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The Socratic Method in an Age of Trauma (2017) [pdf] (harvardlawreview.org)
68 points by barry-cotter 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments



Despite completing degrees in philosophy, I've never experienced the sort of "Socratic" method that is apparently practiced in law schools. I gather that the harm consists, not in the general method of posing questions, but the way that professors put students on the spot and may humiliate them if their answers are unsatisfactory. The point the author makes about the way that this ritual enforces hierarchy is interesting, too (my impression is that many aspects of elite law schools do this).

I guess you might defend the "Socratic" method as a way of encouraging student engagement. But I suspect that it really appeals to people who like the idea of discourse as combat (DEBATE ME!). As an aside, I'm struck that students in most other contexts have nearly the opposite attitude. That is, they maintain that they should be free to zone out or play with their phones or skip class altogether as long as they don't disturb others.


> I guess you might defend the "Socratic" method as a way of encouraging student engagement. But I suspect that it really appeals to people who like the idea of discourse as combat (DEBATE ME!)

I think that is the trait that law schools want to select for.


That's the heart of the issue. The JD has recently become the envogue MBA. So it's been getting a lot of students who aren't there to actually learn about being a lawyer.


A JD can be great training for business leaders even if they never intend on practicing law. It teaches people to get right to the heart of an issue and ask the essential questions. Some graduate schools offer joint JD/MBA programs.


> Despite completing degrees in philosophy, I've never experienced the sort of "Socratic" method that is apparently practiced in law schools

The socratic method isn't really practiced anywhere in academia. Even in philosophy classes, it's mostly passive learning through an authority figure. It's why so many students take notes. You can't take notes while participating in a socratic discussion. Also, socratic method requires a small group ( preferably 1 on 1 ) where you throw questions and answers back and forth. In a class of 20 or 200, that's simply not practical.

A parent and a child sometimes engage in socratic discussions. The kid asks a question, parent answers, then the kid ask question in relation to the answer and then the parent might ask "why do you think that is" and back and forth.

The socratic method requires a lot of investment on both parties/sides. Whereas passive learning doesn't require much investment. Professor lectures and the students copies what he says.


Why would it be impossible to take notes during discussion of questions and answers? If it is, then the whole discussion was likely about speed and reflex instead of thought out answers (which takes a bit more time and is slower).


the mental environment is wits, response and inquiry in real time.. it is a different cognative mode than writing notes. Notes are actively discouraged.


My personal experience is that the Socratic method is still used in academia and that classes are rarely "students passively learning through an authority figure." However I recognize my experiences are a very small sample size (I've only taken classes at a few different universities). Do you have any sources which show that "The Socratic method isn't really practiced anywhere in academia"?


I've always found the term "Socratic Method" to be interesting, as it usually just means that they ask a lot of questions, using them to make the students demonstrate knowledge of the material and defend or abandon their ideas of what the meaning of the law is. From my philosophy classes, however, I remember Plato's Socrates was using questions more like a prosecutor, as a way of rope-a-doping the interlocutor to make him say something contradictory or unreasonable, and then Socrates would knock him out.


If you take Socrates at his word, I think he is sincerely trying to find answers. He asks a question that he really wants to know the answer to, but then sees potential flaws in the answer, so he asks more questions to test the strength of the answer. Even though he ends of "knocking out" his interlocutor, I think he would prefer to get an answer that holds up to scrutiny.

I think the value of good Socratic questioning is to get the student to examine his assumptions and to learn to think more deeply. However, it can easily become an intimidating bullying session if done incorrectly.


As applied in law school, the idea is that the professor never answers a question or makes a direct statement of his own. It's difficult to bully someone in that situation. Granted, IME some professors were better than others at abstaining from interjecting their own claims directly. But from a pedagogical perspective I'll take the professor who bullies over having to sit through hours of lectures. At least he has to work for it, and students quickly learn the score.

