Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Socratic Method

I was not going to continue with the issue, but this post by Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns & Money is too good to ignore and I really, really hate the Socratic Method. He quotes a former law student of Elena Kagan who related that she liked rules and used the Socratic Method of teaching. The Socratic Method is:

The basic form is a series of questions formulated as tests of logic and fact intended to help a person or group discover their beliefs about some topic, exploring the definitions or logoi (singular logos), seeking to characterize the general characteristics shared by various particular instances. To the extent to which this method is designed to bring out definitions implicit in the interlocutors' beliefs, or to help them further their understanding, it was called the method of maieutics. Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method. Perhaps oddly, however, Aristotle also claimed that this method is not suitable for ethics.[citation needed]

The method can be used by one side to steer the opponent into accepting the authority of the questioner. One person asks the questions, the other must answer. One person decides the direction of the argument and decides which points are relevant or not. One person is in control of the argument at all time, the assumption of knowledge rests in him, and he can easily ignore any point or fact that might damage the questioner's argument. By answering the questions, the opposing side must accept the framing of the questioner.

Campos quotes a Duncan Kennedy critique of the Socratic Method.

The classroom is hierarchical with a vengeance, the teacher receiving a degree of deference and arousing fears that remind one of high school rather than college. The sense of autonomy one has in a lecture, with the rule that you must let teacher drone on without interruption balanced by the rule that teacher can’t do anything to you, is gone. In its place is a demand for pseudoparticipation in which one struggles desperately, in front of a large audience, to read a mind determined to elude you. It is almost never anything as bad as The Paper Chase or One-L, but it is still humiliating to be unsure of oneself, especially when what renders one unsure is a classroom arrangement that suggests at once the patriarchal family and a Kafkalike riddle state. The law school classroom at the beginning of the first year is culturally reactionary.

Campos says:

Indeed that’s what the classic Socratic “method” is all about — it’s a performance designed to demonstrate that the performer is In Charge Here and a Very Serious Person who you had best defer to if you know what’s good for you. In short, it’s authoritarianism at its most straightforward and distasteful — and anyone who currently practices it in 180-proof form in an American law school at this late date should be viewed with suspicion: not merely as an educator, but in terms of that person’s fundamental orientation towards hierarchy, authority, and social power. Which is another way of saying, in terms of her politics.


aimai said...

We've got to part company on this one, Susan. First of all, Campos is an A, Number One asshole who has an authoritarian streak a mile wide. He fell out with me in an earlier thread on obesity and wound up shrieking at me that *my grandfather would be ashamed of me* because my interpretation of a third party statement about an Obese woman didn't match Campos'.

In the attack on Kagan because one student didn't like the Socratic Method *because he deliberately wasted everyone's time by refusing to do the reading* Campos is taken to task by several other lawyers and former law students who fondly remember the expert practicioners of the Socratic method among their favorite teachers.

Look, the Socratic Method is terrible as practised by Socrates--but when its done well its an incredibly engaging form of performance art that pushes both teachers and students to think on their feet, respond to novel questions, answers, and allusions. If done well it helps keep an entire class of people awake and thinking. Lectures are no less authoritarian. Study groups and seminars much more democratic. The Socratic Method is just one kind of pedagogical method and its as good or bad as its practitioners.

Basically, Paul is full of shit on this one as a reason not to like Kagan. His student quote essentially contradicts his point and, as usual, he descends to hectoring his commenters when they don't agree with him.

Unlike most people I have a huge amount of respect for lawyers and for law school. But Campos wore out any respect I ever had for him and I can't imagine how he handles even the slightest rebuttal from his students given how hysterical, hostile, and judgmental he is with his own commenters.


Susan of Texas said...

Yes, I agree, but in this case I think Kennedy is right.

All my arguments come down to one thing--Obama is our enemy, not our friend. His actions are disgusting and murderous. He is one of the elite, and the elite use us and throw us away. Usually it's someone else who is thrown away because we are white and middle class, but that's a pretty bad thing to live with anyway.

Usually I'd do what everyone I know does--shrug and go out to lunch. There's not much any of us can do. But then the internet popped up, and my excuse went away. I can speak out and I must, even if I end up alienating and angering people I really like and respect.

