“I promise to devote all my strength and skills to the education of every student with whom I will be entrusted.” This is the Socratic oath that many young men and women take in a number of countries when they enter the beautiful profession of teaching. In the same way as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford confers higher degrees by ceremonially touching candidates on the head with a sacred book, the act of swearing an oath in order to become a teacher adds a sense of dignity and service to the practice of education.
So what is the connection between Socrates and the world of teaching? The Greek philosopher developed a method of inquiry called maieutics, which involves asking students a series of questions so that they can become more fully conscious of ideas previously latent in their minds. In fact, the word “maieutics” is etymologically related to obstetrics, which aptly reminds us that, through effective questioning, educators help students create their own ideas in the pursuit of knowledge.
When Socrates realized that a conclusion had been reached through flawed reasoning, he would immediately ask further questions in order to uncover the fallacious nature of that particular line of argumentation. He is indeed reputed to have thought of himself as “a gadfly that God has attached to the state,” that is, a dissenter who never took anything for granted. In his opinion, questioning and dissenting were necessary for the advancement of society.
Personally, I could not agree more with that view, as it seems to me to be extremely innovative despite its longevity. The logical precision and intellectual depth gained by students who experience Socratic questioning in the classroom is invaluable for their own success, as well as for wider social and cultural construction. Whether it is to fully understand natural logarithms, chemical bonding or Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, this pedagogical tradition is particularly suitable to such a highly academic school as ours. In this context, Bertolt Brecht’s play Life of Galileo comes to mind, as its opening scene shows us how the 17th-century mathematics professor engages in Socratic dialogue with the young Andrea so that he can comprehend the heliocentric model of the solar system.
Next time you see our teachers in action at any grade level, please bear in mind what I have just said. It will help you realize how their probing questions facilitate learning, as students go deeper into a particular topic to be presented at the PYP exhibition, formulate a bold new hypothesis in preparation for their extended essay, or discuss why demagoguery poses a threat to democracies worldwide during mentorship. By using the techniques gained at university, through professional development opportunities or simply by virtue of their experience, teachers enable children to acquire not only precious knowledge, but also the thinking patterns necessary for the development of mathematical logic, scientific induction and humanistic depth.
If you had visited our youngest students recently, you might have heard them talk about a French artwork by Jean Geoffroy, painted over a hundred years ago, which depicts a scene in a school with children of a similar age, though dressed very differently, and a teacher tenderly straightening the collar on the coat of one of the girls. Back in our classroom, the teacher-mentor neither describes nor interprets the scene for students, but rather asks them in French, “What does this painting remind you of? What are the little ones doing? Are they engaging in similar activities to what we do in class now?” In this case, the goal of Socratic questioning is to hone the children’s visual perceptiveness and ability to compare past and present habits, as well as their oral expression.
At the other end of the age spectrum, I recently attended a seminar led by one of our Level V students who delved into the philosophy of mathematics by tackling questions such as the following: "Is math invented or discovered? What is a number? If, as held by some, math ultimately describes the real world and therefore numbers stand for quantities of objects, what does an irrational number like pi represent?" The group did not reach clear-cut conclusions but, through a well-informed dialogue based on the exposition and justification of ideas, their understanding of the complex issues involved became much more precise and sophisticated by the end of the session.
On a social level, the relationship between Socratic questioning and democracy has been established for centuries. To quote the French educationalist Michel Tozzi, it was in ancient Greece that, for the first time, “authority could no longer be imposed on people, as from then on it was a good line of argumentation that became authoritative through the exercise of free speech.” Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, takes a similar stance as she believes that a person who can put forth a dissenting opinion and build a cogent argument around it is capable of rising above peer pressure and perhaps even of preventing atrocity. Indeed, if there had been more internal dissenters like the White Rose student group or the Hampel family at the time of the Third Reich, instead of supporters or bystanders, history might have taken a very different turn.
Unfortunately, Socrates made a lot of enemies in high places and Galileo also paid dearly for daring to favour scientific evidence over dogma, but the lessons they taught us have survived the test of time. It is partly on this tradition of questioning and dissent that modern educational practice is based, and I invite you all to think of teachers, whether they have taken the oath or not, as living Socrates who have a special mission beyond that of transmitting knowledge to the next generation: ensuring that young people can truly think for themselves and are aware that their contribution to the construction of the future must be based on the exercise of rational argumentation, rather than on unsubstantiated emotional ranting, as this is what ultimately feeds populist and even despotic discourse.
It is all about reasoning, not necessarily about being right.