Imagine trying to learn through the eyes of John Coltrane. If there were ever a song that could establish a hierarchy of who's the fiercest when it comes to musical performance what better challenge than Trane's maddeningly complex standard, "Giant Steps." Just ask Paul Chambers, the bassist who recorded with Coltrane on his first of four official Atlantic Records releases (my favorite being Olé Coltrane, but that's off topic).
Giant steps... Some can wax it better than others, but for most of us, our fingers compromise the notes as they struggle to keep pace with Coltrane's orbit of melodies and key changes. Again, just ask Paul Chambers: his recording during that famous session demonstrates the struggle all of us have keeping pace on Coltrane's path. And Paul Chambers was a masterful musician with an illustrious career, playing with all the greats. On this occasion, it was Chambers' last performance for Coltrane (at least in a studio). Perhaps it was time for the bassist to forge his own path. After all, there's little space for doing so when tracing the celestial orbit of a comet like Coltrane.
Playing alongside Coltrane in a session like "Giant Steps" is probably like discussing mathematics with Socrates. The pressure is cooking: Can you keep up? Can you find the hidden pattern? Do you know where he's going next? Pay attention. And again, please try to keep the pace; the metronome is ticking. If Socrates, for instance, put me on the spot and demanded to know the length of the side of a square whose area is twice the amount of another square whose side is the length of X, I think I'd have a hard time keeping up, staying calm, and forming my own coherent thoughts: I'd be a deer in the headlights, blinded by the light of Socrates. Decimated by the velocity of his oncoming orbit (see the Meno).
On Orbits and Revolutions: Tracing the Master's Secret vs. Mapping the Student's Journey
You don't learn with Socrates; you only learn through him, meaning through his eyes. But he's humble about it though. After all, he'd be the first to tell you that "he knows he knows nothing." Isn't that why the oracle proclaimed him wiser than the rest of us? He's emancipatory as well, right? I mean he did make the claim that even slaves could know higher-level truths of mathematics just as naturally as anyone else (see the Meno). He even asserts that such truths are in all of us. Radical, right? His pedagogy obviously scared the hell out of the Athenian elites, proclaiming in a state of panic that he was corrupting the youth. So what's not to like here? Isn't this the kind of emancipatory revolution Jacotot and Rancière are attempting to achieve?
First, we have to examine our language games when it comes to speaking about truth procedures:
'Know yourself' no longer means, in the Platonic manner, know where your good lies. It means come back to yourself, to what you know to be unmistakably in you. Your humility is nothing but the proud fear of stumbling in front of others. Stumbling is nothing; the wrong is in diverging from, leaving one's path, no longer paying attention to what one says, forgetting what one is. So follow your path (Rancière 57).
Thus, each one of us describes our parabola around the truth. No two orbits are alike. And this is why the explicators endanger our revolution... The coincidence of orbits is what we have called stultification... This is why the Socratic Method, apparently so close to universal learning, represents the most formidable form of stultification. The Socratic method of interrogation that pretends to lead the student to his own knowledge is in fact the method of [the schoolmaster]" (Rancière 59).Paths... Orbits... Celestial trajectories through the infinite cosmos. I love Rancière's articulation of truth procedure as an orbit or path that revolves around something we might call capital-T Truth (Rancière's structuralist professors might've called it the Real). This is not some kind of proclamation of the post-Truth era born out of the laziness of rhetoricians and spin doctors (thinking of Kellyanne Conway's audacious high-jacking of postmodern discourse with the sly suggestion of "alternative facts"). This isn't about facts. This isn't about science. Two things that are very real: just ask the climate scientists. We as teachers are so much more than fact checkers. This is about the power of intelligence, which can only be fully realized if a student is freed to find her own path, no matter how messy it may be. Rancière states, "The only mistake would be to take our opinions (orbits) for the truth (the center)" but this is only a conceptual error, not a procedural one, if the learner is engaged in her process (italics are my addition). In other words, proceed on your path! We are not celebrating every orbit willy-nilly at the expense of doing away with the center, but we are reminding the explicators that the master's method is not the center as well, which is the stultifier's conceptual error, an error that (unlike the student's) becomes procedurally problematic due to one's position as schoolmaster.