One of my professors with whom I would have disagreed most vehemently when it came to contemporary social, political, and even legal issue was eminently capable of sticking to the method. Never once, IIRC, did he answer a question (posted by himself or a student) or directly interject a statement of law and its application. His Constitutional Law course was most memorable (and cherished) for the way he challenged me and everybody else. He also taught a seminar, Jurisprudence Readings, that was popular enough that other professors would enroll. In my class the readings were Plato's Republic and Laws. One professor left after a few classes, quite obviously because he was frustrated by the strict Socratic Method. This professor kept trying to interject his interpretation of other Plato and Xenophon works to try to "correct" the direction the class discussion was going, but the professor leading the seminar wouldn't have it. This student-professor was visibly annoyed on occasion, which felt a little uncomfortable. (I wonder if he felt "bullied". Perhaps it didn't occur to him that he wasn't the only well read student.) I took one of his classes the prior semester and wasn't surprised; he didn't apply the Socratic Method very rigorously in his class, which was closer to a traditional college course where both lecture and class discussion closely tracked the narrative of the textbook.

I did see what one might call bullying in law school, but it wasn't tied to the Socratic Method, per se. The Socratic Method requires that each and every student come to class prepared, having at least read all assigned material. "I don't know" isn't an answer; you at least have to be able to say something like, "the material said [insert reference], but I didn't understand how it applies". If you can't do that, you obviously didn't come prepared and some professors will call you out on it. Likewise if you're called in class and can't respond because you've lost the context. A law degree still means something these days precisely because students, especially 1Ls, are flunked out of school.[1] And you can't cry you weren't warned. Good professors give you ample, unambiguous warning in public.

[1] Not because you didn't respond properly in class. For most classes your grade is entirely determined by the final exam. But precisely because you're not typically graded on other assignments, the professor is doing you a favor by keeping the pressure on during class. Sometimes you could have easily aced a course simply by cramming a couple of weeks before the class; sometimes not. Neither you nor the professor can be sure, and in any event if class time is to have any value everybody needs to be engaged.


> The Socratic Method requires that each and every student come to class prepared, having at least read all assigned material. "I don't know" isn't an answer; you at least have to be able to say something like, "the material said [insert reference], but I didn't understand how it applies". If you can't do that, you obviously didn't come prepared and some professors will call you out on it. Likewise if you're called in class and can't respond because you've lost the context.

This was the most valuable part for me; it required you to a) have actually done the background material, b) be engaged enough in the classroom to follow the context of the discussion, c) to be able to form an opinion even if you did not have one, and d) to be able to consider the merits of an alternative opinion.

These are fundamental life skills, especially so in the legal profession, and in my opinion form the basis of engaging with other people as people: understand their context, engage with them in discussion, consider what they say, and be willing to share your thoughts.


In the dialogues that I've read, the things Socrates tries to figure out are the big questions that possibly don't actually have correct answers, so a disappointing outcome is seemingly inevitable. Also, they are actual attempts to solve these big questions, not to teach something that the teacher already knows the answer to.

If you're using the socratic method to help someone discover how they can apply an if-statement to execute a section of code conditionally, then you're working for a different purpose and to solve something much easier than Socrates was.


Why? How can you ask? Why are YOU going to do it?”

“The Socratic manner is not a game at which two can play.Please answer my question, to the best of your ability.”

Zuleika Dobson, by Max Beerbhom


I spent 15 years coaching college paintball and the Socratic method was invaluable to me in getting important topics across.

Why?

The problem:

- Paintball has game theory that is very different from traditional sports

- Most people haven't had 15 years of playing time when they get to college and want to play paintball (as opposed to say, soccer).

- I needed to get people up to speed quickly.

So here is an example of how I used the Socratic method (and hopefully you learn something too!):

- Me: Given two teams A and B, what are the odds that A beats be? This is not a trick question.

- Player: 50%?

- Me: Correct! Now if someone on team B gets eliminated what are the odds of team A winning? In other words, what are the odds of winning a 5 vs 4? This is kind of a trick question as I had to collect a lot of stats to determine this.

- Player: I don't know, somewhere between 60 and 80%??

- Me: Close! That's what most people guess and the correct answer is 75%. Next question: if you are on team A and you are eliminated, what happens to team B's odds of winning?

- Player: I guess they would go from ~25% to 50%

- Me: In other words...?

- Player: They double!

- Me: Right! So what do you think is the most important thing to do if you are in a 5 v 4?

- Player: Stay alive?

- Me: Excellent!

Had I just told people "Don't get eliminated in a 5v4! Do you understand?" and they said "Yes!" I wouldn't really know if they understood or not.

This is why, when talking to tech folks, I often explain the Socratic method as a cross between programming and debugging.

