Law teachers use the phrase “Socratic method” loosely to refer to various methods of questioning students in class rather than merely lecturing to them. The merits of such teaching have been the subject of spirited and even bitter debate. It can be perceived as not only inefficient but also unnecessarily combative—even potentially abusive. Although it is clear that some critics are excoriating the least defensible versions of what has been called the Socratic method, I do not attempt to canvas or adjudicate that debate in this brief essay. Rather, I hope to add to the conversation by looking to a document that describes the origin and original aim of this method. If our teaching practices have indeed been abased or abused such that they too-often resemble the most pejorative caricatures, perhaps we can recover a better and more appealing vision of our tradition by looking to its purported roots. In a long letter attributed to Plato, there are two brief passages in which the author explains why he chooses to teach through questioning and conversation rather than through written treatises or lectures, and why those seeking to cultivate certain sorts of wisdom should follow his example.1 I suggest that these passages have been misunderstood, and that a reinterpretation may help illuminate not only Plato’s work but also our own. The heart of the matter, which The Seventh Letter can help us explore, is the following: Socratic conversation is not merely a method of instruction but also a sort of practice—not merely a mode of doctrinal exposition but also, and more essentially, a kind of capacity-building experience. Or so it should be. We often contrast classroom teaching with experiential learning or practical training. That distinction is useful, and makes sense on many levels, but at bottom the dichotomy is false. The sort of teaching that Socrates did, that Plato described, and to which we should aspire, is primarily and essentially an experiential practice. It should model and embody as well as possible an important aspect of what we hope our students will learn to do well.
Sherman J. Clark,
The Seventh Letter and the Socratic Method,
U. Mich. J. L. Reform Caveat
Available at: http://repository.law.umich.edu/mjlr_caveat/vol49/iss1/6