A Dialogue about Socratic Teaching


In secondary or undergraduate years, most of us got to know Socrates, or to think that we knew him, by reading the Platonic dialogues in which he is cast as Master Teacher. And most of us were charmed. This Socrates is undeniably compelling. He is delightfully fluent; Plato gave him a capacity for spontaneous eloquence, rather like the conversational agility Shakespeare gives to all but the most minor of his characters. Socrates also seems deliciously smart; he invariably bests his interlocutor (even though it is not always clear that he has the better argument). He has an endearing wit. Take, for instance, the flirtatious flattery with which he responds to Meno’s insistence that Socrates answer a question:

Socrates: Anyone talking to you could tell blindfold that you are a handsome man and still have your admirers.

Meno: Why so?

Socrates: Because you are for ever laying down the law asspoiled boys do, who act the tyrant as long as their youth lasts. No doubt you have discovered that I can never resist good looks.Well, I will give in and let you have your answer.

Despite his persecuted end, Plato’s Socrates enacts a life of the mind as a glamorous, satisfying quest for excellence. It is no surprise that this compelling figure caught the fancy of those who imagined, in the early days of formalized legal education in the United States, what it should be like to”read” the law.

But it is surprising–and perhaps unfortunate–that the Socratic method has so dominated thinking about legal education that other teaching methods have been marginalized or precluded. Except in clinical programs, the collaborative and experiential learning models that have become commonplace in other higher education contexts are rarely used in law school courses.

We have been engaged for more than two years in a highly eclectic, critical evaluation of law school teaching methods and in the development of alternatives. We recognize that economies of scale make Socratic and lecture models attractive, especially in large undergraduate and professional schools that cannot afford the teacher student ratios graduate departments typically enjoy. Still, it is important to evaluate Socratic teaching against the goals of legal education. This essay is an effort to resist traditionalist inertia, to look behind Platonic images of grace, charm and intellectual agility, and to examine the benefits and limitations of Socratic law school teaching. We will test Socratic teaching against a particular set of pedagogical goals.

Of course, law schools must serve the goal of teaching fundamental legal concepts, but this is only the beginning of a first-rate legal education. The MacCrate Commission and other critics argue that legal educators must avoid being too narrow, devoting too much time to honing the ability to analyze doctrine and too little to developing other abilities that are relevant to competent practice. We are sympathetic to this criticism. Unfortunately, however, the criticism has been misunderstood to set doctrinal analysis apart from all other kinds of lawyering work. This misunderstanding undermines reform efforts, for the doctrine-versus-other-skills dichotomy makes it difficult to appreciate the integration of capacities that occurs when one practices law successfully. We take a slightly different approach, arguing for development of an intellectual versatility that enriches doctrinal analysis as much as it expands the number of lawyering activities that students are led to consider. Legal education needs to be broad-ranging in its approaches to the analysis of doctrine as well as in its approaches to other tasks like counseling, negotiation, business planning, or advocacy. We therefore seek to develop a range of intellectual capacities and to teach students to integrate the use of those capacities across the various categories of lawyering work.

Practitioners readily affirm our conviction that high quality, responsible lawyering requires integrated development of a broad range of intellectual capacities. In our research, we break those capacities down into logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, narrative, categorizing and strategic intelligences, and we find that each of them is important to doing every kind of lawyering work. The analysis of doctrine is deeper if one has the intrapersonal intelligence to grasp multiple perspectives; the conduct of a mediation is more successful if one has the logical-mathematical intelligence to calculate prospective gains and losses; advocacy is more convincing if one has the strategic intelligence to assess both the efficacy ofa move in the small world of litigation and the policy implications of a legal interpretation in the larger world.

High quality, responsible lawyering also requires critical thought about professional roles and consciousness of the many layers of choices for which working professionals must accept responsibility. The shape of our laws, the workability of our legal system, and–to a great extent–the quality of our culture depend on the ways in which lawyers interpret rules and facts and interact, with other professionals and with lay-people, to give substance to ideas about justice, duty, entitlement, responsibility, and process.

Our goal for legal education is, then, to provide contexts in which students can learn fundamental legal concepts, develop intellectual versatility, learn to use the range of their intellectual capacities across the range of lawyering tasks, and develop a critical consciousness about their professional role. In what follows, we measure Socratic law teaching against that goal. In the process, we hope to demystify the Socratic method by making explicit the premises and choices that seem to drive its use. Our discussion should therefore be useful even to those who disagree with some or all ofour statement of goals.

Parts I and II set the context for our analysis. In Part I we describe the dialogic method attributed to Socrates. In Part II we describe Christopher Columbus Langdell’s introduction of Socratic techniques to law teaching. In Part III we describe various versions of the Socratic method as it is practiced in contemporary law school classrooms and consider its strengths and weaknesses in light of our pedagogic goals. We conclude with a dialogue about Socratic dialogue.

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Culture provides a foundation for the way we experience the world.[1] Rooted in traits such as ethnicity, race, religion, and gender identity, culture influences people’s values, behaviors, and beliefs.[2] Scholars have described culture as something akin to “the air we