The Fragility of the Socratic Method

While ‘Socratic discussion’ wipes away the oppressive traditional classroom, it has a set of serious problems all its own.


I’ve begun to wonder whether there’s any such thing as education that isn’t, deep down, mostly indoctrination or oppression. Everyone seems to see the problems with traditional education, where students are treated as misshapen clay to be molded by hours of lectures. No one likes ‘teaching to the test’. Everyone loves ‘creativity’ and ‘the open classroom’ and ‘critical thinking’ and ‘collaboration’. But how far these ideas go beyond buzzwords isn’t clear.

The Socratic method is one popular alternative. Students read texts, watch a movie, or have some other shared experience. Then they come together and discuss the experience or text, usually in circles. The teacher, often called something like a ‘facilitator’ instead, doesn’t lecture but simply maintains a safe space for discussion.

In theory, students pull out their critical faculties and question until they achieve a deeper understanding. Each student becomes a little Socrates, questioning everything, arriving at a deeper truth about the universe, themselves, and each other.

Advocates of the Socratic method talk a lot about the oppressiveness of the typical classroom. Socratic discussions are raised as a path to liberation. They’re ‘judgment free’ environments, where the authority of the teacher is subordinated to reason and questioning. Free inquiry is never stifled. Discussion encourages mutual respect and healthy emotional habits. The oppressiveness of the classroom disappears. Supposedly.


Traditional education certainly destroys minds and hearts. I’m not praising it. But it’s no longer clear to me that the Socratic method is the fix. With ‘judgment free evaluations’, ‘non-authoritarian conversations’ the Socratic method is a slippery fish, hard to criticize because there’s always a way to hide behind the rhetoric.

Critics of Socratic dialogue are sometimes even treated like critics of Scientology or other thought systems. Instead of calling people “suppressives”, critics or those who don’t take well to the Socratic method are told they’re “struggling to adjust to the non-authoritarian environment” or “can’t bear to look in the mirror of Socratic conversation”.

Effectively, the Socratic environment becomes non-falsifiable. Any problems or discomforts by students are solely the fault of the learner, not an accurate criticism of the method or the classroom.

At least traditional education has plenty of bad standards and processes that we can question and criticize. After all, that’s what Socrates was all about.

The processes of the Socratic method are often fluffy in practice, so there’s always a way out for manipulative practitioners. The method’s commitment to non-emotional conversation, non-judgmental evaluations, and non-authoritarian community pushes dangerous group dynamics and problems beneath the surface, where they’re harder to see.

In fact, I wonder whether some unhealthy personalities are attracted to the Socratic method especially because of this feature.

The Socratic method seems tailor-made for a certain kind of manipulation. Its advocates ought to take this problem seriously.

To be clear, I don’t hate the Socratic method. These conclusions actually make me sad. Though I’m certainly not an expert, a large part of my education was Socratic. Some of my best experiences of learning have been Socratic.

But having been in many, many Socratic discussions, inside and outside schools, and having observed the workings of various Socratic classrooms, I can’t help but think it’s not quite the panacea it’s made out to be.

In the wrong hands, the Socratic method is a dangerous tool — perhaps even more dangerous than the lecture-and-listen pedagogy of the traditional classroom. This doesn’t mean that the method can’t be redeemed with vigilance to classroom abuses and a system of checks and balances. But it does mean that advocates should be sensitive to risks.

The Socratic method tears down the oppressive lecture-and-listen classroom, but creates other problems all its own. Let’s see some.

Groupthink

Almost every Socratic classroom I’ve ever been in has suffered from a hefty dose of groupthink. Everyone agrees with each other way, way too much.

This is true regardless of political ideology, social philosophy, or anything else. I’ve been in socialist groupthink, anarchist groupthink, conservative groupthink, determinist groupthink, religious groupthink, economist groupthink, sociology groupthink and on and on.

Everyone runs the risk of going into groupthink when they’re surrounded too much by ideas that agree with theirs, or just the same ideas over and over again. Socratic classrooms often feel like ideological classrooms.

My armchair theory for why this happens is as follows.

