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Educational policy analysis archives
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Educational policy analysis archives.
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c January 10, 2002
Socratic pedagogy, race, and power : from people to propositions / Peter Boghossian.
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1 of 9 Education Policy Analysis Archives Volume 10 Number 3January 10, 2002ISSN 1068-2341 A peer-reviewed scholarly journal Editor: Gene V Glass College of Education Arizona State University Copyright 2002, the EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES Permission is hereby granted to copy any article if EPAA is credited and copies are not sold. Articles appearing in EPAA are abstracted in the Current Index to Journals in Education by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation and are permanently archived in Resources in Education .Socratic Pedagogy, Race, and Power: From People to Propositions Peter Boghossian Portland State UniversityCitation: Boghossian, P. (2002, January 10).Socrati c pedagogy, race, and power: From people to propositions, Education Policy Analysis Archives 10 (3). Retrieved [date] from Rud (1997) wrote in this journal: Leaving aside t he blatant (to my eyes at least) problems of power and dominance of an eld erly Greek citizen teaching a slave boy, this example [the Meno] of te aching has always left me cold." Garlikov (1998) addressed Rud's criticism of the Socratic dialogue. The present article addresses and extends Garlikov's response to cover general notions of power, and shows how th ese may affect Socratic discourse. Socratic pedagogy is not merely an illusory exercise where participants acquiesce to notions of truth be cause of power differentials. But power relations play a role in a ll communicative contexts. However, in Socractic pedagogy the advers e effects of power are greatly reduced and the focus is shifted from p eople to propositions.


2 of 9IntroductionThe Meno has long been considered the paradigmatic example of the Socratic method. Here, solely by asking questions, Socrates teaches a young slave boy that the area of a large square is twice the area of a smaller one. So me scholars, however, find both the Socratic method generally, and this example specifi cally, to be problematic because of notions of power and the influence this may have on the participants' responses. Garlikov engaged part of the criticism that relates to the idea of respondents being logically led to given conclusions (Garlikov, 1998; Rud, 1997). However, the gap in the literature that now needs to be addressed deals wit h the power differential between participants and whether or not this could influenc e the interlocutor's responses in a Socratic discourse. Is it possible that Rud's criti cism (even though he offers it as just an aside) of Socratic pedagogy is misguided, and assen t to propositions are the consequence of power dynamics rather than students being led to certain conclusions (Rud, 1997)? This essay will focus on these ideas, specifically exploring the nature of power in discourse as it relates to Socratic questioning, an d show that while the criticisms definitely have merit, they are not strong enough t o undermine the Socratic project. There are two ways that power relations could impac t a Socratic discourse, one obvious and one less obvious, if: 1) the participants respo nd in a certain way because they seek something other than the truth, such as approval or a good grade, and 2) the race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc., of eit her the Socratic practitioner or of her interlocutors play a role in the discourse, i.e., i f arguments and counterexamples offered do not stand or fall on their own merit, but becaus e of an intrinsic quality of the utterer. Let us now examine these and see what role, if any, they play in the successful practice of the Socratic pedagogy.The relationship between knowledge and power in dis course has been extensively examined (Popkewitz & Brennan, 1997; Boileau, 2000) Often these criticisms focus on the more obvious abuses of power in discourse, such as individuals not being allowed into the discourse, or individuals who go into a di scourse with certain assumptions about what someone can know based upon their sex or race. (Note 1) These are issues in any discourse, and the first point, while admittedly im portant, is structural and somewhat less interesting, and consequently will not be addr essed here (i.e., in a classroom environment issues of self-selection of participant s, or who physically gets to be in the classroom, is not immediately relevant to the ideas being examined here). The second issue does indeed impact Socratic discourse, and su rprisingly little to no research has explained how power dynamics impact Socratic practi tioners and their students (Boghossian, 2001). If it is the case that truth se eking educational communities cannot be established because of power disparities between students and teachers, then not just Socratic pedagogy, but the genuineness and authenti city of all dialogical pedagogies are called into question. If the problems posed by the Socratic teacher are met with responses that have some other intent rather than t o get at the truth, then Socratic pedagogy cannot be said to be genuinely truth orien ted because the participants did not yield to propositions on the basis of reason.Race, class and genderOne of the presuppositions of the method is that wh at is at issue is the force of argument, not exogenous factors such as the race, gender or s ocial class of the person who