I firmly believe that the economic situation will worsen and we will go through some kind of social upheaval. It's up to each one of us to make sure our country doesn't go to the authoritarian dogs when it happens. The scapegoating has already started.

My father died for this country. I feel a personal responsibility to fight for the soul of the country. I can't let my desire to be the good guy, part of the party in power, the liberal Democrat who believes in equality, freedom and peace, lure me into supporting the wrong people.

aimai said...

Wow Susan, that's bleak. I guess I just don't think its that bad--or rather, its not any worse than it ever was. Obama's just middling bad, and sometimes he's even middling good. On administrative stuff, regulatory stuff, he's actually pretty good. Its a long hard drag to drag this country back up to the nineteenth century, let alone straight into the 21st century, and its not going to be easy and he may not be able to do it.

I agree he's not the liberal/radical dream I'd hoped he might possibly be. I always thought that Michelle had, essentially, the soul of a good republican woman. Certainly their liberalism and progressivism is more out of the christian social justice tradition and the civil rights tradition than it is out of a radical tradition.

But that's just as good as its going to get. And there are political actors who have offered to lead us, theoretically from farther left, who would have done just as bad a job--Nader,for example, or Kucinich. You pays your money and you drinks your poison. Since it could never really be that much different than it is, you can't kick yourself over it. You just have to keep pushing where you can, when you can.

The country is going to hell in a handbasket, and the world and the climate too--but Obama isn't in charge of that. He can't stop it and he didn't start it. There are long term processes at work ecologically, economically, politically that are just running away with us.


Susan of Texas said...

Yeah, I've got more bleak than I know what to do with. I have to be careful to keep it in rein.

We have different tactics but the same goals. I think we need to start with the dysfunctional family but that's the long, slow game, and not the only one. We also have to live in the here-and-now, and deal with the politicians we have.

Downpuppy said...

Its true!

The niceties are all going to get zerstort in the developing storm of resource depletion & ecological catastrophe.

Whether we go into it without a strong moral base & some sense of justice may determine whether we come out the other side with a society or go back to the 14th century without the skills & resources we had then

aimai said...

When I'm not hopping around the internet, or administering prednisone to my eleven year old because she's got the croup, or making dinner, or driving someone to ballet, or choir, or whatever the fuck I like to read dystopian post apocalyptic novels. If there's any kind of major crash we aren't going to find ourselves in the 14th century. Most of us are simply going to find ourselves dead. I'm pretty sure I'm going to be among the quickly dead because I live in an urban area and absent a working government, cheap oil, and mass transportation and distribution of food, water, and electricity we are simply all going to die. That's it. That's all she wrote.

I don't anticipate that kind of mass breakdown of either the economy or the society.

So color me cheerful!

I mean, I'm not taking the piss here. I feel very close to Susan of Texas and I'm a huge admirer of her work but we are no worse off than our ancestors, and in some ways substantially better off even as we (like they) dance on the edge of the volcano known as world politics and climate change. We know somewhat more than they do. We are as subject to fears, fancies, and insta-death as they were. Didn't we grow up under the shadow of nuclear annihilation? Aren't our children growing up under the shadow of catastrophic climate change? Twas Ever Thus. Read The Proud Tower--read any account of the fifteenth century.

I find it cheers me up to realize that we are no more able to affect--truly affect--the behavior of large numbers of our fellow humans than a single celled organism can affect the growth or death of the entire coral reef. Each person around us is simply monadically living out their genetic and cultural heritage--doing whatever they need to do to survive and, as they see it, thrive. And the totality of all they are doing may drive us right over the cliff as a species. But the galaxy will continue spinning.

Cold comfort, maybe. But comfort none the less.


Susan of Texas said...

I'm not afraid of going back to 1400, I'm afraid of going back to 1940. But it's easy to get caught up and forget to breathe.

Alas, Babylon was one of my favorite books as a teen--I read a lot of dystopian books too. But my fear was always surviving such an attack, not dying in it--that seemed merciful. I want us to be able to rebuild, and not get dragged down into war and persecutions and scapegoating.

