Classical education demands quite a bit from students and their families. Relative to typical schools, it also demands quite a bit more from its teachers. There is no ready-made curriculum that teachers merely dispense, and no shortcuts. Technology, whether it be smart boards, interactive online games, or iPads, is a will o’ the the wisp that lures teachers and students into believing that learning can be made easy. It cannot. It is simply hard work all around. As Abigail Adams wrote, “Learning is not to be attained by chance, it must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
In the classical classroom, teachers learn how to engage in what is called “the Socratic method.” While there are of course many lectures, the Socratic method is the stuff from which true engagement and learning is made. Socratic teaching is often called “question and answer,” where the teacher poses questions to class rather than lecturing. But this is misleading. A teacher reading The Wind in the Willows could ask her class, “why does Toad lie to his friends here?” She might get many and varied responses. If she is merely a dispenser of a ready-made, test-aligned curriculum, or one who “teaches kids to teach themselves,” her discussion will lack the vivacity and urgency that students bring to the table as they grapple with the question, what does it mean to be a friend? Unless she has thought through the book, grappled with its motifs, implications, twists, turns, nooks, and crannies, then this “question and answer” turns into a buffet of untutored opinion. No real learning takes place as all opinions are treated as equally valid. But that is never true – opinions can be ranked and judged based on their truth or goodness, and students are harmed when they lack the discrimination to tell good from bad and true from false.
In a Socratic discussion, by contrast, these many and varied responses are recognized as better or worse, and through further questioning the teacher leads students to deeper and more thoughtful opinions. The problem, of course, is that it is hard. Very hard. It requires a teacher to anticipate as many student questions as possible, to answer them well, to redirect them towards a particular end, and to ask questions of students that point them in that direction. It is not aimless discussion, but discussion with a purpose. Oftentimes it takes some wandering to find a clear path, so there is no map or teacher’s notes to make up for it.
The best example of the power of Socratic discussion comes in Plato’s dialogues, which are alive for us today and which our high school students will encounter as seniors. In one great dialogue, the Republic, Socrates questions a man named Thrasymachus about justice. Through the art of questioning Socrates causes Thrasymachus to blush. That is, he causes him to see that his previous opinions were only partially true and not fully true, which opens Thrasymachus to change his opinions for the better. Socrates does not question simply to question, to “clarify values” as we hear today – he questions so that his friends become deeper thinkers and better men. That, at Golden View, is the full scope of a Socratic discussion.
Students, likewise, must work hard in a Socratic discussion, bringing to bear the full powers of their attention and intellect. They must have the moderation to accept that their opinions are not final and that through hard questions they may be improved. They must have courage to push through difficulties when they seem to be lost. They must have prudence to know when the time for a comment has come or has past. Above all, they must have the curiosity and delight in learning that allows them to participate meaningfully in a great conversation.
Golden View will require hard work, to be sure, but in the recognition that hard work is the fountain of true confidence and virtue.