3 of 9But what is more likely, that an argument will be s ubconsciously discounted because of the race of the person who makes it, or that an arg ument, regardless of the race of the person who makes it, succeeds or fails because of the elenetic process? That is, in genuine Socratic practice arguments cannot be de facto rejected; they must be rejected because of a counterexample or by sheer force of ar gument. (Of course anyone can intentionally disregard statements by people of a c ertain race, and these more obvious and even more egregious instances are not at issue here because this has nothing to do with Socratic pedagogy and everything to do with bl atant racism. What is at issue are people's voices being heard and their claims being answered, or not, because of who they are). Subconsciously or otherwise, of course the So cratic teacher could overlook, or give less attention to, someone's claims because of thei r race. One could, for example, disregard a devastating counterexample as irrelevan t because they had the prejudice going into the discourse that people who are a part icular race, gender or sexual orientation could never saying anything substantive But this would not be Socratic; this would be a form of abuse that masquerades as Socrat ic and as such could be found in any pedagogical model. The claim here is that this is more and not less likely to be exposed in Socratic pedagogy due to the ability of rational participants to assent to true propositions; and this, in turn, is because of a ra tional process that removes much of the ambiguity and confusion from adjudicating claims.The elenchus does not necessarily bring one's racia l and gender assumptions to the surface, but it does force the participants to focu s on the arguments and not the people who make the arguments. If there is ever a dispute, the claim is at issue and not the person. Because of this it is more likely that issu es of race and gender will not play a role in the discourse, as opposed to other models where there is no process for the adjudication of claims. Therefore, while race and g ender play a part in all dialogical contexts, they play less of a role in a Socratic di scourse. As such racial and gender issues do not compromise the integrity of the Socratic met hod.Power dynamicsThe Socratic method centers on the notion that atta ining the truth is possible through discourse (Vlastos, 1994). The idea behind this is that through argument, example and counterexample, rational participants will assent t o true propositions. However, this is bundled with a number of presuppositions, such as t he presupposition that participants enter into the discourse freely (as opposed to bein g forced to take a required class where the teacher's pedagogical model is Socratic), and t hat responses are being given because they are they are believed to be true (as opposed t o being assented to because of convenience or because respondents will “get someth ing” from their interlocutor). (Note 3) If it is indeed the case respondents will receive some tangible benefit, or at least perceive that they will, it stands to reason that t hey will provide answers that they believe the Socratic practitioner wants to hear. If they provide responses for any reason other than the belief that what they say is true, t hen the elenchus cannot achieve its epistemological ambitions. If this is the case then it is not a trick of inference, or a “twisting” of logic, but that the respondents want to give certain answers because of something other than logic like approbation or even fear of looking stupid. An important question then becomes whether it is th e case that because of one's position as a teacher and the authority and power that come with that role, students in a Socratic classroom environment will assent to certain propos itions that they would not otherwise


