The Socratic Method

Last week I was able to sit in on a high school class discussion on Plato’s Gorgias.

Back-story: I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM.  Every Johnnie I know gets a soft smile on his or her face at any mention of Socrates.  To the subspecies self-identified as Johnnie, sitting in on a discussion-style class on Plato is like eating watermelon on a hot summer afternoon.  It’s pure nostalgia.

The class took place at the Khabele + Strong Incubator, a “school” founded by another Johnnie.  This blog is about books and not education, so I won’t go into the brilliant framework of the Incubator, but please visit their website if you are curious.

First, the group agreed that belief and knowledge were on a spectrum, that a person can move between belief and knowledge depending on the circumstances.  The example we used was whether believing in angels is the same as believing in the Big Bang.  One of the students determined that even scientific knowledge is taken on faith, until you can understand the science that “proves” it to be knowledge.

Gorgias and Socrates discuss the difference between the skills of a physician and a rhetorician.  Gorgias was a very successful rhetorician and says he has made the rounds with his physician brother who cannot convince his patients to take medicine or submit to surgery. Gorgias applies his skills as a rhetorician and is able to persuade the patient to do what the doctor wants. This led to a discussion on the power of persuasion.  There’s a difference between being knowledgeable like the physician and persuasive like the rhetorician.  The discussion leader (a.k.a. teacher) asked how to fix this problem where ignorant people could be persuaded to some belief, despite what the knowledgeable people knew about the facts.  Three solutions were proposed:

1. Teach the ignorant to not be ignorant.

2. Teach the persuasive to have integrity so that they will only persuade people of the Truth.

or

3. Teach the knowledgeable to be persuasive.

This lovely group of high school students explored the pros and cons of each of those solutions.

For me, it was wonderful to take a step back from the substance of my everyday discussions on public policy and look at the purer, philosophical paradigm.  That’s the point of philosophy, to exercise our minds with abstract problems, because our daily decisions are colored with historical context and emotional attachment.  Young people, especially, need space to wrestle with these problems so that they can calibrate their moral compasses before being thrown into the confusing world.

 

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