Cambridge2Cambridge: In praise of the Socratic Method


Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Socrates”


Once again the Record catches up with JESSICA CORSI, our correspondent from the other Cambridge, who is pursuing her LL.M. at that vaunted U.K. institution. This week, Jessica bemoans the lack of the Socratic Method across the Pond and actually (gasp!)?longs to be called out in class.



I can say with all honesty that I miss the Socratic method. While it is the stuff of legends and pre-1L panic attacks in the U.S., it is not much heard of in the UK or in continental Europe. The style here is more autocratic lecture, with occasional suggestions that questions will be taken for 10 minutes at the end. This may sound attractive, and it certainly allows one to relax and be lazy in class, but let me tell you why it strikes fear into my heart.



The Socratic method sounds benevolent: a form of inquiry designed to help you learn and to reveal new lines of reasoning you did not know you had in you; a system to elucidate ideas and understandings; a way in which to tease out and challenge your underlying assumptions on the subject; a dialectic through which to train you to think critically about complicated issues. We all know why we hate it: we did not read for class; we do not feel comfortable talking out loud about this topic; we do not feel comfortable talking out loud in front of the class period; we did not wash out hair today so if we get called on everyone will notice our oily split ends; the professor is obviously cruel and is going to be deliberately horrible in their questioning because that’s what she does; the professor is picking on you to embarrass you because your hair looks like crap and that is so not fair.



The LL.M. at Cambridge certainly manages to sidestep all of the potential downsides of the Socratic method. On the flipside, without it you miss the daily engagements with these analytical skills and everything that you might learn from them. Undergraduates at Cambridge go at least weekly for what is called a “supervision”: a student-professor session that is either one on one, with a pair of students, or in a very small group, where after completing readings and handing in essays on the topic at hand, students enter into discussions led by the professor and they are challenged to defend their points, receiving feedback in the process.



We LL.M.s receive nothing of the sort. In contrast, while lectures are an optional part of the undergraduate course here, it seems this is almost all we do: we show up to lecture; if we are lucky the professor has prepared a handout which is circulated to the class; and then we sit and listen for two hours. Nary a person raises her hand; sometimes when a hand is raised the question is scuttled to the ten minute question period I mentioned earlier. No debate is engaged in. The only sound is the professor talking on and on; that is if you can even hear her. With no one willing to raise a hand, even something basic like “could you please speak up” can go unsaid.



LL.M.s here do not write essays either. We begin in October. Yet the very first date that we can hand anything in for a grade is May 1, if we are writing a thesis or a long essay. Otherwise, we take exams in late May or early June, and call it a day. That’s it-8 hours a week in class spent listening; 3 hours in a handful of exams; and you have earned your masters in law. Behind the scenes you read all the time, deciding for yourself what to choose from the assigned reading lists, as very little is marked as required reading; and as you read you are trying to figure it all out. I suppose the idea is that having a previous law degree, you would know how to make sense of it all; you would have in your head the professor and the classmates and you could orchestrate the great debate on your own.



Many LL.M.s are not taking new courses, but the same courses they took in their previous law degree, because they believe that the masters is an extension and deepening of their bachelor’s in law. Some are taking the same courses at the same school, having just completed their bachelor in law here at Cambridge. It might make sense in that specific case to let people work independently, because it would allow them to use their base knowledge to learn deeper facets of these subjects as they saw fit.



But what about me-one of four students here who do not actually have a law degree yet. Can I recreate those daily debates in my head? Have I found those fifteen other people that might have been questioned in class to explain to me their impressions of the case and their thoughts on the legal issues under discussion? What do you think?



No, of course I have not! And this is why I miss the Socratic method: all of these months, all of these cases and treaties, all of these law review articles, and no one to challenge me or help me see why I am right, wrong, or somewhere in-between. I do not mind being an independent worker or an independent learner-I love it, and that is one of the reasons I love being here-but I expect that in an academic environment someone will guide me along, whether that be my professors or peers of both. That is one of the reasons why academic communities exist-to support each other in learning so that we can reach conclusions and achievements we could not have reached on our own.



Don’t get me wrong; there are many things that I do not miss about being questioned daily, like having to say I didn’t read today so could you please ask someone else, or saying something ridiculous in front of 80 other people. But I am in fact missing the Socratic method, because I think it does what it is meant to do: help us learn both the subject matter and a new way of seeing things. I would settle for any alternative: seminar discussions, volunteer conversations in class, graded essays, because I would like to see if my year here has added anything to what is inside my head. Given that we’re into April, my related thought is that I’d like to know if the process of improving my legal knowledge and understandings is underway before I take my exams. Alas, I shall have to wait and see with the rest of my class. Rest assured that all of the fingers that could be crossed and still leave my hands free enough to write this article have been welded into place.


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