The questions you ask a. allow you to "debug" the thought process of the person you are speaking too and b. can act as a directed linked list to an end state you are looking for.

I would also add, the Socratic method can be done completely with positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner is famous for saying "People would be amazed what can be achieved with only positive reinforcement."

That being said, some organizations e.g. law schools, the military etc believe that the anxiety in a more punishment based system causes the information to "stick" better.

YMMV.


>Had I just told people "Don't get eliminated in a 5v4! Do you understand?" and they said "Yes!" I wouldn't really know if they understood or not.

That seems like less of an issue of using the Socratic method, and more about quantifying the cost of getting killed. "Dying costs your team X" is more helpful than "don't die". The former tells you under which conditions the heuristic "don't die" is no longer applicable, while the latter doesn't.

Or, to use my attempt at a neologism, your method satisfies the Scylla-Charybdis Heuristic, while "Don't get eliminated" doesn't: http://blog.tyrannyofthemouse.com/2015/12/the-scylla-charybd...


The lesson is "quantifying the cost of getting killed".

The method by which that lesson is conveyed to the student is the Socratic method.

The point is that the Socratic method of asking leading questions and building agreement at each stage was more effective in getting the point across than "do you understand X? OK, good."

The student constructs the knowledge him/herself and internalizes it better than otherwise.


Yes, it's better than asking if they understand the assertion of the point, but the parent was giving a misleading comparison to something that stripped out both the Socratic questions and the quantification of the cost.


This is an excellent explanation of what I was describing in the original comment.


I do SWE coaching and training. The topics vary: React, BDD, TDD, Serverless, delivery performance (previously known as DevOps), agile, etc...

Very few things work when you're trying to help someone "see the light". They are, in order of usefulness:

1. Pain experienced from bad choices

2. The socratic method

Everything else is varying degrees of useless.


Well, it is nice to see someone going straight for the details. Do we have any context on why this ... short novel :) ... was written?

I want to interpret this as a coinciding of two things; the first that the "Socratic Method" as described here would be a powerful method of creating and perpetuating a culture amongst law students trained at Harvard; where their opinions and beliefs are subjected to a very public examination and then reshaped to be what the professors think they should be. Not a terrible idea, that seems like a valid interpretation of what teaching should be, with many warts as noted.

And the second is the philosophy that gets mentioned a few times in the article that there are topics that are “too hot to handle” that might "injure" a student. Part of the fringe push to redefine "injury" to mean hearing something unpleasant or disagreeable.

So my assumption is that the author sees a crisis approaching the law school where it must take a stand on what its objective is - preserving a culture, relaying uncontroversial material to students, or some other path. And then this pdf is balanced factual synthesis of the issues at hand - I'm not sure the author is even proffering a conclusion.

If that assumption holds then there are some points raised here that could have profound influences in 10 or 20 years. Law students eventually become lawyers then judges, and unfortunately the US political class seems to be sourced heavily from the lawyers (~40% of Congress, I think). If confrontation is de-emphasised in the classroom, that could have spillovers into the heart of how political debate and distribution of justice is undertaken.

But I don't know enough about "Jeannie Suk Gersen" or why she wrote this to form a strong opinion on the topic apart from wishing lawyers were trained to write reports.


It's a law review article, looks about 14000 words. This fulfils roughly the same professional role as science papers, except because this is law the core activity is to advance an argument through references and narrative. It's the same kind of size and complexity as a doctoral thesis except that as a professional you're expected to produce them a bit quicker, say 1-2 months of work.

It's probably the minimum necessary for a serious investigation of the topic, rather than a glib condemnation of trigger warnings.


> It's the same kind of size and complexity as a doctoral thesis except that as a professional you're expected to produce them a bit quicker, say 1-2 months of work.

As I recall, it only took me about two months to write my PhD thesis. The hard part, which took a few years, was finding an interesting question, and collecting the requisite data. And also, getting up to speed on some decades of literature. But subsequent papers didn't take much more than a few months each.


IANAL, and so have no opinion on the merits of her article.