Class becomes a culture of compliance (be like me; trace my answers), and not an environment for emancipation. The Socratic method facilitates learning, for sure, but it's not going to emancipate the learner, (but to call it corruption would be absurd: We are not the Athenian reactionaries).
So specifically speaking, what is the objection then? In what ways is Socrates' method still in the service of stultification? Why is he so close, yet so far away?
On Slaves and Schoolmasters: Whose Work? Whose Path?
Ever been to law school or known someone who has? My wife went, and I recall more tears than feelings of empowerment. Everyday she was her professors' Glaucon, subjected to questioning, trying to show she had the right answer - that she knew "the master's secret." The Socratic method can swallow a person whole, much like Coltrane's dizzying chord changes. By the end of it, one doesn't recognize oneself; one has been broken down and built anew, made into the likeness of a burgeoning lawyer (or a frenzied post-bop jazzmaster).
Ever visited a lively, discussion-based class, full of Socratic circles and all, and winced once the class began because it centered around the teacher, shaping an overly-eager-to-please group of students in his/her likeness? Constantly correcting, redirecting, or re-articulating the students' words, such that the messiness of students' conversations is dressed up in the likeness of the teacher's "more scholarly" way of saying things. I have seen this class. I've been this teacher; he still creeps up impulsively, like almost every day. But why does this explicating spectre still haunt my pedagogy? The answer: it's less work emotionally, or at least it feels that way, to supply a reproducible answer as opposed to verifying the integrity of the student's search. It's easier to plan for, it's easier to mark, and it's easier to provide feedback.
Rancière writes, "Only the lazy are afraid of the idea of arbitrariness and see in it reason's tomb. On the contrary, it is because there is no code given by divinity, no language of languages, that human intelligence employs all its art to making itself understood and to understanding what the neighboring intelligence is signifying" (62). It's hard work to verify the exercise of intelligence; no scantron sheet can account for it. The ignorant schoolmaster accepts this challenge to verify "that [the student] is always searching [because] whoever looks always finds. He doesn't necessarily find what he was looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to thing that he already knows" (33). Not only is this hard work, it's full of uncertainties, and sometimes a teacher's learning gets in the way of "demanding the manifestation of an intelligence that wasn't aware of itself... of verifying that the work of the intelligence is done with attention... [T]he learned master's science make it very difficult for him not to spoil the method" (29). We as teachers have answers, and the students are keenly aware of it, which gets to the heart of where Socrates and Rancière (w/ Jacotot) part ways. Both believe that the power of learning is in everyone regardless of social standing. Both believe that anyone can be intelligent, the irony being that Socrates (Delphi's celebrated ignorant master) implies two more words to the end of his message: "Be intelligent like me." He does this indirectly due to a conceptual error (my method is the method, the center of all orbits) which becomes procedurally problematic ("Come, find the answer. I know you can do it! You're smart!"). The error, of course, was to fixate on answers instead of orbits. To declare the destination before mapping any kind of journey. The Hubble Telescope didn't have a destination in mind when it pointed its lens to the stars, and Rancière's metaphor demands us to look there too, not to caves beneath the earth (see Republic Book X). This is the difference: a pedagogical emphasis on finding the hidden answer versus a focus on searching for the sake of learning. And for Rancière, the stakes couldn't be higher because it's a difference between cultivating compliance or empowerment.
|The Socratic Method|
|The Panecastic Method|
If you'd like to learn more about the practical work I've done to transform my class discussions from a Socratic style to one that's more "emancipatory," take a look at the OESIS webinar I did back in May, which can be found here:
This has been a post for the #Ranciere18 Reading Project. Please feel free to comment and join the conversation.