alter the facts to see if that changed how we analyzed an issue.
In my first-year Contracts class, I knew there was a case several months into the semester, which included my last name. The case involved one family member suing another, and both had my last name. I knew because my cousin had the same Professor several years before, and he was called on to discuss that case and spent the whole class getting ripped apart. My cousin warned me to be prepared that day.
I wasn’t going to let what happened to him happen to me. So, the week before we got to that case, I prepared like mad. I spent hours reading and re-reading the case, preparing notes on it, and even reading outside material that analyzed it in great detail. I knew I would be called on, and there was no way I would be embarrassed that day. I was ready for anything.
When we finally came to that case, I did something different. I stared directly into the Professor’s face when he was deciding who the day’s victim was. He scanned his seating chart and scanned the students. He then made his decision and called on someone else. What a letdown.
This was my time to shine, and I didn’t get the opportunity.
It was finally my turn a few weeks later, and it came at the absolute worst time for me. I was hungover from the night before and was unprepared. I heard my name, “What were the facts of Wheeler v. White?” This was a promissory estoppel case, and, while I had read it, I wasn’t fully prepared for it. I wasn’t sure I knew what promissory estoppel was (it’s a doctrine in contract law that a promise from one person may be enforceable even if the requirement of consideration was not met if the other person relied on the initial promise to his/her detriment).
I spent an agonizing 20 minutes in dialogue with the Professor. Each of my answers was met with a different question, and there was no positive reinforcement. I was confused but tried to stand my ground and sound smart. By the end of this ordeal, I was sweating profusely and mentally exhausted, and my friends who were sitting next to me were giggling uncontrollably.
While I was called on in other law school classes, this was the first time, it was my worst performance, and I still remember that day even though it happened 21 years ago.
It was a true trial by fire. No harm, no foul, though, since I still ended up getting an A- in the course.
One of the sayings attributed to Socrates is, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.”
I now understand that the Socratic Method’s true purpose is teaching the student how to think, not necessarily teaching Black Letter Law, which we internalized on our own while studying. Thinking is a solitary process that is up to each individual to do. It is something no one can do for us.
How do you learn this skill? You just do it. You answer questions. You consider different possibilities. You look at all sides of an issue. You keep your mind open so that you are ready, willing, and able to change your opinions if the evidence proves something contrary to your beliefs.
Thinking, truly thinking, is an art that is far too often lost in the modern world where winning the daily news narrative and staying loyal to our chosen side substitutes for actual thinking.
We make too many statements telling people our beliefs and ask too few questions that might make us uncomfortable and whose answers might challenge us.
We get angry and frustrated when we are questioned, and our beliefs are probed. When we are presented with new evidence that contradicts what our side believes, we either reflexively criticize that evidence or attack the one presenting it.
Those alive today are so certain they are right, and everyone else is wrong and have forgotten Socrates’ admonishment that “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
Until we can get back to this spirit and truly embody it, we’re doomed to constantly useless, unfruitful, and rancorous arguments that don’t change minds.
What passes for dialogue today is just a form of intellectual masturbation. Though we might think we are engaged in a dialogue with another person, neither side is actually thinking, and it’s just an exercise in self-gratification to make ourselves feel good.
I have changed my opinion on many issues in my life when presented with evidence that contradicts what I thought I knew. I remain ready to do this. How I view the world now at 42 is diametrically opposed to how I viewed it at 22. I expect the same to happen when I’m 62. Stagnation in beliefs shows a lack of thinking.
We need to get back to a point where we can ask each other questions, challenge each other’s assumptions, and be willing to truly think. When we have this ability, we are able to have discussions without rancor and actually solve problems.
Though he lived about 2500 years ago, Socrates was on to something. We have to get over ourselves and be engaged in the search for truth, instead of merely trying to win arguments with regurgitated talking points.
If we don’t get back to this spirit, our society will continue its steady deterioration, and the already low level of thinking will continue withering away into nothing.
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