However, I have concerns about "topics that are 'too hot to handle'" in the sciences. For example, a recent thread[0] about Hill (2017) An elementary mathematical theory for the variability hypothesis.[1,2,3]

And by the way, there's lots of great discussion in the comments on the Quillette article.[1] And it's interesting that the deleted NYJM paper is online.[2] So what, are there now two different papers at New York J. Math. 23 (2017) that begin at p. 1641? Strange.

edit: Earlier versions of the preprint were apparently more controversial.[4]

0) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17938318

1) https://quillette.com/2018/09/07/academic-activists-send-a-p...

2) http://nyjm.albany.edu/j/2017/23-72v-orig.pdf

3) https://arxiv.org/pdf/1703.04184.pdf

4) https://arxiv.org/abs/1703.04184v2


Please don't take HN threads off topic into generic ideological tangents. Those are predictable and tedious.


Sorry. I let myself get triggered :(


It happens to all of us.


And more generally, it can be difficult now to research possible differences among protected categories, such as genders, races or sexual orientations. There are exceptions, for sure, such as differences in response to diet recommendations, medical treatment, or drug therapy. But otherwise, it can be a minefield. Student protests. Difficulty with funding. Tenure blocks. Difficulty publishing.

There's failure to make a key distinction, here. Sexism or racism involve judging people on the basis of their gender or race. But that's not the case for experimental studies of differences. There are, of course, confounding issues that complicate interpretation of results. Humans are so readily programmable that it's very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to attribute any observed differences to biological hardware vs cultural influence. But that's just something for the discussion. It's not a valid reason to block the work.

Also, the idea that some work shouldn't be done, because it upsets or discourages some protected group, is very dangerous. It's contrary to the overall concept of experimental science. And yes, there are parallels to nuclear research back in the day, and to machine-learning and AI work now. But even there, refusing to look seems ultimately destructive.


hmm .. there is something badly missing in this response.. The word 'trauma' has a serious medical meaning aside from whatever this paper says.. The quick associations encoded above in 'Part of the fringe push to redefine "injury" to mean hearing something unpleasant or disagreeable.' is not only accusatory via some unspoken point of view, but also dismisses the medical definitions of trauma.


[flagged]


The difference between the Harvard Law Review and glib dismissals of a serious issue is the other 14,000 words of the article.


No, I read it. I think the Socratic approach is the best way to teach law.

The profession requires one to be outwardly strident, speak up and fight for your points lest the opposing counsel win.

We have electrician learn by doing electrical work. Doctors do residencies. If you aren't the right personality for the profession, then that's the breaks.

And finally, length of ones document is not an indication of quality. If that were the case, the United States Constitution (shortest in the world, ~4000 words ) wouldn't be the longest tenured.


Next time can we please skip straight to the informative comment?

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


His first comment was insightful and made the point with a poignant analogy. It was concise and direct. It was far more valuable than the "informative" one.


> The profession requires one to be outwardly strident, speak up and fight for your points lest the opposing counsel win.

Those qualities and actions bear little relation to what the vast majority of lawyers do at work. They do, however, closely resemble lawyers as portrayed on television and in fiction.


If you're not writing your briefs and opinions like you're 100% hand to God correct, you're not doing it right.

No one wants a lawyer who writes weak contracts.

huffmsa 6 months ago [flagged]

"Sorry Jane Doe (victim), I can't prosecute your alleged assailant because I didn't take the sexual assault portion of law school because I just couldn't even, even though I'm a man, I'm an ally and this needs to stop, but someone else needs to do it."

habitue 6 months ago [flagged]

tl;dr? Long article, title is vaguely interesting, but without a summary I have no idea if I want to invest the time reading it


[flagged]


That's far from an accurate summary of the article. From the portions I read, it's full of rich information and by no means as one-sided as you claim. Would you please stop posting shallow dismissals and ideological rants to HN?

You've been breaking the HN guideline that asks you not to use this site primarily for ideological battle. We ban accounts that do this, regardless of which ideology they're for or against. Please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and use the site as intended from now on.


>Kennedy pointed out that the legal professional style to which students learn to assimilate is “overwhelmingly white, male, and middle class.”46 But the Socratic method’s encounter with gender, race, and class diversity might related- ly occasion worry about exclusion or oppression in a more tangible way. That is, if the Socratic method causes the kind of terror and disempowerment in students that some have observed, and is stylisti- cally white, male, and middle class, would it not also impose dispropor- tionate harm on students who are women, as well as on racial and class minorities?

Of course the article is much more expressive than what I wrote-it is a summary.

