The Socratic method is the traditional mode of pedagogy in American law school classrooms. Back in the mid '90s, it became a feminist issue -- somewhat to my consternation.
Although the term "Socratic Method" sounds fancy, it really just means that the professor teaches by questioning his or her students about their underlying assumptions. In a typical law school class, students sit in assigned seats according to a seating chart. During class, the professor calls on certain students at random and in a rather formal way. Thus, my very first day in a law school class, the professor called on me, addressing me with "Ms." and my last name: "Ms. Feminist, please identify the key issue in the case you were assigned to read." I answered that question to the professor's satisfaction, and then he continued to question me as to whether I agreed with the court's ruling and why, and what the implications of the court's ruling might be for other cases. Sometimes, the professor might ask whether the court's ruling should be the same under a new, hypothetical set of facts. Sometimes the professor might lead the hapless student down the garden path, until the student realizes he has taken a position that can't be justified or that would lead to absurd results if applied to other situations.
The Socratic method forces you to think through an issue, take a public position on that issue, and then defend your position in the face of probing questions. It teaches you to identify your assumptions and question them. When a professor does it well, the Socratic Method is a dazzling intellectual exercise. My pulse raced in certain classes-- even when I wasn't being called on -- just from the excitement of trying to think several steps ahead of the professor.
I was in my first year of law school in 1995, smack in the middle of all this Socratic joy, when Lani Guinier published a law review article critiquing the Socratic method on the ground that it alienates female law students. Guinier was famously quoted for saying that the Socratic method looks to many women like "ritualized combat." Guinier later expanded her thesis into a book called Becoming Gentlemen: Women, Law School, and Institutional Change. I have not read Guinier's book, nor have I looked at her law review article since it first came out. I would, however, like to discuss the way in which her thesis was presented in one of my law school classrooms, as well as some of my thoughts on the Socratic method.
One of my first year professors, a terrific brassy woman who didn't shy away from combat of any type, devoted an entire class period to Guinier's ideas. We discussed whether an adversarial or public mode of discourse favors male students at the expense of female students. The professor confessed that she sometimes hesitated to call on women students because she thought the women students appeared timid and frightened in class. She wanted to know if we women students found classroom discussion intimidating (a question that she did not ask the male students). There was some discussion as to whether the Socratic method is "inherently sexist."
I was appalled. Of course having to take a position and defend it in a classroom packed with a hundred other students is going to be intimidating for a lot of people! But the tenor of the classroom discussion that day was that somehow women were more vulnerable to being intimidated because we (allegedly) don't like conflict and because we prefer to behave in ways that are more collaborative than adversarial. As someone who is both female and adversarial in many ways (and at the time an aspiring litigator), I was pained by the whole discussion. Just now, in doing some internet research for this post, I found similar rhetoric in this old Feministing post which referred to "the sexist Socratic method." (I was pleased, however, to see feminists Katha Pollitt and Mythago stick up for Socrates in the comments thread.)
After briefly scanning some of Guinier's comments around the web, however, I don't think that Guinier herself was saying that the Socratic method is inherently sexist. She was more concerned with how the Socratic method is employed in practice, and whether other techniques may also be useful. I haven't read her book but nonetheless, I am going to give my two cents on a couple of issues related to how the Socratic method is actually employed in law schools.
First, a lot of people, including a lot of old time law professors, confuse the Socratic method with contempt and ridicule. In "The Paper Chase," that famous 1973 movie about law school, the professor says to the first year law student in front of the entire class: "Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer." That is what people think of when they think of the Socratic method -- a much older professor publicly belittling a much younger student in order to toughen him up. Another, undoubtedly sexist, example is the well-known professor who would call on a woman student every year to ask this question: "Would it be defamation if I were to call you a DIRTY WHORE?" (Imagine the volume of his voice hitting a crescendo on the last two words.) But this kind of professorial thuggishness is not inherent to the Socratic method. It is actually an abuse of the Socratic method, which properly uses politely probing questions that continue until the weaknesses in the student's reasoning become obvious to the student herself. A skilled Socratic questioner does not have to resort to intimidation.
Second, I think Guinier may be on to something, even though I dislike her generalizations about women's talents, preferences, and behavior. Guinier is correct that a lot of people (and not just women) find the tough, public questioning in law school classrooms daunting, intimidating, and alienating. It is unrealistic to expect a diffident person who has never had to do a lot of public speaking to suddenly spar masterfully with a leading intellect in a room of a hundred people. Should we expect shy and retiring people to go from point A to point Z with no intermediate steps? Or should we write off such people as inherently unfit to practice law? Should we not care whether they develop the public speaking and debating skills that are so valuable in all areas of law, even for those attorneys who don't go into litigation? I think a lot of people who may not take to the Socratic method off the bat could learn to excel at it with proper teaching. So the idea of smaller group discussions leading up to the more intense traditionally Socratic approach has a lot of merit. Why risk permanently turning off students who have an initial dislike for the Socratic approach when such students might have much to add to the legal profession? As Guinier suggests, there is no need to be "rigidly Socratic." Law school lasts three whole years. There is plenty of time to employ a number of classroom techniques.
I would, however, like to see the Socratic method used more rather than less in our educational system -- in high schools and in colleges as well as law schools. I think it is an effective way to invigorate students intellectually and get them to think, as long as we are careful not to leave behind those students who are less assertive. I also think that the great contribution of Socrates to western thought -- the notion of identifying and questioning one's own assumptions -- cannot possibly be seen as sexist. It is in fact a great boon to women. Women, more than any class of people, have historically been subject to all sorts of unfounded and unquestioned assumptions about our inherent nature, our proper role in society, and how we should relate to men. Even otherwise enlightened and rigorous thinkers have, throughout history, simply accepted differential treatment of the sexes because that's "just the way things are." But Socrates believed that even our most cherished ideas are subject to question and, as a feminist, so do I. I heart the Socratic Method.