Socrates would not have survived the SOLs

George Will (in his February 5th column "Incentives for School Reforms") fans the flames of discontent with teachers and public schools. Improvement, he thinks, requires the kind of testing and accountability that George W. Bush advocates. Only then will we know "which schools and teachers are succeeding." Will's implication is that public school teachers, and their pedagogical training, are mostly to blame for the problems.

Will asks us to imagine a choice: "if you could choose to have your child taught either by Socrates or by a freshly minted holder of a degree in education, full of the latest pedagogical theories and techniques," which would it be? An interesting and profound question, well worthy of careful consideration. Will ends his column with the brief and unexplained answer: "Socrates, please."

Professors in law schools often employ the teaching technique known as the "Socratic Method". This involves asking students questions designed to provoke them to reflect on the views they hold about some subject-matter. In law school this is designed to get students to think critically about legal decisions and scenarios that they have read. The students become familiar with the ins-and-outs of legal reasoning—they gain an ability.

The "Socratic Method" of course derives from Socrates himself, who questioned Athenian citizens who were confident about their command of a subject, or confident in their traditional values. Socrates did not lecture them on what they should believe, but tried to bring them to see the need to re-examine and often revise what they did believe. As far as we can tell, the citizens Socrates questioned invariably ended up tongue-tied. Some thought he was merely playing verbal games with them, but others realized that they had not considered the issues carefully enough. He forced, or tried to force, re-examination of traditional views about God, justice, knowledge, well-being, and courage. He insisted none of us has true wisdom about these topics.

Anyone who knows anything about Socrates knows he was executed by the Athenians—for disbelieving in the gods of Athens, and for corrupting the youth. They simply couldn't tolerate the extent to which he questioned traditional values and beliefs.

Would we like to have Socrates teaching our children? Well, yes, and no.

Why, "yes"? Socrates would be most concerned to impart to children the ability to think critically about issues. He would encourage them to form judgements about issues for themselves, not simply to accept things based on the authority of others. I can't imagine a more important skill to impart to budding citizens. This skill would serve them well, not only as citizens, but also as contributors to the economy. We know that average workers change jobs and even professions several times in the course of a lifetime. We cannot train them for a specific job that will suffice once and for all. But we can help them to become learners who can then adapt to changing circumstances as the need arises. What more could we wish for our high school graduates?

Why, "no"? Frankly, Socrates would be fired as soon as the accountability police arrived. How well would his students have done on the standardized tests? Miserably, I imagine. After all, he didn't spend time imparting knowledge to them—certainly not names and dates. He spent way too much time trying to get his students to think critically about their values. He did spend time on science and math. But he tried to get them to figure out the theorems and theories for themselves. It was a great idea, and what they did figure out for themselves was really solid. But unfortunately only two of the 50 multiple choice questions on the SoL test for that year of work were devoted to the things they had mastered, so they all flunked. Also, Socrates had a lot of discipline problems in his class. He was used to talking to people that wanted to talk to him. In Athens those who became alienated had just walked away, and he never worried about them after that. But in school the principal kept sending these students back to Socrates' classroom. Unfortunately he didn't know what to do with them at that point. By the end of the year Socrates' best students were thinking hard about their religious beliefs, materialistic values, and about the organization of the economy. But many of their parents were disturbed by their new ways of thinking. The rest of his students were lost and had long ago stopped trying to follow the discussions. Socrates really didn't know how to reach them.

Eventually the school board had to fire him. All the school board members expressed regret at their votes, because Socrates had lit a fire in some students. But none of his students performed well on the SoL tests, and by all government-approved measures of accountability, Socrates was a failure. They just couldn't afford to keep him on the staff. Some of the other teachers pleaded to keep Socrates around, because he was at least an inspiration to them—reminding them of why they had gone into teaching to begin with. Perhaps, they suggested, we could revise the accountability procedures to reflect the important kind of thing that Socrates was accomplishing. But everyone had to admit that it couldn't be measured in any simple way--so that was dismissed as a pipe-dream. If machine-gradeable tests can't measure it, it doesn't exist.

So ended Socrates' career as a public school teacher. For a while he taught in private schools, where no one insisted on measuring his results in a simple-minded way. But eventually he quit taking paid positions as a teacher altogether, because people kept mistaking him for a sophist.

But he did leave a legacy—one which confused conservative columnists into offering with one hand what they hoped politicians would help them take away with the other.

James C. Klagge
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Tech
School Board Representative, Montgomery County.