  1. Students enter the classroom without firm ideas.
  2. Some ideas emerge or are brought to the classroom by strong students and teachers.
  3. Ideology gives people a consistent lens for understanding across disciplines and domains. Strong students or teachers, armed with ideology, thus will be the most confident and agile in navigating discussions.
  4. A certain set of ideas (some strong voice’s ideology) gets consistently inserted into discussions.
  5. Weaker-willed or less experienced students fall in behind the thought leaders or teachers, whose authority and confidence they want to emulate.
  6. A comfortable groupthink sets in. Disruptors not welcome.

Socratic classrooms are often quite small. You may talk with the same people every day, for months or years on end. Without new blood or hard-wired contrarians to disrupt your thinking, the group settles into a comfortable equilibrium.

This has not been a problem when discussions are one-off affairs, such as at a special event or just for a weekend. Enough different people usually get involved. The discussion is especially rich because so many unfamiliar minds are gathered. Plus you’re not going to see many of these people again. Let your freak flag fly.

But in a regular classroom with consistent teachers and classmates, groupthink seems to be the rule, not the exception.

Groupthink also happens when the selection of texts is ideological, as it so often is. I’ve been in months-long Socratic seminars on international development where the facilitator includes zero readings on economics. As you might expect, the conversation quickly comes to ideologically reflect the readings. In this case, it was a parade of airy talk about social justice, totally divorced from economic reality.

I’ve also been in discussions on international development with zero readings on social justice, rights, morality, sociology etc. As you might expect, it becomes an efficiency-fest. Those with an economic turn-of-mind dominate the whole discussion and you can hardly tell we’re even talking about living-breathing human beings with emotional lives and social ties anymore.

Students are drawn from a surrounding community. Thus, most students don’t enter the classroom with significantly diverse ideas. Younger students may have few ideas of their own, period. What they’ve picked up is probably cultural orthodoxy — inherited from their parents, religious organization, or the political mainstream.

In the early days of a Socratic classroom, students are likely to interpret texts through cultural orthodoxy. A single strong voice or teacher can lead students to dispense with orthodoxy, only to replace it with the ideology of the leader. Without significant diversity (which is not likely to emerge as soon as group think arrives) the hallowed Socratic dissent never emerges. Instead, the vicious cycle sets of groupthink sets in.

Forced Readings Can Destroy Dissent and Individuality

If all students in the group are forced to read the same texts, as they often are in Socratic classrooms, you homogenize their minds. This is more important when applied to an entire curriculum rather than a one-off class.

If all students are subject to the same curriculum, diversity is destroyed.

Everyone relates Jane Jacobs to Thoreau in nearly the same way, because everyone read the same texts, in the same order, and participated in the same discussions (many of which ended up in a consensus interpretation). The more control that classroom authorities exercise over text choice, the worse this becomes. Students’ sphere of individuality shrinks. Here comes the groupthink.

It’s sad to see sometimes how tiny differences in interpretation can be viewed in a Socratic discussion as a major disagreement and eminent example of ‘free inquiry’. It’s like listening to Leninists and Stalinists argue over annoying Revolutionary Nonsense. The great adventure of free inquiry gets replaced by safe non-arguments.

But what do you expect when everyone is fed the same information in the same order and subject to the same discussions? Homogeneity goes into the discussion, and garbage comes out.

Ironically, I wonder if this problem of ideology may be less likely to happen in a traditional lecture-and-listen classroom. Lectures are ideological, almost by definition.

The sad reality (which the Socratic method is supposed to address) is that most people will just accept what’s given to them, whether in a lecture or a discussion.

But in a traditional class the lone heretic can simply ignore or dismiss disagreeable claims by the lecturer. They can safely hide in the sea of silent students, fomenting their heresy in their spare time. The lecturer becomes like a distant, disliked politician. “I’ll listen to you and regurgitate your ideas when you ask me, but I’ll ignore you and disobey you in every way that I safely can.”

For all the talk about free-thinking, being a heretic in the Socratic classroom can be difficult. There’s significant pressure for conformity when you work closely with a community of learners for years or months. If you get a normal classroom irritated at you, you won’t see most of them again next semester.

But a Socratic class, especially if the program encompasses too much of the students’ lives, has high stakes socially. “I hate Thoreau” is an unsafe opinion when everyone around you is raving about Walden.

Most people will be whitewashed in a bad classroom whether Socratic or traditional. But the isolation of a lecture-and-listen classroom, perversely, may allow for more heresy by the open-minded and self-motivated learner.

