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Ancient Models, Modern Teachers, and Moral Education: Choosing a Peaceful Pedagogy

by Brian White - February 11, 2001

This article contrasts two ancient, highly influential pedagogical role models, focusing especially on their interactions with resistant and reluctant learners: one attacked resistant students and attempted to overpower them intellectually; the other invited even hostile students to join a community of learners and to share in honest dialogue. The article encourages teachers to be aware of the models who have influenced their teaching, to choose their pedagogical role models carefully, and to adopt pedagogical approaches and strategies that are likely to promote peaceful learning in modern classrooms.


In The Moral Life of Schools, Jackson, Boostrom and Hansen (1993) argue that a teacher's actions, even seemingly insignificant actions, can have cumulative and enduring moral consequences regardless of the teacher's intentions (pp. 89, 104-105). They conclude that

we who are educators. . .have no choice, it would seem, but to act as though what we did in the way of modeling or setting explicit moral examples made a difference in the long run (p. 185).

Because we are models for our students to follow, we must carefully choose the models we follow ourselves. Teachers often consciously emulate other teachers, imitating the example of such models as Marva Collins and Nancie Atwell. Models portrayed in the popular culture can also attract a conscious following (think of Jaime Escalante and Mr. Holland). But sometimes teachers follow models less deliberately, as when new secondary teachers facing an instructional crossroads imitate their own secondary school teachers from years gone by, without having carefully considered the origin or the implications of that particular model (Grossman, 1990). The role models we follow unconsciously and unreflectively are likely to exert extraordinary power in our teaching because their influences remain unnoticed, unexamined and unquestioned.

The models we are most likely to follow unconsciously are those whom we have not encountered directly but who, by virtue of their status in the educational community, have profoundly influenced curricular and pedagogical practice. We have perhaps imbibed their influence unknowingly during our apprenticeships of observation (Lortie, 1975), because their examples have helped to determine the content of curricula, the role of the teacher, and the nature of the teacher-student relationship. This might be especially true of ancient pedagogical role models: many modern teachers know little about them other than their names. We have not studied their lives and their pedagogical strategies, nor have we thought about the ways in which their examples, passed down through centuries of teachers, might have influenced modern education and our own teaching.

Some ancient models are worth studying because they continue to exert influence, positive or negative. Others, though less influential in modern education, are worth investigating because they were so stunningly successful as teachers; following their examples could help us to be better teachers in our modern classrooms, better role models for our own students. And ancient models, no matter how influential, have the distinct advantage of being recognizable and available to virtually everyone in nearly every setting: teachers who have not heard of Marva Collins or Jaime Escalante are likely to have heard of and know something about Aristotle, for example.

The purpose of this article is to examine the pedagogical strategies of two very famous, very different ancient teachers and to consider the effects of their strategies upon students both ancient and modern. Their names will be familiar to you, their pedagogical approaches perhaps less so. The two models differ from one another in many respects, but perhaps especially in their responses to students who resist and challenge them; they handled the power associated with pedagogy quite differently. As a way into our discussion of these two historical role models then, let us first examine a case in which the struggle for power between a teacher and a student takes center stage.


I have before me three accounts of a single teaching episode, one written from the teacher's perspective and the other two written by expert observers familiar with the teacher and the student. All three accounts focus on an extended argument between the teacher, whom I'll call Mr. South, and the student, whom I'll call Thomas. Their heated discussion was on-task and argument was South's preferred way of teaching.

Thomas had been listening intently as South debated first with one of Thomas' classmates and then with another. Somewhat agitated, Thomas suddenly broke into the argument and "tagged" his beleaguered classmate (who gratefully retired to the corner). Thomas then turned to face the teacher.

The three accounts of the confrontation between South and Thomas are in perfect agreement as to what happened: Thomas was interruptive, almost wild, insulting, proud, and antagonistic; Mr. South was just as antagonistic, but did not lose control or raise his voice. He argued with Thomas and attempted to defeat him in the argument, to reason Thomas into submission. The two observers felt that South's goal was to shame Thomas and to change his mind, to convert him to South's way of thinking. By all accounts, the argument was explosive, with the student falling into name-calling and the teacher resorting to heavy-handed irony and sarcasm. For example, Thomas called South a fool, and South sarcastically described Thomas as "very wise" and "one of those people who know everything."

