Saturday, July 26, 2008

Socrates in the Living Room

In his famous work entitled “The Last Days of Socrates”, Plato gives us a window into the life of that legendary philosopher as he was on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens with unconventional and supposedly heretical ideas. Socrates, despite the fact that he was eventually convicted, spent much of the trial persuading his adversaries to admit the tenuousness of their positions by questioning them with the now famous “Socratic Method”. Using this method, Socrates would chip away at the preconceived notions and illogical reasoning forming the basis of his opponents’ arguments until they gave up, or admitted that their thought processes were contradictory and full of fallacies.

With the fear of public speaking typically ranking slightly above the fear of death in many polls conducted in this country, it’s hard to imagine many folks jumping at a chance to argue their points of view in public, let alone attempt to convince others to abandon their arguments through logic. There is still plenty of arguing that goes on these days; one needs only to turn on a news network or talk radio to see that; but much of it is sadly lacking in substance and logic. Many of these arguments contain provocations rather than points and do an excellent job of inciting the opposition to respond in kind, but little to inform the public or illuminate issues.

Somewhere along the way the art of rhetoric started to become a lost art.

When we hear the term “rhetoric” used these days, it is most often used as a term to summarize a person’s overall argument concerning an issue, but it wasn’t always so. Rhetoric was once a highly developed and polished method using logic and evidence to argue one’s point of view. Rhetoric was taught at universities by professors who would educate students in argumentation and encourage them to debate the issues and questions of the day. Outside the classroom, many bright Americans polished their debating ability in clubs called “Lyceum” that were set up expressly for that purpose, and modeled after the forum established by Socrates in Athens. Whatever the setting was, the primary goal was intelligent debate rather than verbal squabbling. One gifted member of the Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, was Abraham Lincoln, who with his campaign opponent in 1858, Stephen Douglas, provided a series of rollicking political debates that informed, entertained, and are still studied by scholars today.

Even thought rhetoric is not formally taught as a subject anymore, it doesn’t mean you can’t create your own Lyceum in your family living room. One of the great benefits of homeschooling is the time that it provides for individual instruction and discussion. One of the things I’ve noticed during my work as a private tutor is that the verbal skills of my students who converse and interact with their parents on a regular basis seem to consistently exceed those of the students who do not have that in their home life. Any positive interaction is good, of course, but it’s even better when parents actively engage their children in conversation. Conversation helps develop speaking skills, listening skills and analytical skills. Good conversation starters are questions that cannot be answered with simply a “yes” or “no”. Topics of conversation can include activities, events, books, or anything that it’s possible to say more than a few words about. If your child participated in an activity that you were not present at, try asking them for a detailed description; something that will result in them having to arrange information in their heads and deliver it in an ordered manner.

Homeschooling parents also have the opportunity to be involved in their child’s curriculum. There are many academic subjects that provide the opportunity for debate and discussion. History, for example, provides an enormous amount of material for analysis and interpretation. When your child is studying a certain time period, ask them questions that encourage them to not only absorb the material, but interpret it as well. If you’re studying the American Revolution, you can ask your child if the colonists were justified in rebelling against England and King George. If these actions were justified, then why? Could King George have acted differently to satisfy the colonists and prevent the revolution? Did the loyalists have just reasons for remaining loyal to the crown? Try asking your child what they would have done if they had lived during that time period. When they give you an answer, ask them to explain the reasoning behind their answer. The opportunities for discussion are endless.

Another medium providing great opportunities for discussion and debate are novels and biographies. Ask your child about their impressions of a certain character in the book they are reading, and what causes that character to act in the way they do. Does the character always act as he or she should in certain situations? If not, what causes them to make wrong decisions? Quality fiction can help develop your child’s awareness of metaphor, simile, and help develop their skills of interpreting the world around them.

If you have more than one student at home, or if you know other homeschooled students, try having the students pick an issue and debate it, with each student taking a side. Try taking an issue from a period of history that you are studying. For the American Revolution, you could have one student debate as a loyalist and the other debate as a patriot. Having a student argue in support of a position they do not normally support can be a very educational experience, and can help them understand their own views with more clarity. Be sure to emphasize that civility is the first rule in debates (despite what we see in political debates sometimes!), and that the students should treat each other and each other’s views with respect. Also, remind them that they are not trying to “win” against each other, but rather, respond to each other with reason and intelligence.

Finally, one of the best ways to learn how to be a great speaker is to study great speeches. Many libraries carry recordings or books containing great speeches of history. A great web resource is American Rhetoric (, a site that offers a database of great speeches from history. All of the speeches can be read and many of them can be listened to. Try studying a great speech and asking your student why that speech is considered “great”. Ask them what kind of speech it is. Is it persuasive, descriptive, or elegiac? How does the speaker deliver his or her point? Does he or she use religious terminology? Does the speaker appeal to the emotions of the audience? Or just to their minds?

Rhetoric isn’t just for politicians. The ability to express oneself in a clear and concise manner and argue a point effectively is an invaluable skill. By engaging and encouraging your child in meaningful discussion, you can help bring Socrates back into the classroom and the living room!

1 comment:

Barb said...

Didn't Socrates kill himself? I don't want some guy reclining on my couch with a cup of poison next to him!! Ack!!!
No, seriously, wouldn't it be fascinating to actually watch the Lincoln/Douglas debate? Wonder how it would compare to the so-called political debates of today.
I wonder if things like rhetoric and debate were appreciated more when lives were a little more hardscrabble, when intellect was appreciated for the sake of intellect (for example), rather than for the sake of career advancement and monetary gain? Hmmm....