The intimacy of the Socratic discussion makes resistance to authorities harder. Only the strongest heretics survive a Socratic classroom where authorities abuse their position. Intellectual and emotional abuse by authorities, the much maligned problem of traditional education, also arises in the Socratic classroom.

Intellectual Manipulation by Classroom Authorities

Socratic environments are supposed to be ‘judgment free’, so that critical faculties can run wild. A good Socratic practitioner isn’t even supposed to make casual judgments like “good work, Timmy!” or “try harder, Sam!” The full responsibility of evaluation is supposed to be on the student, whose ideas are left to roam free.

In practice, this is hard to achieve. Socratic facilitators, especially if they’re significantly older or educated than students, are always on the edge of becoming an authority. Younger or unsure students look to the facilitator for help: “What should I think?” their eyes plead from around the discussion circle.

Facilitators must have a truly Zen-like lack of ego not to pounce on the opportunity to share their ‘authoritative’ ideas. Even a subtle frown or smile, a nod or shake of the head will shift the conversation by leading students to a pre-conceived conclusion about the text. I have seen this happen more times than I can count, including by plenty of kind-hearted Socratic practitioners. Ego is a powerful thing.

Many times this manipulation occurs outside the discussion. Facilitators are just hanging around the school, spouting their opinions. Although they might turn on Socratic-mode when they get in the circle, students memories don’t end where formal discussion begins. “I heard so-and-so say he hates Dostoevsky at lunch, so I better not praise him too much” thinks little Timmy, an 18-year old looking for approval from an older, cooler facilitator. If people think this isn’t happening just because you put people into a ritual circle where ‘there is no authority’, they’re deluded.

Many people are unsure of themselves. They have not yet discovered their deep well of courage. They do not know enough to comfortably discuss ideas across domains and disciplines. A 15 or even 19-year old is on red-alert for social cues about what’s a group-approved opinion. Heck, plenty of fully-grown adults are too. This opens them to easy, even unintentional manipulation by authorities.

It’s not just teachers. The presence of an especially strong or opinionated student can have the same effect. I’ve seen many a good discussion derailed by a loudmouthed student who, explicitly or quietly, agrees with the interpretation of the facilitator. A subtle alliance forms between teacher and loudmouth. This need not be intentional.

Once weak-willed students catch wind that this alliance has formed, they rush to join the more powerful tribe. Dissenters are then brow-beaten by this alliance until one interpretation reigns supreme. So much for free inquiry.

Self-congratulation: Talking too much about ‘free inquiry’ can stifle actual free inquiry

Socratic classrooms often make a big deal out of how free and open they are. When visitors enter the classroom, everyone is quick to say how they have no classroom authorities, how they are in charge of their own evaluation and education. A sense of excitement permeates the classroom. It can be a beautiful thing to behold.

The use of alternative terms like “facilitator” rather than “teacher” is part of this outward display of non-authoritarianism. I’m not trying to pick on the name. When you’re trying to inspire a culture where students don’t defer to authority, throwing the name ‘teacher’ in the trash is a smart and fair thing to do.

The problem is that the eager discussion of “look how much free inquiry we have” and “look how little authority we have” can mask actual problems. If enough people say “we are so free” it can appear to be true even if it isn’t. It becomes a mantra, unchallengable by anyone.

Another brand of groupthink emerges. A culture of self-congratulation sets in, with everyone raving — some might say desperately — about how free and open they are.

When too much self-congratulation has taken place, it becomes harder to dissent and even to acknowledge problems honestly. Everyone is afraid of failure, afraid of being wrong, afraid of looking like a fool. This happens in all sorts of projects and businesses. If I spent the last 6 months telling you how awesome my new X is and then I realize that it’s struggling or failing, I’m afraid mention it. What will people think? Will I look bad? This is understandable. It takes immense courage to embrace failure and move ahead.

The repeated mantras about ‘free inquiry’ and the self-congratulatory tone may become synonymous with the values of the group. It’s like when a corporation believes their own marketing, while at the same time they fail to achieve their mission.

When too much self-congratulation takes places, any criticism of the classroom looks like an undermining of sacred values and is scorned. Dissenters face criticisms like: “You are destroying the culture.” “What you’re saying is not part of the Socratic method.” “When you understand more about the method you’ll lose all these doubts.”