The teacher's report of the confrontation differs from those of the two observers only with respect to the outcome of the debate. South reports that, at the end of the argument, Thomas grew gentle toward him and stopped using abusive language. South implies that Thomas' more gentle behavior signified a changed attitude toward his teacher and perhaps an altered opinion. But the two observers report the outcome very differently. One says that, at the end of the argument,

Thomas does not listen to South at all; he simply agrees to answer South, to do his bidding. Thomas acts as if he were conquered in battle and made a slave; he answers in a slavish way, and makes no attempt to understand South. . . . All that South can do in the end is to lecture and cajole Thomas in the hope that embarrassment and shame will improve him. Thomas views the entire discussion with South as a [combative, adversarial] festival at his, Thomas', expense.

Similarly, the second observer notes that Thomas is "embarrassed by his defeat in argument, remains unconvinced and loses interest in the discussion. His final words to South are sarcastic."

Both observers seem to admire South's goals and his determination to seek and to study "the truth" with his students, but they also agree that South has failed to teach Thomas anything. Where South saw greater gentleness in Thomas at the end of the argument, the observers saw only capitulation, resignation, and withdrawal from the field.

I suppose that most of us would not admire South's approach or congratulate him on his victory over Thomas. At a time when so many are calling for more democratic approaches to education, when teachers are being urged to respect students and to share power with them, South's arrogance, his use of intellectual force, and his eagerness to engage in ad hominem arguments with his students seem anachronistic.

And perhaps they are. For South's real name is Socrates, and Thomas' real name is Thrasymachus. Plato recorded their educational argument in Book I of the Republic. The two "observers" whose "field notes" I quoted above are highly regarded Platonists, Henry Teloh (1986, pp. 85, 94) and Kimon Lycos (1987, p. 41).


Socrates is of course one of the most admired thinkers and teachers in history. Socratic dialogue is for many an ideal pedagogical strategy, an art to be imitated and refined, a tool to be used in pursuit of truth, to prepare students for the rigors of democratic living and governing. He is a role model, a hero. As Lycos (1987) notes,

Among philosophers and intellectuals in the West he has become the symbol of philosophic activity--of a lifelong commitment to the search for truth and of an uncompromising critical stance to accepted beliefs and attitudes. . . . a cultural hero: a good and just man, a sharp wit and an outstanding intelligence, who stands up to the uncritical attitudes of his contemporaries. . . [with] exemplary courage, wisdom, and self-control (p. 71).

Educators at all levels have exalted Socrates to the position of pedagogical role model. Rud (1997) notes that "Socrates is used as an example of a master teacher in many contexts, from elementary school discussions, to college philosophy classes, to law school" (p. 1). For example, Letts (1994) encourages elementary teachers to engage their students in Socratic dialogue, and Rud (1997) discusses the Socratic pedagogy of kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley. At the secondary level, exhortations to emulate the Socratic model appear in journals for teachers of physics and mathematics (Plato, 1994) and social studies (Overholser, 1992). At the college level, Socrates is widely viewed as the proto-professor (Knox, 1998) whose pedagogical strategies and philosophical ideals should inform the approaches of individual teachers and the structure of undergraduate curricula (Nussbaum, 1998). Rud (1997) argues that the Socratic method is deeply entrenched at the graduate level also, especially in our nation's law schools. Of course, Socrates and his method are highly regarded by educators in many parts of the world: the European Union named its Community-wide educational program "SOCRATES" (Holt, 1995).


The first book of the Republic is perhaps the best place to examine Socrates as teacher. According to Lycos (1987), it is "fundamentally Socratic," bearing all the characteristics of Socratic dialogue and presenting "strongly characterized interlocutors. . .as they react to his method of critical examination" (p. 1). In Book I, we see a relatively complete picture of Socrates as an educator and receive a relatively full account of how his students/interlocutors responded to his teaching.

