The Sage at the Table: A Response to Gibbs

Gibbs has incorrectly identified the Socratic method with the Harkness method.
Nov 16, 2018

In a recent essay, “Harkness Cautions: You Need a Sage on a Stage,” Joshua Gibbs explains why he has abandoned his Harkness table and returned to a more conventional classroom seating arrangement. He goes on to explain that the changes in the physical setup of his classroom reflect his uneasiness with one pedagogy—Socratic inquiry—and his endorsement of another: the sage on the stage.

Gibbs gives thoughtful reasons for his decision: the open-ended nature of Socratic discussion, the behavioral challenges attending the table format, and the difficulties of seeing the teacher and retaining the respect of the students when one is “physically postured” like them. To counter these deficiencies, Gibbs advocates forcefully for the return of “the sage on the stage,” putting the teacher literally “front and center” to passionately exhort the students to virtue, model for them a love of the truth, and call them to an appreciation of the Canon.

Gibbs’ objection to Socratic inquiry as a primary mode of instruction warrants careful examination since this pedagogy remains a core component of classroom instruction for many schools in the classical tradition. I would argue first, that Gibbs too easily equates the Harkness table method with Socratic inquiry, and second, that he doesn’t adequately acknowledge the benefits and opportunities offered by having a sage not only on the stage, but also at the table.

Harkness table teaching originated nearly a hundred years ago at Phillips Exeter Academy and remains the core of the school’s instruction. The school describes the method as “about collaboration and respect, where every voice carries equal weight, even when you don’t agree. . . . It’s where you explore ideas as a group, developing the courage to speak, the compassion to listen and the empathy to understand. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s a collaborative approach to problem solving and learning.”

The open-ended nature of this pedagogy is a concern to Gibbs, as it is to me. Can an approach that places the highest value on inquiry and that defines a successful class as one that generates questions of even greater subtlety and nuance provide concrete answers to students’ questions about what constitutes the virtuous life, let alone call them to such a life? As Gibbs recognizes, these are important questions for teachers who seek to integrate academic and spiritual formation in their classrooms. And if this describes Socratic teaching, we might well share Gibbs’ skepticism.

But is what’s true of Harkness teaching an accurate depiction of the Socratic method? In light of Gibbs’ concerns, we must first ask whether Socratic discussion is the methodological equivalent of Harkness table teaching, as he asserts, or whether Socrates may in fact be sitting at another table, one having capacities conducive to both the academic and spiritual ends we seek for our students. I believe we need to make a more nuanced distinction between the two.

While aporetic aspects of Socratic discussion are certainly present in Plato’s dialogues, especially the earlier ones (the Euthyphro comes to mind, where Socrates deconstructs several definitions of piety but provides none himself), there are other instances where we see Socratic inquiry used to arrive at truth or at least to provide concrete answers to a dialogue’s pressing questions. Perhaps the most obvious examples are found in the Republic, where the Socratic give-and-take results in a convincing and conclusive rebuttal to Thrasymachus’ definition of the good life and an alternative model proposed. Moreover, in the course of his refutation, Socrates crafts an ideal state, provides an operational schema of the soul, and gives working definitions for the four cardinal virtues. While Socrates certainly raises questions and challenges assumptions, he demonstrates that his method is also capable of correcting faulty assumptions, exposing flawed logic, and providing possible solutions for the questions he raises.

Consequently, if Socratic inquiry, rather than being only an open-ended endeavor that leaves students “always learning but never coming to knowledge of the truth,” is in fact capable of bringing students into the presence of truth, how does that recast the role of the teacher in the classroom?  And where does that leave Gibbs’ sage on the stage?

I agree wholeheartedly with Gibbs’ portrayal of the good teacher as one who “is revealing Truth, and helping students to settle finally on the Truth,” but I find his advice that his students “enjoy the serenity of their own silence, and the silence of the people who don’t know what they are talking about” to be more problematic. Between revealing Truth and helping students settle on it, there has to be understanding of it, and a teacher’s first task is to bring students to that understanding.

Indeed, it’s here that Socratic inquiry shows its true strengths. With carefully crafted questions and a solid grasp of the Canon, our Socratic sage provokes understanding by uncovering misconceptions, questioning assumptions, challenging facile definitions, addressing errors in logic, and exposing personal preference disguised as universal principle. Listening closely to the students’ responses allows the wise teacher to gauge the level of understanding of those under his care. And in the end, he has brought his students to an understanding of things that must necessarily be true, to ideas and ways of life that best comport with reality.

Gibbs’ metaphor for the teacher/student relationship is one of a shepherd leading sheep, but my experience of Socratic inquiry suggests another analogy. I imagine the Socratic sage on an exciting, harrowing, heroic adventure taking a group of inexperienced mountain climbers—some eager, some hesitant, some recalcitrant—to the top of the mountain, using the tools of reason and the gift of revelation to make a successful ascent of a challenging peak, where truth—and ultimately Truth Himself—is waiting. For those teachers who have taken their students on that Socratic expedition, they know the trip is anything but dull. The path may be more winding than the direct one of the sage on the stage, but perhaps the journey will be all the more memorable for that.

Bill Zimmerman

Bill Zimmerman is the Academic Dean and teaches humanities at The Covenant School in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

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