4 of 9agree to if they were just with their peers? It is certainly possible, because of the student/teacher power dynamic, students would too e asily permit the teacher to influence and even guide their responses. This has the obviou s impact of subverting genuine educational discourse because differences in power between and among those engaged in conversation prohibit an honest exchange of idea s—and an honest exchange of ideas rests at the heart of the elenchus. For the elenchu s to work, students need to agree or disagree with certain propositions because of their belief in their truth or falsity. So if it is the case that a proposition is offered not becau se it is viewed as being true, but for some other reason, then genuine discourse would see m to be inhibited. If students and teachers cannot have an authentic truth-seeking cla ssroom, or even have a genuine discourse, then one of the principal goals of Socra tic pedagogy—truth seeking—is seriously compromised.Thus successful Socratic pedagogy will disabuse par ticipants of more rigid notions of relations of power that are structurally embedded i n traditional communicative contexts. Traditional power relations, specifically in a clas sroom setting, center on both the teacher's “power position” and her privileged acces s to the truth (Etzioni, 1975, p. 5). But paradoxically Socratic pedagogy confuses, and t o an extent even inverts, traditional power relations. The Socratic practitioner is not c laiming to have all the answers. She is, in a very real sense, deriving power from the decla rations of her interlocutors (if there are no claims made the Socratic questioner has noth ing to proceed from). When students participate in a Socratic discourse it is not immed iately clear where the lines of power are. Truth is no longer the exclusive province of t he teacher. Truth switches from people to propositions. In traditional discourses percepti ons of truth are at least partially constructed by position, race, social and economic class, and even by aspects of appearance, like age or disability status. This reo rientation of the power dynamic can be socially, intellectually, and even educationally di sorienting. Of course this does not negate the fact that partic ipants in a Socratic classroom setting will respond in certain ways not because of the tru th but because of a perceived benefit from a given response. It is not philosophical nav et to claim that no matter what the reason is for one's responses, perceptions of rewar d may make students more easily led by the teacher, but it will not change either the t ruth of the matter or the defensibility of their claim. Perhaps this is best seen with a speci fic example from Garlikov's article: An example of the latter case was in a discussion o f homosexuality in an "Ethics and Society" course where many students sai d that homosexuality was wrong because (the idea of) it was so disgustin g. I asked them whether they thought that such disgust was a sufficient cha racteristic to make an action be immoral. They said it was. I asked them t hen to close their eyes and think about ... their parents having sex with e ach other. They all let out an even bigger groan of disgust, and said they foun d that idea really disgusting. So I asked whether they would have to c onclude then that it was immoral for their parents ever to have (or to have had) sex with each other. They agreed it was not. Of course they then asked w hether that meant I thought homosexuality was moral. My response was th at whether it is or is not is simply unrelated to whether it is personally disgusting or not to anyone. I was not trying to argue in this particula r case for or against the morality of homosexuality, but was merely trying to get them to see that finding an action disgusting did not justify their thinking it must be immoral


5 of 9just because of that (Garlikov, 1998). In this outstanding example of the Socratic method, if students thought that their teacher did not like homosexuality, then they could easily have lied and given false statements. For example, anticipating where he was going, they could have responded that envisioning their parents having sex was not disgus ting, but that it made them uncomfortable. This would still have left room for defending their claim that all things that are disgusting are immoral. But then Garlikov could have made further inquiries about other things that are disgusting, such as eat ing a plate of live insects, and shown that disgust is neither necessary nor sufficient to judge a thing as immoral. In either case, no matter what their responses were, through successful elenetic inquiry a truth of the matter would have emerged Their claims would have withstood the elenchus, o r not. The relationship between being disgusting and being immoral would have been established, or not.So the question then becomes, how much, if at all, a student's giving a response that she think the teacher wants to hear is going to adverse ly affect the truth seeking conditions of the dialectic? (Note 4) My claim is that if the elenchus is successfully a pplied, power relations will still impact Socratic discourse, but not to such an extent as to make it an ineffective pedagogy. Not only is truth seeking not compromised, but also other virtues such as getting students to think critically and en gage ideas remain unscathed. In our present example, to even think so far ahead in a di scourse as to be able to anticipate where it is going requires a fairly high degree of cognitive ability. (Note 5) And if students are not capable of this, then the issue th at they would give a response because of a teacher's sentiment, or because they want to “ get something,” are dulled. The idea of giving a response because of something presupposes that students know what that response is that they are supposed to give. Not onl y is it often unclear what response the teacher wants, but that does not guarantee that par ticular conclusions could be reached. So then the issue becomes, what if students give re sponses not based upon the teacher's sentiment, but because they think that is the smart est response to give, and giving the smartest response means that they will get the best grade. (That is, the smartest response may not be one that a student believes accords with the truth, but the one that makes them look the most intelligent; so one's motivation would not be for the truth but to look intelligent.) Well, this still would not adversely impact the discourse to such an extent that its practice would be jeopardized. Giving the best response, or at least attempting to, would relegate the truth seeking status of the meth od to secondary or even tertiary significance, conveying primacy on the critical thi nking aspect of the method. Depending upon the teacher's desires, this could ac tually be beneficial. (Note 6) But this would only adversely affect (perhaps more by slowin g down the discourse by taking more time to arrive at conclusions), and not endang er, the method's truth seeking orientation.ConclusionGarlikov addressed the first part of Rud's criticis m about Socratic dialogue being leading. This work has addressed and extended his r esponse to cover general notions of power, and shown how these could impact a Socratic discourse. Because of the proposition oriented nature of the elenchus, Socrat ic pedagogy is not merely an illusory exercise where participants acquiesce to notions of truth due to power differentials. But