The subject matter under discussion in Book I is the nature of justice. Others have already debated and will no doubt continue to examine the nature and quality of the various characters' definitions of justice and its relation to the good. I will focus here on the pedagogical implications of Book I, the ways in which Socrates interacts with the other characters, the decisions he makes as a teacher, and the influences those decisions have on the three principal interlocutors, Thrasymachus, Cephalus, and Polemarchus.


As Book I opens, Socrates and his friend Glaucon have just finished offering prayers to the goddess Bendis (the Thracian Artemis) when the servant of Polemarchus grabs Socrates by the cloak and asks him to wait because Polemarchus wants to speak with him. When Polemarchus arrives, he persuades Socrates and Glaucon to accompany him and a few others to his house for conversation. Once at Polemarchus' house, Socrates greets Polemarchus' elderly father, Cephalus, and engages him in conversation. After a brief discussion of justice, Cephalus leaves the house and the argument to his son Polemarchus, who discourses with Socrates at greater length. Thrasymachus listens to the dialogue until, apparently, he can't stand it any more. As we have seen, he bursts wildly into the conversation, effectively pushing Polemarchus aside. He then converses rather caustically with Socrates until, near the end of Book I, he simply gives up.

Socrates and Cephalus

At the beginning of Book I, Cephalus is clearly glad to see Socrates and he gently upbraids the philosopher for not coming to see him often enough: "If I were still able to go and see you I would not ask you to come to me. But at my age I can hardly get to the city, and therefore you should come oftener" (Plato, p. 33). Cephalus says that he and Socrates are old friends (p. 33), and some commentators (e.g., Jowett, 1944) say that Socrates treats Cephalus with respectful attention (p. 11). Socrates himself says that he listens to the old man with admiration (Plato, p. 34), knowing that he has much to learn from the aged (p. 33).

But Socrates' conversation with Cephalus is much more adversarial than amicable. It begins with a likely enough question as Socrates asks the old man, "Is life harder towards the end, or what report do you give of it?" (p. 33). After Cephalus responds that old age is really rather pleasant (primarily because the passions have abated) and that those who complain of old age are simply morally weak and ill tempered, Socrates begins to press him:

Yes, Cephalus. . .but I rather suspect that people in general are not convinced by you when you speak thus; they think that old age sits lightly upon you, not because of your happy disposition, but because you are rich, and wealth is well known to be a great comforter (p.34).

What is most interesting about Socrates' reply is the reason he gives us for replying as he does: Socrates wants to "draw [Cephalus] out" (p. 34). I suppose that this drawing out could be very educational--indeed, the etymology of education has everything to do with drawing or leading out. But it seems that Socrates uses his questions and responses to draw the old man out in the same way that a bowhunter uses bait to draw out an unsuspecting buck: he's drawing a bead on him. And before Cephalus knows what is happening, arrows are whizzing past him with alarming velocity and frequency.

Socrates' next question is very pointed: "May I ask, Cephalus, whether your fortune was for the most part inherited or acquired by you?" (p. 34). This is hardly a friendly, respectful question, and the follow-up comes quickly: "May I ask you another question? What do you consider to be the greatest blessing which you have received from your wealth?" Cephalus replies that wealth has given him peace of mind because he has had "no occasion to deceive or to defraud others"--it has allowed him to speak the truth and to pay all of his debts--so he can depart to the afterlife without fear of recrimination or retribution. He quotes Pindar: "Hope cherishes the soul of him who lives in justice and holiness and is the nurse of his age and the companion of his journey" (p. 35).

"Well said, Cephalus," replies Socrates, "but as concerning justice, what is it?--to speak the truth and to pay your debts--no more than this? And even to this are there not exceptions?" (p. 36). Socrates then uses an example to show that Cephalus' definition of justice is faulty: Suppose that a friend in his right mind has given you some weapons to keep for him. Suppose further that your friend becomes insane and then asks you to return his weapons. Would it be just to return weapons to an insane man? When Cephalus agrees that this would not be just, Socrates says, "But then. . . speaking the truth and paying your debts is not a correct definition of justice" (p. 36). And the arrow strikes home.

