Socrates reads a book

This week’s readings focused on two different styles of engaging students, fellow professionals, and library users with a text: the book club and the Socratic seminar. I haven’t been a member of a book club for many years (though I did organize a book club in high school), so I’m glad to see that not only are book clubs apparently very popular with library users, but that the professionals organizing these events are taking more and more advantage of the technological tools available to them to facilitate and enhance the proceedings. As for the Socratic seminar, I enjoy the idea behind it, but I think I will have to see a Socratic seminar in action before I can be convinced (though one of our readings, “Socratic seminars: engaging students in intellectual discourse,” by Lynda Tredway, did cite a number of enticing figures on the effectiveness of these seminars). I do find the application of “Socratic” to these seminars to be a little confusing, as it seems that, at least in the examples from our readings, the only Socratic method used is in the initial “questioning.” Again, though, I think I need to see one of these seminars in action before I can truly understand what’s going on.

As Tredway puts it, the seminar’s technique is derived from the Socratic dialogue, which seeks to find ultimate truth through the systematic questioning of another (1995). I find this ancient method to be important for education for a number of reasons. First, Socrates famously (through a number of the writers who represented him – remember that we have no idea what Socrates thought himself) said that “all [he knew] was that [he knew] nothing.” This is where all education needs to start from, I think. We’ve talked a lot in class about tapping into prior knowledge, but I don’t think that conflicts with this Socratic principle. Socrates’s statement was not one of actual ignorance, but of an attitude he took toward knowledge – there is always more to learn, and ultimate truth can only be pursued by an open mind.

Another important thing to think about when we are considering Socratic technique actually comes from Socrates’ most famous student, Plato. In his Seventh Letter, Plato talks about how true knowledge and wisdom cannot come simply from reading any of his writings, but must be gained through dialogue an interaction with a teacher. I think the importance of real intellectual discourse and dialogue has been lost, and it is good to see that some educators have been attempting to bring it back. I know a number of people, who, while very intelligent and well-educated, still cannot have an intellectual dialogue with someone – and their knowledge, I’m sure, suffers from this.

I would be interested to see/talk about with someone how exactly a Socratic seminar could be implemented in a library setting. The case for its potential for classroom settings has been made in our readings, but I’m wondering if, like the book club, anyone has attempted to implement such a program in a library setting. I find it hard to see how it would fit in to an academic library (though it would be quite helpful), but can see it working well in a public library with the right mix of librarian facilitators and interested users.


About rclement643

I am currently a graduate student at University of Michigan's School of Information. This blog is being kept as a place for reflections on the readings for the class
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1 Response to Socrates reads a book

  1. Kelly says:

    I was also wondering how the Socratic seminar method could be used in academic library settings. I wonder whether — as some colleges move to incorporating librarian-led for-credit courses on information literacy and research — “library issues” will move into the classroom, allowing for more discussion in this style. It seems like the method would benefit from having a fixed group of students over a length of time, so they can get to know each other and become a community, something that’s hard in a one-shot workshop setting.

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