When was the last time you were excited about the next class? Do you remember a subject or a class, the content and energy of which was so scintillating, that you thought about it in odd places – in autos and cabs, and on beaches? I have been ‘privileged’ enough to have more than one or two of these; the mere thought of the time sends a gush of elation and excitement through my body! Yes, I used the word privilege; because, sadly, that’s what it takes to be able to be a part of a good class, because of the absolute dearth of quality content-driven discussions.
Rote learning is an issue that has long plagued our education system. Professors explain complex concepts to students in bullet points, and the students mug up theoretical answers, and thereafter, reproduce them in exams. Academic practices in India comfortably ignores the practice of reasoning, deliberation and critical thinking. We study to write answers, but why has it been forgotten that the purpose of academics is to enable us to ask questions? We do not want to pay heed to old but efficient teaching methods (Socratic teaching methods, for instance); we do not want to adopt and find new ones; we want to crib about the mundane and morose state of affairs in our classrooms – all at once. Convenient, much?
I mentioned the Socratic teaching method, earlier; a form of the same is also called a colloquium, where students sit in a circle, read out the text aloud, reason and critique the text. I remember entering the classroom for my first Jurisprudence class (it’s a paper law students study, commonly called the Science of Law). I came and took a seat, the usual. Two minutes into the class, desks were being rearranged and the professor got everyone’s attention, because of his strange way of wanting to conduct the class. Five minutes later, we were all sitting in a circle and reading the text. I came out of the class so content, and happy. I remember it so vividly because it was my first best class, and many more followed suit. That day was my introduction to the Socratic method of teaching. And that was it.
Very recently, happiness struck again, and we, at the Amity Law School, Mumbai, got another chance to organize a Students For Liberty (SFL) colloquium on October 12, 2018, on “Are Vices Crimes?” SFL is an academic movement which is committed to enhancing intellectual activities across campuses.
Also called the Socratic method of teaching, a colloquium is essentially an academic exercise which involves deliberation, contestation and critiquing of ideas and policies by its participants. A reader, pertaining to a particular topic, is provided beforehand to the students to go through the contents and glance through the arguments of the author. Then, a group of 23 students sit together in a closed circle and decrypt and understand the tonalities of the topic. It is a rigorous exercise which requires constant questioning of the status-quo (present state of affairs), and it’s backdrop and the future ahead. Questions are raised, and answers are attempted. A moderator manages the discussion.
The colloquium ends by participants showing appreciation towards one another: instead of one person distributing certificates of appreciation, participants give it to one another showing their respect and appreciation for the other’s thoughts and participation.
The students at ALSM asked themselves ‘are vices crimes?’ and explored the gap between vices and crimes in great detail.
“Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another.” Alcoholism, smoking tobacco, gambling are considered vices, while murder, rape and the like are considered to be crimes.
What, essentially, these colloquiums also do is make us think and question things aloud which we’d always been contemplating.
What is the parameter that bridges the gap between vices and crimes – is its degree, intensity or intent? Are all immoral things also illegal? Do the concepts of ‘legality’ and ‘morality’ genuinely overlap in practice; do we reaffirm what the thinker Salmond said long ago when talking about his idea of law? If yes, then what about the dynamic nature of morals and their gradual change in stance as our society gets past socially inflicted stigmas and stereotypes? These invigorating questions were constantly discussed viz-a-viz the extent of control any government should exercise in making policies for its citizens. Even the Director of Law School and the Vice Chancellor of Amity University, Mumbai gave their inputs for the same encouraging and applauding students in this academic endeavour.
The discussion was compartmentalized into four sections – Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism; Vices Are Not Crimes; Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do; Whither Equality?
In the first section, we discussed whether individuals should have the right to make their choices for themselves or not – whatever the repercussions; how the freedom to choose and make decisions for themselves (autonomy) harms the individuals themselves, and how respect (for people’s choices) should not be allowed to become a justification for inhumanity (to themselves). After-effects of individual choices were also questioned – what is to be done if someone under the influence of alcohol (consuming which is their personal choice and right) harms another person or group of people? So, are we to conclude that alcoholism is good, and intoxication bad? How is that extent determined? The argument found its solution in law; if the person harms someone else, there can always be a recourse to law for the wrongs done; there isn’t any need to compromise autonomy, then. Choices have consequences, and with every right, comes the duty to be accountable for one’s own actions.
Taking the first strand of conversation further, in the second section, the distinction between vices and crimes was laid down: presence (or absence) of intent. ‘A man must be allowed to make mistakes’ formed the undercurrent of our discussion in this section. Vices are a subjective concept, differing from individual to individual. The students travelled back in time and discussed as to why we felt the need for a government – to maintain law and order, and peace and stability; not to exercise decisive control over people’s actions. Governments ought not to be moral watchdogs, the students argued. Should my happiness be curtailed because of someone else? It was presented that the remedy is not to strip them of their discretion to choose, but to inform them of their discretion.
In the third segment of the discussion, we argued for the separation of the State and Society. It was argued that a government’s role was limited to deterring physical violence and protecting borders. The students delved deep into the functioning of society and realised how we are trained to be a certain way because society has conditioned us in that manner; society attacks early, as they say. It was also reasoned how society, if you do not follow its conventions, could make you a social outcast, citing the examples of what happened in terms of same-sex marriages, inter-faith relationships, and the like. The students connected the dots of government, society and religion, and, argued how they are complementary in nature.
We wrapped up our discussion and focused on drawing conclusions in our fourth segment, we argued for liberty to be the ‘other’ equality. It argued that the government can possess no rights that its subjects lack. It sought not equality before those who administer the law, but equality with them. The students argued that the governments should have superiority – superiority by virtue of them being elected by you, not by default of the rights they already have.
The students thoroughly enjoyed the colloquium. The essence and success of the colloquium was reflected in the thoughts they shared towards the end of it.
“I loved how no one tried to belittle anyone’s opinions; the aim was not to bring anyone down; there was no superiority, no hierarchy, everyone could contribute in the same form.”
“There were times when I was silent, just listening to what others had to say, Listening was never more fulfilling and invigorating.I loved how everyone had space for the others’ arguments. It creates a sort of ripple effect.”
The students, through this colloquium, traversed the length and breadth of the terrains of morality, vices and crimes. We need these setups which trigger intellectual vigour; what is best about colloquia is that, because of their technicality of requiring everyone to necessarily contribute to the discussion and deliberation, there is no need for the presence of a teacher to lead the discussion. Colloquia hone the art of listening, keep the participants on their feet pushing them to constantly think. It is an invigorating process of thinking out loud.
What we, maybe, do need to do is go back to the roots and pay more heed to this Socratic method of teaching and learning; we need us to think.