No one wants to be in a negative environment, but sometimes harsh truths have to be heard. Negative feedback can easily be framed as destructive, rather than as important feedback. Dissenters — the very people that the Socratic method is supposed to cultivate — find themselves shamed into silence. “Dont be a downer.” “Stop focusing on the bad things. Let’s celebrate what’s right instead.”

People quickly pick up on this and stop expressing anything other than the self-congratulatory mantra. No one wants to be the downer. No one wants to seem stupid or like they’re the weakest paddle on the great ship to the land of Socratic self-knowledge. So they shut up.

The first victim of this censorship is truth. The most important knowledge one can get — negative feedback — vanishes. Suddenly even the most intelligent and kind-hearted Socratic practitioner is without an honest compass to steer their ship. Socratic inquiry, supposedly all about no-authority and free inquiry and non-judgment and self-evaluation, becomes destructive political correctness.

Emotional Manipulation by Classroom Authorities

Socratic inquiry is a dangerous process. Whether the cafés of early 20th-century Vienna or the taverns of revolutionary America, true open discussion can birth powerful heresies that eventually change the world.

Intellectually, this ability to seed heresy is one of Socratic inquiry’s greatest benefits. Free inquiry is dangerous chiefly to nonsense ideas and old structures ready to be overthrown.

However, heresy is as much an emotional achievement as an intellectual one.

‘Free inquiry’ is not free. It often comes at tremendous emotional cost.

Undermining your ideas and discovering new truths is exhausting and destabilizing. Socratic classrooms sometimes become such overly-intellectual environments that the psychology of inquiry is neglected and we open the door to emotional damage. The other side of intellectual manipulation by authorities is emotional manipulation. Let’s now turn there.

I mentioned how tempting it can be to subtly manipulate Socratic discussions for everyone other than an egoless Zen-master. Since Zen-masters are so hard to find, not every Socratic practitioner is a paragon of emotional health. Some practitioners seem to think that what students need is not more learning or more freedom but more of themselves. That’s probably fine if the teacher is a Zen-master. Let them spread the Zen around. But we might not want to hold our breaths that the average classroom is stocked with such rare personalities.

Groups are a Weapon

As these other problems clearly show, much of the challenges to the Socratic method arise from group dynamics colliding with the process of the method.

In some Socratic classrooms, far too much is done in groups. As every despot in history knows, the group is a potent weapon. Put all but the strongest dissenters in a displeased crowd and watch their conviction shrivel up and die.

Strong dissent from a place of integrity and honesty does not come naturally to people, especially with young students who have not yet discovered their inner hero.

Critical rationality is a tool honed from years of polish. Can it survive intimate discussion with conformist groups?

“The mind is sharper and keener in seclusion and uninterrupted solitude.” wrote inventor Nikola Tesla, “Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind. Be alone—that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.”

Groups naturally gravitate toward conformity. Facilitators can take advantage of this and force conformity by using students to do their bidding. Through glances or stares, private conversations, informal remarks, and a host of other manipulative tools, facilitators can signal to other students what they want.

Students are all too willing to please the authority. This happens both within discussions and in the classroom at large — as with the tacit alliance between the loudmouth student and the facilitator mentioned earlier.

Students are whipped into conformity through peer pressure, much of it often subtle. The attitude of the quietly bullying peers is merely a reflection of the will of the authority. All the while, the manipulator has plausible deniability, since they aren’t directly engaged with the student.

I once had a professor who had strong political views (well, more than one actually!). Like many people, she presumed anyone who disagreed with her politics was either stupid, dishonest, or evil. On the first day of class she encouraged everyone to be open and honest with their political convictions (loud mantras about Socratic openness).

She never made her own views clear (part of the supposed Socratic commitment to non-judgment and no authority in the conversation). But by subtly leading students with biased ‘Socratic questions’ to embrace her politics, other students began bullying those who disagreed, including me. The seminars quickly devolved into groupthink with everyone other than those who agreed with her staying quiet.

