The Examined Life
Join me for a moment as I recall from memory a recent meeting with my professor, my “tutor,” and a fellow student, or what we call here, my “tutorial partner.” The first thing that strikes you when you walk into the room, our tutor’s office, is the arrangement. Not anything resembling a series of desks lined up before a blackboard but a couch, and two cozy-chairs placed in a small circle. The arrangement sends a message: here is a space for open discussion and the exchange of ideas. Around us are bookshelves stretching up and above us into the ceiling, lined with books, and even more books, stacks of them, on the floor. On our left, a window overlooks the college quad, where groups of students chatter excitedly as they move from one location to the next, perhaps to a meeting with one of their tutors.
We enter and take our place on the chairs, ready for the meeting to start. The tutor sits with us and gets straight down to business, commencing with a clarificatory question about one of our papers. We begin to discuss the question together, referring back to the texts we were assigned for reading and bringing up further questions in the process. The tutor says little, interjecting occasionally to ask for clarification of a point, or to suggest that we give further consideration to an argument that one of us has made. After things cool down a little, our tutor makes some further remarks about our papers and the assigned text(s). She then asks for our response to a selection of one of the texts. This stimulates further discussion and debate.
The atmosphere during the meeting is relaxed, highly collaborative, and enquiring; learning is driven by curiosity and personal interest. The tutor offers no answers but instead guides us through discussion and dialogue as we progress through the meeting. Nor does the lesson end with an answer. In fact, it doesn’t end after the hour (the length of our meeting): my tutorial partner and I are still debating a question he has raised on the way out.
Although the tutorial system has its pitfalls, studying at Oxford in the past weeks has opened my eyes to the potential of what the education system back home, in the United States, could really look like. The reality is that, in the United States and in many other parts of the world, the vast majority of lessons, from grade school through college, are determined by a different goal. For most teachers and students, the classroom experience is extensively shaped by the requirement to prepare for tests. When students enter these classrooms, the focus lies not on open-ended discussion or enquiry, but on learning “what we need to know” to succeed in whichever test is next on the horizon. There will most likely be a “learning outcome” for the lesson, drawn directly from the test syllabus. There will be textbooks with comments from the examiners, banks of possible exam questions and bullet-pointed notes with “model answers.” Rather than being open spaces for free enquiry, today’s classroom quite nearly resembles a military training ground, where students are drilled to produce exact answers to potential test questions.
If you are not a teacher yourself or have not recently been in school, you may be shocked by the extent to which the “teach to the test” culture has suffused education. In one survey of the attitudes of staff in higher education, this mentality was discussed in withering terms. The study noted a lack of curiosity and “sheer love of investigation”, and traced this phenomenon back to an underlying approach to schooling that reduces learning to test preparation, whereby students think that learning is “simply a matter of knowing the right answer.” The study also noted that this was not confined simply to one set of examinations but was “embedded in the entire education system.” In Not for Profit (2010), Martha Nussbaum writes:
“Teaching to the test,” which increasingly dominates public school classrooms, produces an atmosphere of student passivity and teacher routinization. The creativity and individuality that mark out the best humanistic teaching and learning has a hard time finding room to unfold.
In one survey of academics, 87 percent of lecturers said that they thought that too much “teaching to the test” was a major factor contributing to school students being underprepared for study at university. Ask the students themselves and they concur. In an interview for a Davos 2016 debate on the future of education, a student from Hong Kong said that he felt that the present approach in schools yielded “industrialized mass-produced exam geniuses who excel in examinations” but who are “easily shattered when they face challenges.”
When the philosopher Karl Popper dreamed of his ideal school in Unended Quest (1974), he imagined the very opposite, namely a place where learning takes the form of free, intrinsically interesting enquiry, rather than mere test preparation:
If I thought of a future, I dreamt of one day founding a school in which young people could learn without boredom, and would be stimulated to post problems and discuss them; a school in which no unwanted answers to unasked questions would have to be listened to; in which one did not study for the sake of passing examinations.
Popper is right: School becomes enjoyable and more effective when, instead of teaching students “what they need to know” to pass tests, they teach students to think for themselves.
To understand how this can be achieved, we must look back to the Socratic ideal of education, which is now under severe strain in a world bent on the maximization of economic productivity. Through Socrates, we learn that education is a philosophical process. It begins with questioning, proceeds by enquiry, and moves in the direction of deeper understanding. The journey of enquiry is powered by critical reflection, discussion and debate. It leads not to final answers but to a greater appreciation of the limits of our knowledge, both of the world around us and of our own selves.
This appreciation is what Socrates termed “wisdom.” Socrates tried to encourage his fellow Athenians to think for themselves by questioning them so as to reveal to them their limited understanding of ideas that were central to their lives, such as justice or courage. Undertaken in a constructive spirit, Socratic questioning becomes the starting point for a process of enquiry as we seek to expand our understanding. It can also engender humility and openness to the ideas of others.
