The goal in a Socratic Seminar environment is to actively listen to an idea or a “train of thought” to the very end. This requires curiosity, interest, restraint, clarifying questions, evidence, patience, working around barriers to listening, and more. Only once the idea is fully developed, once the “train of thought” is as thorough and complete as the group can make it, should we then attempt to agree or critique, defend or disagree with it.
Although some people happily play Devil's Advocate and enjoy disagreement in general, many people find disagreement itself to be intimidating, separating, isolating, and frustrating. In the right situations, there is obviously nothing wrong with a productive argument. After all, disagreement can shed light on weak ideas and push people to justify their positions. The problem is that many people do not know how to disagree in useful ways.
Students should eventually be able to present disagreements in productive ways. This first requires that they fully comprehend the position enough to actually disagree with it. Then, in order to remain objective, they should agree or disagree with the evidence and ideas, not the people who presented them. Mortimer Adler, in How to Speak, How to Listen, writes that if after listening and understanding the idea completely, you still disagree with someone, there are four basic responses and/or subsequent responsibilities.
- You believe the other person is uninformed.
- You believe the other person is misinformed or mistaken.
- You believe the other person has drawn the wrong conclusion.
- You believe the other person has not reasoned far enough.
In my experience, there are students who will still disagree without being able to express why. Many of these disagreements are based in fear. Behind a lot of a student’s fearful thinking is: if I disagree with you, maybe I’m wrong. Students may disagree because they don’t like the person who stated it. They may be uncomfortable with or confused by the idea because they believe it goes against their beliefs or morals, or more vaguely, that it goes against their instincts or intuition. They may be afraid of the idea because of how adopting it might make them look.
Watch out for allowing students to simply agree to disagree. Although this idea is perhaps cordial and polite, it does allow students to avoid the critical thinking involved in potentially challenging conversations. If the discussion is particularly heated, the topic may be better suited for a future debate. Otherwise, students can still grapple with the disagreements as long as they have the intention of exploring the ideas toward mutual benefit, respect, and understanding.
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