Downpuppy said...

Well, yes, forced reorganizing to a pre-industrial state does require losing 85% or the population.

It's most likely not going to happen this summer, so I don't worry too much yet about my chances.

Batocchio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Batocchio said...

I left a comment on this one over at Balloon Juice the other night. Like any teaching method, the "Socratic method" depends on the teacher. Saying it takes extra prep and care and is prone to these specific pitfalls is great, but slamming it altogether and claiming that everyone knows it's bad as Campos does is silly (the commenters point this out, and cite their own highly positive experiences). The "I've got a secret, guess what it is" classroom style is generally crappy teaching, but it's also not really Socratic – it's a power game and a slow lecture with the death of a thousand cuts. A teacher grilling an overall good student who didn't do the reading that day could be bad teaching as well, depending on the circumstances. But that's not what Mystal describes. I found Campos' post rather painful, and the thread more so, because he becomes indignant when people point all this and much more out. Mystal's Above the Law post is pretty self-mocking, and he basically admits to being a bad student. He also credits Kagan with having a sense of humor, which suggests that if she's riding him, it's not personal. He basically says: I was a lazy student, she was a hardass, I didn't enjoy it, but she also had a human side and I have at least some respect for her. As several commenters point out, Mystal's better off getting grilled in a class than by a judge in court for not knowing his stuff. Campos says students should treated like adults – and I agree, in general – but Mystal is in his description is acting pretty childish. One of the jobs of a teacher is to set and uphold standards. (Nor do those standards have to be teacher-dependent - at the school where I taught, in the good classes at least, Mystal's fellow students would have been all over him for repeatedly blowing off his homework. Still, the teacher has the ultimate responsibility.) In the thread, Campos is shocked, shocked by some of the responses, and accuses anyone of defending Kagan (based on Mystal's account, let's recall) as defending authoritarianism, and that's some sad, ridiculous and somewhat offensive bullshit.

I only visit LGM occasionally, but have read some decent Campos posts in the past. I can't speak to the charge by commenters that Campos seems to have it in for Kagan, or the really dreadful treatment aimai describes. I hope the guy regains his bearings, though. As for the Kagan pick, I'm not enthused, mostly for the reasons Greenwald's outlined, but I've read some more positive (if measured) appraisals from Scott Horton and others. I'll have to read more on her, and would like to hear where she stands on some key issues of the law. (I'll comment more on the Obama angle in the other thread.)

Susan of Texas said...

Okay, Campos and Mystal are assholes and in law school the Scoratic Method is fine, although anything that created the mindset of lawyers is suspect to me. What about Kagan? Why do you guys think she's liberal? What has she done or said to support that view? What am I missing?

What about her stint working for Goldman, Sachs? Her support for executive privlige?

"In Citizens United,
she defended the McCain-Feingold Act’s restriction on corporate expenditures during election
cycles, but she made the tactical decision to abandon the rationale of a 1990 Supreme Court
decision, that allowing independent corporate spending would distort the marketplace of ideas
and drown out the speech of individuals. As Solicitor General, Kagan has been criticized by
civil libertarians for the government’s legal positions relating to national security, particularly in
relation to habeas corpus and the state secrets privilege."

Two of her supporters are Ted Olsen and Ken Starr. Why do they believe she'll be good for them?

Why not pick someone with an actual liberal record?

Downpuppy said...

Charlie Pierce seems oddly restrained in his praise -

Susan of Texas said...

I'm doing more reading. So far everyone says she's smart and knows the law well and "she seems liberal".

Susan of Texas said...

Heh. Yeah, he is not exactly a fan.

Batocchio said...

"What about Kagan? Why do you guys think she's liberal?"

Well, that wasn't the focus of Campos' post, or yours. I think our critiques (although aimai can speak for herself) were more about the silliness of this particular objection to Kagan. But to return to:

"What about Kagan? Why do you guys think she's liberal?"

Who said that? I wrote:

"As for the Kagan pick, I'm not enthused, mostly for the reasons Greenwald's outlined, but I've read some more positive (if measured) appraisals from Scott Horton and others..."