I didn't inject ideology into this discussion. If you want to be consistent this article shouldn't be allowed either. This is blatant racism, sexism, and classism.


I didn't inject ideology into this discussion. If you want to be consistent this article shouldn't be allowed either. This is blatant racism, sexism, and classism.

The irony is that your "summary" seems to have confused the author's preface describing current trends with her personal opinion. In fact, the majority of the article argues the opposite side, saying that a proper legal education is more important than the risk of offense:

I am a cold-calling Socratic professor of criminal law who devotes about the same number of hours in class to sex offenses as to homicide. The subjects are comparable in their interest, difficulty, complexity, and relevance in the world in which we live. I treat them with the same level of seriousness and rigor.

She then goes on to explain why she doesn't use trigger warnings because she thinks they are counterproductive. She's making an essentially conservative argument, while you are mistakenly complaining that it's too biased to the liberal side. Dan isn't complaining that you brought ideology into the discussion, but that your "summary" was simplistic and wrong.


Well, it looks like the college snowflakes are now in law school. We should not be analyzing anything using the insidious concept of Intersectionality, where the more victim groups you have, the more credibility you have. Notice the author mentions she is a female Korean immigrant (+3!).

The whole intersectionality movement was developed from neo-Marxist feminist critical theory, which creates a vast consipiracy of the white male partriarchy. None of it is based in sound social science, but is instead based on the subjective feelings of the person involved. The article really doesn't address how well the Socratic dialog works, which is a valid issue. Instead it focuses on whether it is part of the so-called white male patriarchy, which is not a valid issue. Is the Socratic Method abused by tyrannical law professors like Professor Kingsfield? It certainly makes good dramatic entertainment. There are tyrannical players in every system. Let's throw Intersectionality out the window and analyze teaching methods on whether they work or not, instead of whether they are part of the vast white patriarchy conspiracy.

I'd love to see this Intersectionality analysis in court. "But your honor, I'm a female Korean immigrant, so you must give my argument more weight!"

Setting aside the faux Intersectionality analysis. Does the Socratic Dialog work? For first year law students, yes. The Socratic Dialog uses the most valuable tool for a lawyer: the question. You find out the basic facts of a case by asking your clients questions. You find out the opposing side's defense by asking questions. You gather evidence by asking witnesses questions.

What they teach in law school is not the law. The law changes daily. What they teach is legal reasoning. You study cases, which are written expositions of legal reasoning. In law school class, you must explain the legal reasoning of the cases. The professor's questions help guide you through this process. If this is traumatic for you, you should consider dental school.


I'd love to see this Intersectionality analysis in court. "But your honor, I'm a female Korean immigrant, so you must give my argument more weight!"

I don't think the author would disagree with anything you have said.

Your comment would imply that because she is a "female Korean immigrant", she is arguing for the proposition that law schools should make special allowances for the more easily traumatized students. To the contrary, and what makes this an interesting piece, she is arguing that fairness requires that men and women be treated equally: "I am a cold-calling Socratic professor of criminal law who devotes about the same number of hours in class to sex offenses as to homicide. The subjects are comparable in their interest, difficulty, complexity, and relevance in the world in which we live. I treat them with the same level of seriousness and rigor."

She follows up by explaining why she doesn't believe in trigger warnings: "the idea that professors should take upon themselves to give some kind of a quasi-medical warning about trauma that students might experience because of the class is borderline irre- sponsible. In fact, some psychologists have claimed that trigger warnings may be counterproductive, because they may prime students to experience what is coming as more emotionally difficult than it would otherwise be, ratcheting up anxiety and pain."


Would you please keep the ideological rant aspect out of your comments to HN? It has a reliably degrading effect on discussion, and we're trying for better than that here. Your comment would be both better and shorter with those bits edited out.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


I appreciate your feedback. The law review article in the original post analyzed the Socratic Method using Intersectionality. Most people aren't familiar with this political ideology, so I critiqued it. I would not describe this as an "ideological rant". As a litigator, my writing style tends to be direct and forceful. But, I have read the guidelines again and will keep your comments in mind for future posts.


[flagged]


You weren't banned; your comments were killed by HN's anti-troll software.

Not sure what else to say here. I feel like a simple in-person conversation could clear things up easily. Unfortunately, we're trapped in an internet hall of mirrors and there's no easy way out.




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