6 of 9power relations certainly do play a role in all com municative contexts, and Socratic dialogue is no exception. What is an exception, how ever, is that the adverse effects of power are minimized, and the focus is shifted from people to propositions.Notes 1 For example, in the Symposium Socrates asks the wo men and the slaves to leave the room. Or more recently, feminist epistemology claim s that the sex of the knower at least partially determines what is known, what can be kno wn, and how it becomes known. 2 The best way, if at all, these could be controlled for would be through blindly graded exams, probably utilizing a banking pedagogy where there are very specific right and wrong answers that need to be memorized and regurgi tated (Friere, 1970). 3 Foucault would argue that one always gets somethin g from being correct in every discourse, not just restricted academic discourses. Perhaps due to the limited context, it is more obvious what a student “gets” when he answe rs a question correctly. Where he stands in the power web becomes more visible. He ge ts a special relationship to the teacher. The teacher knows best and now he knows se cond best—and everyone knows that he know second best. 4 What often happens in the classroom is that a good Socratic teacher is able to prevent students from correctly guessing what she wants to hear. This is because the Socratic teacher is inquiring into the reasoning behind a po sition—she examining whether or not it will stand up to scrutiny. Challenging a student 's reasoning tends to make the student think that his conclusion is being challenged. Stud ents very quickly learn that it is difficult to figure out the teacher's position, par ticularly when she challenges conclusions that are contradictory to each other, one of which is supposedly what the teacher believes. But if Socratic teachers are looking for sound arguments, and if the student is able to come up with a good argument, reason (and t herefore the best method we have to search for truth by using evidence to make inferenc es and deductions) is served even if it also pleases the teacher. But the enterprise is so difficult in most complex situations that it is hard to imagine a student's coming up with a chain of reasoning that will withstand the teacher's scrutiny just because that student is trying to impress her or get her to like him by guessing. Guesses are not likely to do the j ob. 5 In a personal correspondence Garlikov wrote, “even in the Socratic dialogues, as in classrooms, interlocutors give wrong answers that t hey try to support, which shows, I think, they are not just giving psychologically pro mpted answers, but answers that show they really think about the material—logically and conceptually.” 6 Though in my personal opinion, this would be a hea rtbreaking consequence of privileging intellectual qualities over a search fo r and love of the truth.ReferencesBoghossian, P. (2001). The Socratic Method (or, Having a Right to Get Ston ed) Paper presented at the International History, Philosophy and Science Teach ing conference in Denver, Colorado, November 7-11, 2001.


7 of 9Boileau, K. (2000). Genuine Reciprocity and Group Authenticity Boston, MA: University of America Press.Deluze, G. (1988). Foucault Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Etzioni, A. (1975). A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations New York, New York: The Free Press, Macmillian Publishing Co., In c. Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed The continuum International Publishing Group: New York, New York.Garlikov, R. (1998). Contributed Commentary on Volu me 5 Number 20: Rud "The use and abuse of Socrates in present day teaching Educational Policy Analysis Archives Available, S. (2001). Social Psychological Evidence of Race and Racism. Chapter 3 in Compelling Interest: Examining the Evidence on Raci al Dynamics in Higher Education. Report of the AERA (American Educational Research A ssociation) Panel on Racial Dynamics in Colleges and Universities. http://www.a Popkewitz, T. & Brennan, M. (Eds.) (1997). Foucault's Challenge: Discourse, Knowledge, and Power in Education Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.Rud, A. (1997). The use and abuse of Socrates in pr esent day teaching. Education Policy Analysis Archives 5(20). Available: html. Steele, C. (August, 1999). Thin Ice: “Stereotype th reat” and Black College Students. The Atlantic Online otype.htm Steele, C. (1998). Stereotyping and its threat are real. American Psychologist, 53 680-681.Vlastos, G. (1994). Socratic Studies Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Zou, Y. and Trueba, E. (Eds.) (1998). Ethnic Identity and Power: Cultural Contexts of Political Action in School and Society New York: State University of New York Press.About the AuthorPeter G. BoghossianSchool of EducationPortland State UniversityPortland, OR 97207E-mail: pete@boghossian.comHomepage: http://www.boghossian.comPeter Boghossian is currently writing his dissertat ion, in education, at Portland State University. He is an adjunct professor of philosoph y at the University of Portland and Linfield College, teaches critical thinking in grad es K-12 for Saturday Academy, teaches education classes at Portland State University, and is the assistant department chair for


