The Socratic Seminar without Socrates

Weekly Read

December 12, 2016

By Janet Farrell Leontiou, Ph.D.

Recently, I attended a film screening at our local public school.  The film, “Most Likely to Succeed,” (produced by Ted Dintersmith and One Potato Productions, 2015, and directed by Greg Whiteley.)  This is a new entry into a growing genre of films offering critique of American public education.  The film establishes, like most, that school is failing our kids.  The film is well done and shows that public school, how it is structured now, now longer works.  The film demonstrates that public school in America was invented in response to supplying workers to industry.  The filmmakers make clear that we are living in the post-industrial age and therefore, our thinking of school needs to evolve into a more relevant institution.  Instead of school preparing people for the assembly line, the film argues that school should now serve a high-tech workplace.  What if we could best prepare our children for being in the world without looking to business to define education?

We keep getting school wrong because we look to business for a definition instead of defining education on its own terms for its own sake.  The film critiques a version of public school but then ends up replacing the model with a newer version of the same model.  The film features High Tech High in California.  The narrative is shaped around two very engaging students: Samantha and Brian.  Throughout the film, we see their transformation and we celebrate their successes.  The classroom, in High Tech High, can best be described as modeled after a Google lab and the teachers are more like managers than teachers.  The structure of the school is loose.  There are no designated subjects or class periods.  The teachers do not have tenure and their contracts are renewed annually. Although the film suggests that this arrangement is mutually preferred by both teachers and school administrators, it models a corporate strategy of hiring contract workers.   All of the teachers in the film are extremely likable; there is tremendous good will toward their students.

In one of the first scenes at the school, the teacher instructs the students to assemble the tables and chairs.  He then leaves them to figure out how to accomplish the task. Student autonomy does not necessarily translate to hands-on learning. In the film, students are expected to find out what they need when they need it.  The Socratic method is called Socratic not only because there is an emphasis on questions but also because it was modeled after Socrates who led the conversation. The film makes clear that we do not know what the workplace will look like in the future and this is the motive behind the creation of a school that emphasizes: collaboration, independent research, creativity, and risk taking. The school year culminates in a showcase of collaborative student work.  The work is beautiful and impressive.  I am left asking the question:  why can’t we create an environment like this but keep a traditional curriculum and see the teacher as the authority–as the one who is the author of the educational encounter.  Why can’t we have the socratic seminar with Socrates?

I have taught at a community college for the last twenty years.  In the classroom, I have worked to create my version of education as many educators have done. The word “education” means to lead out from darkness.  I see it as separate from training.  Training means to drag; it means we are always following something or someone.  On the locomotive train, school is the caboose.  I invite my students to engage with the educational process at any point that interests them.  I teach to their interests and drop in the pedagogy as I go along.  I ask that we all let go of the end product and make a commitment to learning for its own sake.  I ask my students to wonder about what kind of work they envision for themselves.  I do ask them about jobs.  Work comes from the Latin word opus, meaning something grand we produce with our lives.  I tell them that they need not have the answer, only to ask the question.  Getting them to ask questions is extremely difficult because they have little practice.  What they most need to learn is to learn how to learn.

The film makes clear what I think we all know by now but we are stuck with a system that is very difficult to change.  The test driven, meaningless culture of school is replicating a rat race mentality to school.  We are all running on the gerbil wheel and in some cases, arguing that we cannot step off the wheel.  Parents at the screening of the film in my community were anxious.  We have been trained to think that school is the ticket to our kids’ financial success.  Now, this genre of films suggests that the deal we have struck may not pan out as we imagined.  I would like to see school disengage from business and define itself on its own terms. We have stripped meaning out of school.

“Most Likely To Succeed” does a good job of inserting meaning back into school.  The meaning, however, grows out of the project based learning approach.  I ask my students to create meaning by crafting a meaningful life.  My students have been brainwashed into thinking that a diploma will get them money.  A diploma is meaningless if you not received an education.   No one becomes wealthy  from wishing to be rich.  Those people who become wealthy do so because they discover something that they love doing and if you love something, you tend to do it well.   Our teacher in constructing meaning is Viktor Frankl and the text is Man’s Search for Meaning.  He not only constructed meaning in his life but he did so under the seemingly impossible conditions as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp.  He writes on the topic of success and I wish his words could spawn a revision of school:

Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it.  For success like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success; you have to let it happen by not caring about it.[1] 

In other words, teach to the test and the students forget what they crammed after the test is over or teach by emphasizing meaning, students will be able to perform on a test.The test score is the by-product of having learned well and not the meaningless hurdle to jump over at the end of the race.  It broke my heart to hear that my son’s fourth grade teacher gave a practice test every day to prepare them for the standardized test to come at the end of the school year.  If it were me, that would have turned me away from school and away from learning.  The teacher told the class that her reputation was on the line and her reputation was tied to the test scores.  Needless to say, fourth grade became something to get through and get beyond.

We seem to think that because we live in a high-tech world, that our schools need to be high-tech as well.  I think the opposite.  The technology is there; it is not going away.  Young people will be drawn to the new technology. In school, we need to stress conversation because our children have little exposure to unmediated communication.  The spoken word is becoming a foreign language. Socrates recognized the power of the dialogue and saw it as the instrument for transformation.  Socrates was wary of the use of new technology in his day.  In our world, we tend to be uncritical of technology and think that more is better.  He was speaking about the technology of the written word but his comments pertain to all technology.  Of course without the existence of the technology he is arguing against, and his student, Plato, we would not have learned:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who earn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.[2]

Socrates was most concerned with the learners’ soul.  Just last week I met with two grammar school teachers to talk about a little girl who is like a daughter to me.  The teachers explained that within the current environment of school, the children are encouraged to merely scan nonfictional texts to seek out relevant information.  As I listened, I thought: how (and why) do we teach her how to engage in such a soulless, meaningless task so that she can perform well on the standardized test?

I received an education in a subject that most would now call antiquated–rhetoric.  We no longer teach rhetoric even though it was once the foundation for all study. Before I returned to graduate school for a Ph.D., I was an assistant vice president at Chase.  I had no preparation for business.  I had a foundation in learning how to learn. If we do not know what the marketplace is to look like in the future, it seems that the most responsible thing to do for our kids is to engage them in the education process, model what it means to think, and learn how to learn.  Then, no matter what the future holds, they will be able to adapt and move forward. Instead, we choose to constantly be in reaction to what the workplace demands school to be.  This mentality will always put us behind because by the time we have answered those demands, the demands will change.  This film is just another example of an educational system rushing to catch up.  The film creates the argument that the old, post-industrial school model is out-of-date and needs to be replaced with a high-tech model of school. Same wine, different bottle.

[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959) 16-17.

[2] Plato, Phaedrus (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005) 274c-275b.

One thought on “The Socratic Seminar without Socrates

  1. Thank you, my friend, for sharing your wisdom with us. I feel vindicated as a teacher who, like you, opposes “training” as destructive of the real educational process. I’ll look at the film as soon as possible.
    I feel I must add that the regime into which we are now entering (like that of our governor who is of the other party — which makes absolutely no difference) is committed to the “training” model for the masses and anything else only for elites. As this (like so much else) runs counter to the core beliefs of many of us, we need to rededicate ourselves to real teaching,
    You have helped us along in that process!
    Unlike Sappho, we do not have to suffer every deprivation because of being poor. We have a country that (used to be?) is committed to quality education for all.

    Barry Fruchter

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