Cephalus feels it, because the next thing Socrates' aged, relatively immobile "friend" says is, "I fear. . .that I must go now, for I have to look after the sacrifices, and I hand over the argument to Polemarchus and the company" (p. 36, emphasis added). Cephalus withdraws, laughing, having been made the victim of a Socratic argument instead of receiving what he had hoped for: "the pleasure and charm of conversation" (p. 33). The pleasure was all Socrates'.

Socrates and Polemarchus

Cephalus' son, Polemarchus, is the next interlocutor. Upon the departure of his father, Polemarchus enters the argument with a good will. He seems to be interested in the topic of discussion and he freely shares his opinions. The commentators have concluded that Socrates fails to teach Polemarchus anything, perhaps because Polemarchus refuses to admit his ignorance (see Teloh, pp. 21, 90). Still, in his agon with Polemarchus, Socrates does achieve one of his major pedagogical goals: he causes Polemarchus to experience a measure of aporia, which means "lack of passage, want of resources, helplessness, embarrassment, shame, confusion, perplexity." We see evidence of this perplexity when Socrates gets Polemarchus to admit that those who are best able to do good are also best able to do evil. At one point in the contest, Socrates asks Polemarchus about a position Polemarchus had advanced earlier--and Polemarchus replies that he can't remember what he said earlier (p. 40). Perplexity, embarrassment, aporia.

Teloh (1986) writes that it is dangerous to say what one believes when conversing with Socrates. "The danger," he says, "is that one could be made to look a fool" (p. 16). Socrates certainly makes Polemarchus look and feel foolish; Poemarchus is hopelessly confused by the time Thrasymachus interrupts the debate.

In another dialogue, Socrates induces Meno to feel this numbing confusion. In the midst of a conversation with Socrates, Meno finds himself swimming in aporia, and he says:

. . . I am just a mass of helplessness. If I may be flippant, I think that not only in outward appearances but in other respects as well you are exactly like the flat sting-ray that one meets in the sea. Whenever anyone comes into contact with it, it numbs him, and that is the sort of thing that you seem to be doing to me now. My mind and my lips are literally numb, and I have nothing to reply to you. Yet I have spoken about virtue hundreds of times, held forth often on the subject in front of large audiences, and very well, too, or so I thought. Now I can't even say what it is (Plato, 1969a, p. 363).

Pekarskey (1994) points out that, except under unusual circumstances, aporia's stinging numbness cannot lead to learning (p. 132). He argues that most people, when faced with the possibility of being fooled and humiliated in Socratic dialog, will simply "avoid serious conversation with the Socratic teacher altogether. The fear of humiliation or of being at a loss for how to deal with this gadfly that is hovering unpleasantly around one's beliefs may lead many a person to withdraw into silence" (p. 129). As Pekarskey reminds us, "Dewey holds that perplexity is desirable only to the extent that it awakens thought; if, however, it overwhelms or demoralizes, then the teacher has taught badly" (p. 126). Although Socrates may find his interlocutors' helplessness "amusing" (Plato, 1969b, p. 973), as a teacher he is too little concerned "with the student's capacity to handle the perplexity he catalyzes" (Pekarskey, 1994, p. 126).

Socrates as Pedagogical Failure

There is no doubt that, for many centuries, Plato's Socrates has taught readers of the Republic much about justice, about humanity, about philosophy; his stunning intellect and his determination to live an examined life have inspired millions throughout the world. There is also no doubt, however, that he failed in his attempts to teach the students he was with. Philosophers rightly honor Socrates for his brilliance, but teachers and teacher educators cannot afford to be blinded to the effects of his pedagogy by that brilliance.

If the Socrates of Book I and the other early dialogues had been more successful as a teacher, I could understand why professors revere him and teachers follow his lead, why his name and his dialectic are so closely associated with democratic education. Certainly, his zeal for the truth and his dedication to the good are admirable. His major pedagogical objective is equally admirable: he sought to improve the psychai of his students, the interlocutors. And of course he exhibits several admirable characteristics, such as his willingness to reopen subjects for discussion and his reluctance to "transmit" knowledge to the interlocutors. But for the most part, he did not succeed. Indeed, in spite of what some see as occasional instructional breakthroughs (e.g., in Socrates' interaction with Meno's slave), Teloh calls the Socrates of the early dialogues a "pedagogical failure" (p. 20).