Stealth Judgment

Using similar tools, manipulative practitioners can also dispense with the Socratic method’s ‘judgment free’ evaluation and sneakily evaluate students without giving them grades. Through private remarks of approval or disapproval, through facial expressions, through the careful use of language that suggests inferiority (such as calling a student ‘Sweetheart’ or other patronizing names), a manipulator can force evaluations on students. Again, this method allows for plausible deniability. No one is mailing home a report card with “D+” on it.

This is still judgment. And it’s actually worse than a written evaluation because it creates a sense of unclear inadequacy in the student. They’re not being formally judged so there’s no where to look except for within themselves.

The feelings of failing an authority, a mentor, a teacher, someone you look up to in your Socratic environment weighs heavily on the young learner. More than that, their deep emotional commitment to the Socratic environment makes these stealth judgments even more painful.

After all, you don’t want to be responsible for “destroying the culture” or “weighing down the Socratic environment”. What if I’m too stupid for the Socratic method?! What if I’m not really a heroic learner with integrity who can take charge of my education?! This self-destructive process is made even worse when authorities claim their judgment puts the interests of the student first: “I just want what’s best for you.”

“But that’s not Socratic!” say various people who won’t like what I’m saying, “The whole point is not to have any authorities rendering judgments so students become self-sufficient and set their own standards!”

Yes, of course. But judgment is more subtle than a teacher writing “You did bad!” on a worksheet. The community feel of a Socratic classroom, the age and knowledge disparities, the insecurity of students, and other problems I’ve mentioned all conspire to create stealth standards.

Students will always be comparing themselves to others and therefore opening themselves to manipulation by authorities. Perversely, the clear standards of traditional education may better insulate students from the arbitrariness and manipulation of stealth standards.

In the hands of a bad facilitator, the Socratic method becomes the perfect tool to silence dissent and to exercise manipulative or self-indulgent behavior in quiet, insidious ways. This is dangerous for the budding soul of a student.

The Inner Hero

It’s painful to go through the transformation of your ideas and the discovery of yourself.

Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, argues that inner conviction — the discovery of your inner hero and your calling in life — is a fragile process.

Hero stories like the myths of old offer a safe “pouch” for children and young adults to incubate their inner hero. Hero stories help human beings reach into their psychological depths and find courage and integrity when life tests their mettle. “What would Luke Skywalker do here?” “Jesus would never sell out his faith for money.” “I want to fly like Icarus, let the sunlight be damned!”

Implicit in this argument is that integrity and individuality is an emotional and psychologically difficult process. On the path to glory heroes always face demons, both in and outside themselves.

The ideal Socratic education breeds people who discover this inner hero, their inner Socrates ready to die for their ideals.

But this process means staring down your demons. You change yourself. You look like a fool. You embark on adventures, fall on the field of battle, and (if you’re lucky) come home with your hat in hand as a failure ready to start again.

As you overthrow old ways of thinking and reach deeper into yourself, you become vulnerable. Your comfortable opinions and view of yourself is weaker than ever. You are discovering, incubating your inner hero. This brings out all sorts of insecurities and confusions.

A Socratic practitioner can respect this process and keep their distance. Or a manipulator can prey upon this vulnerable time.

During the discovery of the inner hero, windows of opportunity open in the young person’s psyche. Questions arise: Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I stand for? These healthy doubts undermine the stability of their inherited, orthodox ideas. This is the other danger of the Socratic process. In these fragile times a manipulative facilitator can wreak havoc on the blossoming student by exploiting the instability that an adolescent feels in the transition to adulthood.

Emotional manipulation feeds on all the other problems.

Think about it. Groupthink reinforces the ideas of a manipulative practitioner and gives them a sense of power and righteous certainty about their ideas. Too much control over texts gives them the power to homogenize minds and, frankly, to brainwash students with their ideology. Self-congratulation and constant chatter about ‘no authority’ and ‘free inquiry’ means that few feel safe enough to discuss problems in the classroom.

The Socratic classroom often looks like a micro-society. The right to choose everyone’s texts, the right to schedule the day, the ability to subtly manipulate and dominate conversations, the ability to use the group as a weapon to enforce conformity and ‘stealth evaluation’ — all of these are analogous to the arbitrary power of a tyrant.

No one can thrive in an environment like this. They certainly can’t be creative and become like the heroic Socrates.

What if the Socratic method’s commitment to non-emotional and (supposedly) nonjudgmental conversation masks a darker side?

