Curing Socratophobia: On Teaching the Great Books

Modern liberal Catholic colleges and universities have made a mockery of academic freedom, as the recent Marquette “controversy” reveals (see my analysis here and here). Unfortunately, in reaction to the modernism, relativism, careerism, atheism, skepticism, and political correctness of the typical “Catholic” educational institutions today, some of the more unapologetically orthodox Catholic colleges and universities have enshrined the opposites of these: traditionalism, absolutism, ghettoization, phariseeism, fideism, and piety correctness. With regard to education, the effect of these reactionary neuroses can be summed up in one word: “Socratophobia.” When rigorous dialectic, probing questioning, and open discussion are rejected as seductive roads to relativism or ousted as incitements to impiety, we have indoctrination, not education — cultism, not Catholicism. Socratophobia is as much a threat to true intellectual freedom and robust intellectual life as the evils to which it is the blind mimetic reaction.
Though instruction in truth and formation in goodness are vital to any education, it is essential that students be challenged to become independent­ learners, to develop from perpetual apprentices to genuine masters. For this to occur, teachers must create an intellectually safe but academically free environment, one that is robustly Catholic but not suffocatingly so — that is to say, an environment immersed in true answers but not airtight against challenging questions. Of course, students will feel uncomfortable when challenged to think for and by themselves, but often discomfort and frustration are the necessary steps to intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth. And where else but in the safety of the philosophia perennis, infallible dogmas, and holy liturgical practices that should circumscribe and pervade all Catholic educational institutions can truly free, balanced, and fruitful intellectual enquiry occur without fear? Catholics should never fear the intellect and its unsettling questions.

Of course, there are many obstacles in teaching the perennial wisdom to students today. Students live in an intellectual climate where sound bytes, superficiality, and sentimentality are often what pass for rational discourse. What is worse, they do not know — because they lack the tools of knowing — that there might be something better. I am not just thinking of relativism, secularism, materialism, and technologism, but one particular obstacle engendered in the more conservative circles in American Catholicism. Many Catholic students have only been acquainted with the direct lecture/instructional mode of teaching, even through the high school years. Such indoctrination may be proper and effective in grammar school and at the “poll-parrot” stage (to use the term of Dorothy Sayers), but it simply must be transcended at the dialectical stage — and well before college. A fear that Socratic thinking may lead to impiety, heresy, or worldliness is itself a dangerous fear, for it can lead to students becoming intellectually stultified — possessing a desire for answers without questions, fides shunning intellectus. This is Socratophobia. 
We can analyze this Socratophobia in two parts, one methodological and the other substantive. First, the methodological: As Plato has shown us in his philosophical dialogues, a combination of lecture, Socratic questioning, and argumentative dialogue is an excellent method for developing self-knowledge and rigorous thinking in students. By lecturing at intermittent times, the teacher can give to the students a coherent body of justified knowledge from which they can learn basic truths and to which they can address questions and comments. And by employing Socratic questioning and dialogue, the teacher is able to discern exactly where the student is in the subject matter.           
Lecture, though necessary, can be harmful in excess, for it tends to turn students into passive learners. On the other hand, too much free-flowing seminar discussion can be disorienting to students and can engender its own reactionary Socratophobia. The tutorial method of Socratic questioning and answering — where both seminar discussion and questioning are combined with context-rich lectures — is, all things being equal, the best method for teaching the liberal arts. With tutorial, the students can learn how to become close readers and independent thinkers without fear of becoming worldlings. After the teacher has modeled a careful reading of a given text, he can move from this to tutorial and seminar, eliciting from the students the fundamental questions the texts involve, only intervening to provide his own masterful textual commentary to supplement their answers when they are deficient.
The pedagogical purpose of seminar is distinct from the purpose of tutorial; it is not directly ordered to the knowledge of truth. Of course, all human actions should be ordered to God and Truth ultimately, else we have mortal sin at worst and wasted time at best. But just because seminar aims at something preliminary to the discovery of truth does not mean that it requires or engenders a relativistic or skeptical frame of mind. For seminar itself, when done correctly, is always in some way ordered to tutorial, in which knowing truth is the direct goal. The objective of teaching is to reveal the clarity, simplicity, and depth of true answers, but a necessary preliminary to this is that students see by and for themselves the complexities of the questions. Students must “tie the knots” before attempting to loosen them. The life of a teacher is about equipping Catholic warriors for the truth; and in order to be effective warriors, students must understand how to think on their feet, how to look at an idea from multiple perspectives, and how to understand arguments in all their complexity.
Let us now address the more substantive, content-specific aspect of Socratophobia. Regarding the teaching of literature, for example, there is a tendency in conservative Catholic educational circles to reduce complex narratives, such as Homer’s epics and Shakespeare’s plays, to easily digestible summaries that are translatable into moralistic, Catholic-friendly maxims. This might be somewhat appropriate for the younger student, but never for the maturing high school and college student. This kind of reduction does a disservice to the Great Books, for it lessens the students’ capacity to experience great literature on its own terms. Literature must be taught as literature, and not as mere fodder for philosophy or morals.
Students encountering this fuller way of teaching literature for the first time may interpret it as relativistic or just obscure — why isn’t the teacher pre-digesting and feeding this strange, pagan literature to us in comfortable, catechetical answer-bites? Of course there is absolute truth to be discovered in literature and history, but the method of obtaining truth in literature is quite complex, for it involves interpretation, experience, and imagination in a way that cannot be easily translated into models of Catholic holiness.
At the risk of inciting Socratophobia, I would argue that not every action of ours must be directly ordered to the knowledge of ultimate, supernatural truth. St. Thomas Aquinas advises — contra the imbalanced, super-pious traditionalism of certain Franciscans of his day — to engage in our studies for their own sakes first, and then offer up our efforts of study in general to God as an oblation. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it:
Intellectual enquiry [for some medieval Franciscans], like all other secular pursuits, is taken to have no worth whatsoever in itself, but to be worthwhile only as a means to salvation. Contrast Aquinas, for whom many secular pursuits and, notably, intellectual enquiry are worthwhile in themselves and as such to be offered to God as part of that offering that is the path to our salvation.
Aquinas does not counsel us to translate every act of ours into something theological or liturgical, which is what translating the poems of Wordsworth, images of Homer, or plots of Aeschylus into pious proverbs, adumbrations of the gospel, or moral platitudes amounts to.
Edith Stein has claimed that we can only know ourselves adequately through the eyes of others. This requires a willingness to expose ourselves to the other in the most vulnerable way; to ask, to seek, to venture out existentially in humble questioning of ourselves and all that is around us — even when we know the answers by the gift of Faith. What is really important in education — as well as in the spiritual life itself — is not so much to provide answers as to discern true questions. For, when true questions are found, they themselves open the heart to the mystery. Origen said, “Every true question is like the lance which pierces the side of Christ causing blood and water to flow forth.” Let us banish Socratophobia from our souls so we can ask true questions and hear Christ the Truth’s saving answers. 


  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    Thaddeus Kozinski is the author of “The Political Problem of Religious Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can’t Solve It.”

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