Teloh suggests that Socrates failed because of the agonistic nature of his culture, which turned his search for truth into a contest (p. 21). But as we have seen, Socrates' own attitude and tactics were agonistic; he antagonized Cephalus and Polemarchus and he returned Thrasymachus' antagonism with practiced skill and heartfelt zeal. Lycos argues that Socrates' goal in antagonizing his students was their conversion (p. 2), and points out that, in Book VII (where Socrates describes human beings as being chained in darkness, unaccustomed to the light of truth), Socrates himself "suggests that education is the art of turning around, or converting the soul. . . . [In Book I], Socrates' elenchos, the examination of the beliefs of his interlocutors, corresponds to the forcible 'turning around'" of the interlocutor's soul to make him see the light (p. 6, emphasis added).

In this, Lycos agrees with Nietzsche's (qtd. in Lycos, p. 74) description of Socrates' use of logic as despotic. Lycos argues that "[Socrates'] logic is, precisely, despotic because beneath its formal structure there lurks a constant and relentless effort to get interlocutors to abandon their customary ways of talking and thinking about moral excellence in favour of a new way" (p. 74).


Take your medicine

Perhaps we would all agree that it is crucial to help students to think about moral excellence in new ways. Some might even say that Socrates' despotic use of force is justifiable, medicinal, therapeutic, that the end result is good for the student, however violent the process of diagnosis and treatment might be. For example, speaking of Socrates' interaction with Thrasymachus, Teloh (1986, p. 97) argues that Socrates "uses the only option available: he opposes force to force. Thrasymachus must be beaten and humbled before he can be made a suitable dialectical partner. Thus. . .he attempts to shame Thrasymachus."

This reminds me of the doctor in William Carlos Williams' short story, "The Use of Force," who, when faced with a resistant young patient, physically overpowers her, forcing her to submit to his "care." Just before his final assault on the child, the doctor says to himself, "The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy" (Williams, 1975, p. 19). Like that doctor, "Socrates crushes Thrasymachus' resistance. . . . The entire conversation is a contest between opposing forces, and Socrates, distastefully, defeats Thrasymachus again and again. Finally, Thrasymachus is beaten to the point where he blushes from shame" (Teloh, 1986, p.94). Socrates attempts to pry open Thrasymachus' mind and heart the way the doctor in Williams' story violently pries open a young girl's mouth. Perhaps this devastating conflict could be called therapeutic. In no way could it be called democratic. It is an assault designed to force Thrasymachus to abandon his position, paving the way for an invasion of new, Socratic insight.

The argument that this present beating would be good for Thrasymachus in the future is not persuasive for those who value democratic teaching and learning. As Smith (Rabinowitz & Smith, 1998) has argued, democratic approaches to education must not "[emphasize] the future at the expense of the present" (p. 40). Smith goes on to say that Dewey's (1916/1944) more present-focused view is more compelling:

[Dewey] states it succinctly: "A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience" (p. 87). If one imagines democracy as a way of living rather than as a mode of governing, democratic education must do more than prepare students to participate in governing. Rather it must engage them in meaningful associated living. That means that teachers can no longer justify their curricular and instructional decisions on the premise that they will be good for students in the future, what I've come to call the cod-liver-oil approach to teaching. Dewey has convinced me of the importance of focusing instead on the quality of the immediate experience that students are having (Rabinowitz & Smith, p. 40).

A mouth can be pried open by superior force; a mind cannot--at least not for long. The example of Thrasymachus teaches us that, when a student is pedagogically assaulted for his own good, for his future well being, the student is likely to capitulate eventually, but not to learn, not to change, not to grow. And the example of the patient in "The Use of Force" teaches us that capitulation might give way to fury:

Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father's lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes (Williams, 1975, p. 19).

When we emphasize the future at the expense of the present learning experience, we force students into slavery or into hiding, not into learning; we lead them into prison, not into preparation. A doctor might use brute strength to pry open a mouth, and a teacher might use shame, sarcasm and haughty irony to pry open a mind, but eventually, the victim will snap shut it again.