I've been more critical elsewhere, but I guess I haven't expanded on Kagan here, so okay. Diane Wood and other candidates seem stronger to me. Stevens, who's written some great decisions, has been a powerhouse, and is a moderate conservative (old-school). Over time, he's been labeled liberal and even the most liberal member of the Court. That sorta sums up the political problems in America of the past 30-40 years in a nutshell. Ginsberg and Breyer are decent, but were consensus candidates pre-approved by Orrin Hatch. One radical conservative on the court might be okay, but we have four, and they are an activist, political bloc. That leaves very little room for error. Greenwald is correct that the GOP nominates radical firebrands and the Dems nominate conciliatory moderates. (Digby posted a chart on that today, actually.)

As for the case for Kagan, this post by aimai's colleague Steve links some interesting stuff on her views on due process and such (when she wasn't advocating for the Obama administration). I find it particularly interesting since I wrote a looong post on Lindsay Graham lying to the Supreme Court in an amicus brief on Hamdan. Like I said, I'm not enthused about Kagan, but that letter is somewhat encouraging, and I need to read more and want to hear more from her.

(On Hamdan, basically, Graham tried to trump the pending case and eliminate due process through a new (unconstitutional) law, probably in collusion with the White House. After his first assault failed, he pretended to be for due process with a new joint amendment. Then he and John Kyl lied to the SCOTUS. Graham also lied in an op-ed in the WaPo. This is why he is a scum-sucking bastard, and never to be trusted, because he will piss on core principles of law and basic ethics for partisan reasons. When the White House lost the case, Bush issued one of his usual signing statements claiming he could effectively ignore the decision and do whatever he damn well pleased. As a side note, Scalia didn't care much for congressional intent – he rarely does – but took great interest in whether Bush, the effective defendant, had issued any previous signing statements on the matter. Balls and strikes and originalism, I tell ya.)

aimai said...

Look, on the Kagan thing I think there might have been way more overtly radical judges (maybe) that Obama could have picked--but they couldn't have been confirmed. Diane Woods is (I take it) a better pick but she's already 60. Obama is trying to get someone young onto the court.

As I've said in other places I'm way to the left of Obama but there's no doubt in my mind that he's a very old fashioned, centrist, constitutionally minded, civil libertarian. As president, with the burden of making decisions which will come out badly and result in the deaths of people *whichever way he chooses* he's probably bound to make decisions which I don't like. He's the head of a freakin' imperialist state. But he, personally and historically, has shown no signs of wanting to destroy constitutional protections, civil liberties, or humanity as a whole.

My take on his supreme court decision is that he is choosing women who he thinks will be good on the merits: careful, thoughtful, liberal, filled with conscience, able to navigate the ugly politics of the court as it now stands and able to lead it in the future when the old fucks have died off. As President Obama and his team will push the line on executive privilige because that's their function in that role--because there are going to be some decisions that our riven congress won't make in a timely fashion, and because that's the logic of the position of president in our three part system. But as law professor and pretty good human being he's not trying to put some kind of scalia clone on the court. He's trying to put a pretty good person who will hold him and future presidents accountable *to the law* and hold the law accountable to the people.

There's simply no way that Kagan is a closet righty--ok? That's not the kind of people she comes from. She's also not a radical: she's a centrist, law oriented, process oriented, good girl who does her homework and tries to fit in. YOu simply arent goign to get a bomb thrower on the supreme court this time around. But that was never in the cards.


Susan of Texas said...

I'll let this end here, since we've all had our say.

And I won't try to get the last word like I usually do.

Okay, I'm pushing publish now because I am a mature adult who can move on.

Any second now.


Batocchio said...

Socrates appears in a puff of smoke, and says:

But Susan, are you really ready to move on? What do you mean by "end" in this context? Won't you return to Kagan in a later post? Aren't you merely ending this thread, planning to return to seek your revenge like Orestes in that hot new play I saw last week? As Heraclitus once observed, "I'm right, dammit." The un-exorcised thread is not worth leaving.

Also, can a borrow a cup of olive oil? (Greek, of course.)

See ya in another thread! ;-)