Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Spiteful Socrates

I’ve had a go at Bloom, Gagne and Kirkpatrick, so why not an earlier target?

The ‘Socratic method’ is often hailed as some sort of untouchable principle in education and training. It is hauled out whenever one is in need of a quick dose of politically correct ‘pedagogy’. Yet how many who claim to know this edict have actually read Socrates? Very few. In fact, he never wrote a word. We know him largely through Plato and Xenophon.

I am a huge admirer of the Socrates Dialogues but squirm when I hear his name heroically mentioned in educational discussions. Why?

The method is often summed up as the teacher being the ‘midwife to the learner’s thoughts’, teasing out self-generated conclusions from the learner. In practice, Socrates was a brutal bully, described by one pupil as a ‘predator which numbs its victims with an electric charge before darting in for the kill’.

Woodbridge described him as using, ‘Flattery, cajolery, insinuation, innuendo, sarcasm, feigned humility, personal idiosyncrasies, browbeating, insolence, anger, changing the subject when in difficulties, faulty analogies, telling stories which make one forget what the subject of the discussion was. His great joy was simply pulling people and ideas to pieces’.

So, before we utter those sacred words ‘Socratic method’ let’s remind ourselves of the real Socrates – the prolific pederast, spiteful, setting out to destroy rather than enlighten his pupils.


Anonymous said...

Hi Donald
Heard about your site from the Scottish eLearning Alliance site and just came for a visit.
I heard the same concerning this gentleman. If he asked a student a question and the student didn't know the answer, the student was hit with a stick for not knowing. If the student did know the answer he was hit again to ensure that he remembered it.
Oh the heady days of teacher training at Jordanhill!
Look forward to your meeting on the Oct 30th.

magz said...

Curiously enough, there are those who, without adopting the label for themselves, are nonetheless uncannily faithful to the old sodomite's method... I will NOT, of course, name any names. It is reassuring, though, to know that there is someone out there who will not pull any punches in making us see the TRUTH about learning. Keep it up, Donald!

Bill said...


Thank you for being another person who points out that that Socratic Method does not deserve to be in the classroom. I see that as more of an excuse for bad teaching than anything else.

Bill B.
Personal Knowledge Management in Higher Ed

Anonymous said...

Presumably it was not one of Socrates' own pupils who described him as delivering an electric shock?

Anonymous said...

Luckily YOU are here 2000 years later with a detailed account of what Socrates did, and criticizing a part of human history.

What is the Donald method? If I may ask one who lives in a country founded 200 years ago...

Donald Clark said...

And what is YOUR point anonymous? History, especially that of Socrates, is contradictory (Plato and Xenephon's accounts differ widely) and Socrates left not a single, written word himself.
The point of this piece was to debate the idea that people accept historical ideas uncritically (your stance) and often misunderstand those ideas in the first place (like YOU).
What really amuses me is the way you fell into the trap of doing EXACTLY what I accused Socrates of doing, dishing out criticism by hair splitting, rather than encoraging learning.