If schools are to fulfill their purpose, they cannot afford to neglect this philosophical dimension of learning. They must view themselves not simply as dispensers of the knowledge necessary for success in the work-world but as communities of philosophical reflection, spaces where students can explore the meaning of what they learn and think for themselves about what it means to live well. Understood in these terms, philosophical education is not a discrete subject but an approach to learning that finds application at all points of the curriculum.
Socratic or philosophical education begins when a teacher adopts the role of a “Socratic mentor.” In a conventional classroom, the teacher provides the information that students “need to know” as determined by the requirements of any oncoming test. On the Socratic model, the teacher guides the students toward understanding through dialogue, not monologue. When teachers adopt the role of Socratic mentors, their questioning of students stimulates the students to actively engage the problem at hand by thinking for themselves about it, rather than passively absorbing information.
Of course, there is more to learning than classroom conversation, however exciting this may be. Good thinking needs to be informed. If our model of learning is participation in a conversation about ideas, then it will be richer and deeper if students are invited to engage with “the best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it in Culture and Anarchy (1869). This insight is enshrined in the notion of preparatory reading prior to a lesson. At schools such as Oxford and Cambridge, this learning style is the norm. In preparatory reading, the information- acquisition stage of learning is carried out privately, prior to the lesson, leaving time for the more challenging tasks of argumentative analysis and discursive inquiry in the lesson.
There are some who question whether any such thing as “teaching someone to think” is possible, but it does take place naturally enough under the right conditions. Aristotle tells us that we learn by doing—learning is not a matter of passively absorbing information. It happens when we attempt something. We learn to swim by trying to swim; we learn to play the flute by trying to play it. Even more, supervision plays a key role in learning. We need someone watching to tell us when we are getting it wrong and how to improve. Learning is supervised trying.
So, then, how can someone be taught to think? Students learn to think by thinking, under the watchful eye of a teacher, a Socratic mentor, who guides them towards improving their processes of thinking. It is in this way that through Socratic mentoring within a community of enquiry that the process of forming independent thinkers begins. In a classroom led under the Socratic model, the teacher guides the discussion: introducing central arguments at key points, highlighting the use of reason, summarizing and critiquing arguments, introducing terminology, and explaining important concepts. A great deal of guidance is sometimes provided, albeit not by a teacher lecturing students on how to think.
To foster the capacity of students to think for themselves, it is crucial for the teacher and students to collaborate in managing a phased transition of responsibility over learning. At the outset, and even some way into the process, there might be a fair amount of direct instruction going on, but it will be clear that its purpose is not an end in itself; rather, the method is a means of developing the students’ capacity to think and work independently. They are being taught to think for themselves. As the process unfolds, independence grows.
Despite the evident advantages of teaching students to think philosophically, the dominant mode of education remains traditional and rather stultifying. Education is reduced to a dry process of delivery of prescribed syllabus material, dictated by the aims of standardized tests and extrinsically determined outcome measures. The joy of learning is lost.
As well as being damaging to students’ intellectual development, this assessment-driven approach is socially and politically undesirable. The result of teaching where there is no scope for challenge, disagreement or open and explorative dialogue is closed minds: citizens who lack a fundamental capacity to question what they are told. Schools that operate in this way fail to equip young people with the capability of reflecting critically on the constant flow of information (and misinformation) in which we are all immersed. They risk raising a generation ill-equipped to resist the allure of simplistic, populist or demagogic rhetoric.
In contrast, students who are taught to think for themselves are better prepared for life: they are better prepared to face the uncertainties of the future, to think creatively and independently, and to play a role as active, reflective citizens in democratic decision-making processes. Although the focus of philosophical education clearly lies beyond employability, it offers benefits there too, for in a fast-changing and unpredictable world, the workplace of the future needs creative and confident thinkers who possess the capability to solve problems independently and uncover new ways forward.
Even more, the range and power of Socratic dialogue in education extends far and wide. Recent research into the effects of Socratic-style philosophical dialogue with primary-school children found that it enhanced their performance in both reading and mathematics. Moreover, it was found that its greatest impact lay with disadvantaged students. More studies have consistently shown that, in addition to its cognitive benefits, Socratic dialogue improves student confidence and articulateness.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth leading. Yet for students now, education means a life of standardized, rather than Socratic, examination. The best thing that could happen for modern education is not further reform of structures, processes, curriculum or assessment, but a rediscovery of the Socratic purpose of education, a vision which prompted Socrates to inspire his fellow Athenians to initiate the journey towards independent thinking. To close the achievement gap in our schools, and to ultimately improve the quality of our lives, let’s go back to where genuine education began: with Socrates sitting with his students, asking questions and demonstrating to them through dialogue what matters most — how to think for themselves.
(The overhead photo is a statue of Socrates. Credit: Prisma/UIG/Getty Images.)