The Corner

Politics & Policy

‘The Kindling of a Flame, Not the Filling of a Vessel’

That’s how Socrates described his approach. He thought that education ideally was a collaborative process in which the instructor draws out ideas in conversation with students rather than simply lecturing to them.

That educational philosophy used to be more widely used than it is today. For one thing, it’s easier to just talk at students (or, worse yet, put power-point screens up for them to copy) than to try engaging their minds. For another, many educators are trying to fill vessels — they want students to believe what they believe.

The Socratic (or classical) approach to education isn’t gone, however. In today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins writes about a recent conference she attended that was devoted to reviving it. She writes, “The symposium’s overarching theme was ‘Reading as Soul-Formation: How Great Books Change Lives.’ During the symposium, educators spoke about living the examined life, cultivating one’s ‘moral imagination,’ and how words provide an understanding of objective reality.”

Professor Matthew Post of the University of Dallas emphasized that Socratic method is beneficial because it breeds intellectual humility in both students and instructors, and because it leads to better retention of concepts.

At least two colleges have programs to help future teachers absorb the Socratic method — Hillsdale and Grove City.

Watkins concludes:

Modern cognitive research affirms truths about human nature that Socrates recognized years ago: ‘[E]ducation is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.’ He understood that education is not simply about giving students the “right answers,” but about compelling them to participate in the lifelong search for wisdom.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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