Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Socratic Method, or Higher Education, Part IV.

First year students in law schools become well-acquainted with the Socratic method.

As plied in that setting, professors question students about cases they are assigned to read. The questioning, usually in front of another 100 or so students, can be intimidating and unsettling because often no matter what position the student takes the skillful practitioner can make it (or the student) look absurd. Nevertheless, the process is designed to cause a didactic experience (and develop a thick skin).

Business schools also routinely employ a similar case-method of teaching. Andrew Tobias wrote about the "Greatest Moment in [His] Life" in his (equally understated in title) book, The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need (2002). Here's an excerpt:

"Harvard Business School uses the 'the case method' to impart its wisdom, which on a practical level, means preparing three or four cases a night for the following day's classroom analysis. Typically, each case sets forth an enormous garbage dump of data. ... Typically, too, I could not bring myself to prepare the cases very thoroughly. ...

"The professor, a delightful but devious man, noting the conspicuous absence of paperwork by my station, had the out and out malevolence to call on me...

"My instinct was to say, with contrition: 'I'm sorry, sir, I'm not prepared'--a considerable indignity--but in a rare moment of inspiration I decided to concoct a bluff, however lame. ... Said I, 'Well, sir, this case obviously was meant to get us to work through the elaborate formula we were given to determine pricing, but I didn't do any of that. The case said that XYZ Company was in a very competitive industry, so I figured it couldn't charge any more for its sprockets than everyone else, if it wanted to sell any; and the case said that the company had all the business that it could handle--so I figured there would be no point in charging less than everyone else, either. So I figured they should just keep charging what everybody else was charging, and I didn't do any calculations.'


"The professor blew his stack--but not for the reason I had expected. It seems that the whole idea of this case was to have us go round and round for 55 minutes beating each other over the head with our calculations, and then have the professor show us why the calculations were, in this case, irrelevant. Instead the class was dismissed 12 minutes after it began--to thunderous applause, I might add--there being nothing left to discuss. [footnote: Herewith a list of my other triumphs at Harvard Business School: I graduated.]" (pp. 7-8; emphasis in original.)

So, what's the moral of the story?

Be unprepared? Or, it's better to be lucky than good? Or the ability to "think on one's feet" cannot be taught? It could be any number of these (or others), but it's such a good story I had to relate it here.