There was a period in Greek history, where a man named Socrates dared to question and reason with the Oracle of Delphi. The Oracle (much like the modern day Professor in Indian universities) was a revered position and the person attached to it was considered nothing less than an infallible creation. Truth and ‘absolute knowledge’ were believed to be the eminent domain of the Oracle and his subjects, by virtue of his position, were the gullible people who were in a state of oblivion to their individual sensibilities of reasoning.
While the story of Ancient Greece looks to be an old tale of tribalism, it may be equally surprising and more distressing to know that the Indian classrooms are much like the Oracle’s gathering. A sense of collective authoritarianism plagues the environment of our classrooms and imparting education is not just a mundane one-sided process but it also actively creates a generation of students that either lack or are suppressed from developing the ability to reason and question the subject-matter they are taught. While, I understand that mere criticism of an established system does not change it, one must also suggest concrete and feasible alternatives to address the issue at hand.
Derived from the way Socrates used to deliberate and discuss ideas with his students (the likes of whom became Plato and Aristotle), a “Socratic Seminar” is a teaching pedagogy or rather a learning system where the role of a teacher is not to teach per se. The Professor, instead, assumes the active role of someone who asks the right questions to trigger the individual reasoning of their students. Colloquia or Socratic Seminars allow for greater interaction and wider understanding of the issue being deliberated. While the traditional Indian classroom may just discuss Rawls’ theory of Distributive Justice as explained by the Professor and take notes, a Colloquium ensures that Rawls is equally criticised rationally or supported through individual assessment of students.
When I mentioned that the a collective authoritarianism plagues the classroom environment, I was referring to the fact that individual voices in a chalk-and-board class do not find a space to reason and it is lost in the dominant narrative that the Professor lays down through the textbook, which then becomes the ‘Word of God’ for the collective class.
Colloquia are based on the principle of differentiation being a reality. The thought process, parameters of reasoning and intellectual capabilities of different individuals is diverse and, hence, when they become a part of a colloquium, they carry that line of thought into their reasoning which adds nuance to the discussion.
For example, when a colloquium is about understanding and deliberating the idea of ‘Feminist Jurisprudence’ based on the work of Wollstonecraft. Her ideas in the text act as a mirror that will reflect differently to different individuals (including the Professor).
Thus, what the Professor understands and teaches would be entirely the result of them studying that text in isolation. The text studied in isolation without a group deliberation and then taught traditionally in the class is equivalent to negating the reasoning sensibilities of the students, while at the same time making them accustomed to not reason at all, given the certain lack of opportunity. This lack of opportunity in a traditional classroom is pretty much the reason behind the boring and mundane nature of our teaching-learning environment.
An important aspect about such a Socratic practice is the fact that it is not aimed at establishing an absolute truth or principle. The role of a student is not someone who argues for their case, but to be open and flexible (and, rational) to the reason given by others as to the apparent lack of certain ideals in their position. Thus, there are no winners or losers in the class but reason remains the force that drives the discussion. Subjectivity is the essence of human thought and it is the same subjectivity that liberates individuals to discuss and reason with the objective reality.
A colloquium is that space of unfettered individualism that nourishes ideas being deliberated. It must be noted that it is not merely institutions of higher education that must embrace this method. Individual reasoning through interactive discussions should be encouraged in primary classrooms, so that each child develops a certain sense of individual identity at the outset of their academic life.
While the Socratic method is not at the helm of our teaching pedagogy in the contemporary scenario, there are organisations such as Students for Liberty, Centre for Civil Society as well as some well-meaning Professors (including my Jurisprudence Professor) who are trying to change the discourse of our classrooms in a way that allows for freer spaces of discussion as well as dissent to imposed narratives but, of course all of this only through reason.