The mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead has said that all of western philosophy may be seen as a series of footnotes to Plato.
The sense in which this is true is not that any particular doctrine of Plato’s is true, but rather that philosophy — in the sense of the ongoing pursuit of logically consistent understandings of reality — really began with Plato’s Socratic dialogues.
In the modern world, those who would teach logic and reasoning often focus on teaching symbolic logic, formal reasoning, and the identification of fallacies. David Kelley’s excellent book The Art of Reasoning, for example, is among the best in this genre.
As valuable as this didactic approach may be, however, in my experience it does not consistently improve students’ real-world reasoning abilities, nor their propensity to think rationally about the world.
Such didactically-received knowledge of reasoning skills may be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for becoming a more rational human being. The Socratic method, however, is quite different in this regard.
I was exposed to, and then immersed in, the Socratic method as a student at St. John’s College, a “Great Books” college where all classes are taught by means of Socratic seminars.
Impressed by the power of this method, and aware of how much younger students would benefit from learning this way, after graduation I devoted myself to developing a Socratic approach to secondary school education.
I call this approach “Socratic Practice.” Socratic Practice emphasizes the cultivation of reasoning skills as a daily practice. We do this by creating a classroom culture in which logical consistency becomes the social norm among students in classroom dialogue.
At first, I began working with public schools, training teachers to use Socratic Practice in their classrooms. What I soon discovered, however, is that it is impossible to create consistently high-quality Socratic Practice classrooms in schools that are managed by the government.
Many of the teachers in government schools are not intellectually capable of doing it; and those who are, require extensive training, which is rarely available. Worst of all, once a reasonably good program has been set up, a change in administration can dismantle it overnight.
As a consequence, I turned my attention instead to creating new private schools and charter schools that could be based on Socratic Practice principles from the very beginning.
This approach has worked very well. During its second year of operation, for example, a charter high school I created in Angel Fire, New Mexico, was ranked among the top 200 public high schools in the U.S., according to Newsweek’s Challenge Index, and has been in the top 100 ever since.
On some occasions, student cohorts at my schools who took the SAT — which is essentially a reasoning exam — have gained more than 100 points per year.
My efforts to train the existing faculty of even small private schools in Socratic Practice were rarely successful. Instead, I found I preferred to personally hire bright young teachers with the mental ability required to demand conceptual consistency from their students.
Only when the faculty is capable of modeling conceptual consistency, and holding students to that same standard, do the students develop a classroom culture in which they participate in enforcing that norm on their peers. Only when the peers make consistent Socratic demands on their classmates do dramatic improvements in reasoning result.
The art of leading classroom Socratic dialogue turns out to be as sophisticated an art as violin playing, wine tasting, or aikido. There are endless variants and styles, and the possibility for cultivating a lifelong practice which is never perfected. The practitioners of this classroom Socratic art often find it to be one of the greatest pleasures of their lives, even when they are working with elementary or middle school students.
While small schools often cannot afford extensive Socratic classroom training for their faculties, larger privately-managed chains of schools can. Thus one of the unforeseen benefits of greater educational freedom, once we obtain it, will be chains of schools that develop cohorts of young people with an ever-deepening capacity for reasoning and a rational perspective on life.
Aristotle noted that “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.” The only habituation most young people develop in contemporary schools are bad habits.
The ability to systematically develop long-term mental and emotional habits in a school setting will require cohorts of teachers who themselves have been trained to exhibit those same mental and emotional habits. Didactic instruction of any kind is ill-suited for the introduction and maintenance of new habits.
Government schools act as a monopoly standard, imposing similar teacher qualifications, curriculum, tests, textbooks, and other materials across each nation. Thus even most existing private schools accept the dominant government monopoly standard, hiring teachers with mainstream training and credentials, using mainstream curriculum, tests, and textbooks.
In the case of Socratic rationality, it turns out that not even all philosophy or mathematics majors are capable of real time conceptual consistency in their interactions with energetic adolescents — who can be geniuses at pushing the emotional buttons of adults.
Once private entities are capable of providing systematic long-term training in mental and emotional habituation, however, the human development industry will embark on a stage of innovation that will be every bit as exciting, and far-reaching in its implications, as the innovations in the IT industry over the past fifty years.
Because the benefits of such innovation in human development extend far beyond the benefits of an internalized Socratic rationality, I refer to this prospective new stage of educational freedom as “the legalization of markets in happiness and well-being.”
In my next column, I’ll explain how freedom in education, healthcare, and community formation will amount to the legalization of markets in happiness and well-being.
Michael Strong is the CEO of FLOW, which he co-founded with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey. FLOW’s mission is “Liberating the Entrepreneurial Spirit for Good” by promoting free market solutions around the globe.