When people betray no emotion and no judgment, it’s creepy. We would never expect anyone in another aspect of our lives (except perhaps a hired therapist) to “never judge” or “never share any emotions”. The Socratic discussion is supposed to be an (admittedly artificial) environment for inquiry made ‘safe’ by this non-emotional, non-judgmental process. While some may argue that this approach is important for rationality (a view I shared for a long time) modern science has made it clear that rationality cannot stand on its own.

There is no healthy way to divorce intellect from emotion. Those that can consistently do this in their daily life have a name: sociopaths. Does the classroom really want to create reason-only automatons? Or does it want people like Jonas Salk, the scientist who was driven by deep emotional convictions to use his reason to discover the polio vaccine?

The heretic, the inventor, the entrepreneur, the explorer, the novelist — creators are moved by emotion, not reason alone. So why such an insistence on emotion-free discussion?

At its worst, the unhealthy Socratic environment is where the least emotionally developed, including sociopaths and others who have a difficult time with human emotions, can thrive.

Sometimes I wonder if the non-judgment, no-emotion clause of Socratic education creates more problems then it solves. Better to have a raving lunatic who honestly admits it than a ‘judgment-free’ manipulator who never admits to anything. Let the facilitator and everyone else honestly declare, “I’m pissed at this argument!” “I cried when I read that!”

I will take an honest basket-case over a ‘judgment free’ robot any day. At least we can see the basket-case’s motivations, their honest feelings, their own craziness. It’s grounding, comforting. It’s healthy to share your angels and demons.

Yes, this creates a more charged environment. Yes, this may lead students to feel unsafe if the facilitator or another student is too emotionally strong. But at least it’s honest, out in the open. Empathy is not just seeing the logic of another person’s argument— it’s stepping into their shoes and sharing their fears and joys.

It also prepares students for real life, where emotion and judgment abound. Standing firm in charged discussions is part of carving your own path.

You want courageous dissenters? Get them to stand in the face of an angry opponent and hold their sacred ground.

To be clear, I’m not praising the creepy emotional outpourings you sometimes see in Socratic environments. I’ve been in situations where Socratic practitioners ask students to sit in a circle and praise one another or share emotional things.

Why should there be an organized time to “be emotional”? Why force people to praise others “at a scheduled hour”?

Is there any more bizarre way to treat emotions than to schedule an appointment at 10:00 am for a ritualistic outpouring? This is completely disingenous. It creates groupthink and phoniness in the most damaging place of all: self-esteem.

When I’ve sat in circles like these they often become a competition for who can be the most emotional, how can I outdo the last person so that I appear the most virtuous or kind or perceptive? Again, all of this is pushed deep down — no one will admit they’re participating in this dynamic. But to an outsider it’s clear.

This is the opposite of genuine emotion and praise. It’s the antithesis of honesty. A safe environment with happy collaboration and learning will generate plenty of spontaneous praise and affection.

Is the Socratic Method a Fragile System?

After all this, some might say, “This isn’t fair! These problems are just the Socratic method done poorly! A good practitioner knows not to lead the discussion or allow students to dominate or to emotionally manipulate or to use stealth judgment etc. etc.”

Ok, sure. But there are also a handful of star lecturers that seem to make the traditional classroom an exhilarating and educational space. So does that mean the dominant problem with traditional education is just that we don’t have enough lecturers trained in classroom charisma? Screwed up traditional education is just “lecturing done poorly”?

I thought the non-authoritarian Socratic method was supposed to insulate us from the abuses of the lecturer. Is the Socratic method so fragile that only the best practitioners can maintain a healthy learning environment? I don’t know anymore.

These conclusions didn’t come easy. They’re the result of a long process of disillusionment with what I’ve observed in and around Socratic classrooms over a number of years.

I recently asked a panel of Socratic educators whose work I respect significantly how they handle the problem of classroom manipulation. To be fair, I caught them off guard and this is a difficult issue. But the answer I received was pretty unsatisfying — that professors must be on a “higher emotional plane” than students. In short, they do have to have the Zen-like lack of ego.

That sucks, because Zen-masters are hard to come by. If a safe Socratic classroom requires practitioners to be masters-of-the-self, then it’s doomed from the start. We can’t build a paradigm on the chance that men are angels.