8 of 9 humanities at the University of Phoenix.Copyright 2002 by the Education Policy Analysis ArchivesThe World Wide Web address for the Education Policy Analysis Archives is General questions about appropriateness of topics o r particular articles may be addressed to the Editor, Gene V Glass, or reach him at College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 8 5287-2411. The Commentary Editor is Casey D. Cobb: .EPAA Editorial Board Michael W. Apple University of Wisconsin Greg Camilli Rutgers University John Covaleskie Northern Michigan University Alan Davis University of Colorado, Denver Sherman Dorn University of South Florida Mark E. Fetler California Commission on Teacher Credentialing Richard Garlikov Thomas F. Green Syracuse University Alison I. Griffith York University Arlen Gullickson Western Michigan University Ernest R. House University of Colorado Aimee Howley Ohio University Craig B. Howley Appalachia Educational Laboratory William Hunter University of Calgary Daniel Kalls Ume University Benjamin Levin University of Manitoba Thomas Mauhs-Pugh Green Mountain College Dewayne Matthews Education Commission of the States William McInerney Purdue University Mary McKeown-Moak MGT of America (Austin, TX) Les McLean University of Toronto Susan Bobbitt Nolen University of Washington Anne L. Pemberton Hugh G. Petrie SUNY Buffalo Richard C. Richardson New York University Anthony G. Rud Jr. Purdue University Dennis Sayers California State University—Stanislaus Jay D. Scribner University of Texas at Austin Michael Scriven Robert E. Stake University of Illinois—UC


9 of 9 Robert Stonehill U.S. Department of Education David D. Williams Brigham Young University EPAA Spanish Language Editorial BoardAssociate Editor for Spanish Language Roberto Rodrguez Gmez Universidad Nacional Autnoma de Mxico Adrin Acosta (Mxico) Universidad de J. Flix Angulo Rasco (Spain) Universidad de Teresa Bracho (Mxico) Centro de Investigacin y DocenciaEconmica-CIDEbracho Alejandro Canales (Mxico) Universidad Nacional Autnoma Ursula Casanova (U.S.A.) Arizona State Jos Contreras Domingo Universitat de Barcelona Erwin Epstein (U.S.A.) Loyola University of Josu Gonzlez (U.S.A.) Arizona State Rollin Kent (Mxico)Departamento de InvestigacinEducativa-DIE/ Mara Beatriz Luce (Brazil)Universidad Federal de Rio Grande do Sul-UFRGSlucemb@orion.ufrgs.brJavier Mendoza Rojas (Mxico)Universidad Nacional Autnoma deMxicojaviermr@servidor.unam.mxMarcela Mollis (Argentina)Universidad de Buenos Humberto Muoz Garca (Mxico) Universidad Nacional Autnoma deMxicohumberto@servidor.unam.mxAngel Ignacio Prez Gmez (Spain)Universidad de Daniel Schugurensky (Argentina-Canad)OISE/UT, Simon Schwartzman (Brazil)Fundao Instituto Brasileiro e Geografiae Estatstica Jurjo Torres Santom (Spain)Universidad de A Carlos Alberto Torres (U.S.A.)University of California, Los

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