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Take a few tips from Socrates

Criticism is good for you and challenging your students' ideas is not akin to child abuse, writes Dennis Hayes

I recently discovered that my colleagues have bets about how soon it will be in any talk or lecture before I mention Socrates. All bets were lost when I started one with, "Socrates remains a model for every lecturer..."

If I were doing one of those precious pieces you find in some magazines, I would claim him as "my favourite educator". The problem is that anyone can claim Socrates as his or her favourite educator. The works of educational thinkers such as Plato are now rarely read by anyone in education, so it is easy to claim Socrates for any cause, particularly an educational one.

Everyone, it seems, has his or her own Socrates or Socratic method, although the latter is often reduced to simple questioning or a gentle therapeutic probing. You don't get discussion of Socrates on FE teacher-training programmes other than a misreading of him as a progenitor of the educational psychologist Carl Rogers. Outside of education, you can find a Socratic method applied to almost everything - especially business.

My favourite is a Socratic approach to marketing.

His name and the label Socratic have become meaningless, and Socrates is a forgotten educator. Instead, a bowdlerised Aristotle is all the rage, with dull educators putting forward a professional ethic for lecturers that seeks a moderate "mean" or middle ground between any two interesting positions. No wonder the world of FE and adult education is so dull for lecturers and students.

Socrates should be our model educator, and any lecturer worthy of the name should run the risk of being charged, by some latter-day Meletus, with "corrupting youth" and "denying all gods". Corrupting youth and denying all gods are accusations we should be proud of, but to put them in a more modern form, and pre-empting a visit from social workers or the imposition of an ASBO, they mean that we should "put nothing above criticism", however politically correct or sacred it may be.

Criticism is out of fashion, often held to be negative or, worse, confused with hatred if you criticise a folk culture or religious belief. This distaste for criticism means that all lecturers and students can do instead is express a general cynicism about anything of value.

Cynicism is not criticism but merely the expression of the disgruntled as they conform to requirements for teaching and learning on bureaucratised courses. The rise of lumpen cynicism in the place of criticism is why we need Socrates. Perhaps it is too much to expect busy lecturers to read and study whole texts. The best we could require in the contemporary over-assessed and McDonaldised FE system is some bite-sized tastes of Socrates.

A taste of this ancient's intellect and uncompromising attitude to defending the right to criticise, even in the face of death, might be gleaned from a reading of the Apology, but I would suggest two passages be made compulsory before any lecturer is let out into the FE classroom.

The Theaetetus should be the first bite. Here, Socrates provides a quick refutation of relativism - the popular view, then and now, that all beliefs are equally true.

It goes like this. If you accept that what others hold to be true is true, although others hold to be false what you hold to be true, you simultaneously hold what you think to be both true and false. If you chew through the passages slowly, it is the best antidote to the relativism which Roger Scruton described as the "first refuge of a scoundrel" in the discussion of anything of importance.

In FE it is more likely to be the first refuge of the touchy-feely student or lecturer who respects all views. It may leave everyone feeling good if we flatter their ideas and beliefs and don't challenge them. But that's not education - it's a form of therapy.

The second mouthful should be the Meno, the classic example of a truly educational process in which a slave boy is questioned until he is shown to know what he could not have been taught. The questioning is perplexing, numbing and uncomfortable, but it leads to knowledge. The passage is an antidote to the patronising view that education is fun.

Education is unsettling, it is demanding and it changes you. That's why it is important and why students have to be criticised and questioned. The best will respond, although some student evaluations may sound like letters home from a boot camp for naughty boys and girls.

Criticism is good for you, and challenging young people's ideas is not a close relative of child abuse, however much they get upset at having their ideas questioned.

The job of a lecturer is more Socratic than many people think. In college governance documents, there is the statement that lecturers have "the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions".

I am always amazed that this statement has survived the bureaucratisation of FE. It is a legal expression of real Socratic power and should be on a wall in every staff room. And don't be fooled about its application. At least one set of college managers tried to argue that this clause applied only in the classroom and could not be applied to management's ideas and proposals.

Criticism is the essence of education and you can't ring-fence it. It is also a dangerous thing because it may not only upset students, but also those who run our lives. If it ever became fashionable, the Learning and Skills Council or skills minister Phil Hope would soon pass round the hemlock.

Dennis Hayes is head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University college

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