Socratic irony

Irony was perhaps Socrates' favorite pry bar. Teloh (1986) argues that "Socrates' irony has a distinct educational function" (p. 16). One of Socrates' chief pedagogical goals was to induce his students to reveal and explain their "core beliefs" (pp. 16, 31). But his students were often reluctant to do so, perhaps because of Socrates' status and prowess, perhaps because of the public nature of the dialogues. According to Teloh, Socrates used irony to get his students to open up, to reveal their core beliefs so that he could refute them (p. 31). So, for example, by claiming ironically to know nothing himself and by praising ironically his students' great wisdom, Socrates deceived his interlocutors into believing that they were experts, that they were in control of the conversation, and that they could speak freely without fear of embarrassment--when in reality he was leading them into ambush, as it were, for their own good (p. 16).

As I have noted, some philosophers (e.g., Teloh, 1986) have defended Socrates' use of irony; but others have argued that Socrates didn't intend to be ironic. For example, Socrates frequently claims to know nothing (in the Euthyphro and elsewhere). My colleague Stephen Rowe (1994) argues that what Socrates means is, not that he knows nothing in the usual sense of the word, but rather that he knows nothingness, that he is in touch with the infinite, with the source of all knowing (p. 139). Rowe does not find Socrates' statement to be ironic or deceptive in any way; rather, he sees the statement as an indication of Socrates' transcendence (pp. 139-140). Even if Rowe is right, if Socrates means that he is in touch with the divine or the infinite, as a teacher Socrates fails to recognize and rectify the effect his statement had on the interlocutors. Still, I don't believe that Socrates was trying to alert his interlocutors to his transcendence. As a teacher and as a teacher educator, I find Socrates' statement that he knows nothing to be completely ironic, a pedagogical trick; he's feigning ignorance in order to get his interlocutors to drop their guard, to draw them deeper into the argument.

Far from being democratic, this practice is what Beane & Apple (1995, p. 8) call a mere "illusion of democracy," wherein teachers invite participation in order to mask their determination to change students' minds, to move students toward predetermined answers and decisions.

Teloh suggests that Socrates' use of irony is justifiable because "Socratic education is person centered, it focuses on the. . .beliefs of an interlocutor" (p. 3). He argues that Socrates had to use irony to draw his students out before he could teach them. Teloh acknowledges, however (p. 16), that it is difficult to understand why Socrates wielded his sharpest irony against Thrasymachus, an interlocutor who needed no drawing out. And as Pekarsky (1994) notes, "it seems odd to try to bring human beings closer to the truth by lying to them" (p. 131).

No doubt some of my readers will feel that I have been unfair to Socrates by focusing so intently on Book I of the Republic and by emphasizing his pedagogical deception, antagonism, and sarcasm. In response, I would say that Book I does indeed appear to be "fundamentally Socratic" (Lycos, p. 1) and that Socrates' approach to his interlocutors in other dialogues seems to be very like his approach to Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus. For example, as we have already seen, Socrates feigns ignorance in the Euthyphro, ironically praising Euthyphro's "knowledge" and offering to become Euthyphro's student when in fact he is preparing to defeat Euthyphro in debate. There are many other examples.

I do not mean to say that we have nothing to learn from Socrates. As I noted earlier, he has taught readers of Plato much. But one thing we can learn from him is how not to teach: his use of pedagogical antagonism, deception, irony, and arrogance render him unfit as a role model for teachers.

"I am not a teacher"

Some might argue that my criticisms of Socrates as teacher and of Socrates' pedagogical uses of irony are wrong headed because, in the Meno, Socrates claimed not to be a teacher at all. But what he meant there, it seems to me, is that he was not a teacher according to the usual Athenian definitions and expectations (Teloh, 1986, pp. 7-9, 19). Clearly, he set himself apart from many teachers of his day (and ours) by refusing to view his interlocutors as empty and passive vessels waiting to be filled or transfused with knowledge (Teloh, 1986, p. 212, n. 5; see Freire, 1970/1997 and Hillocks, 1999 for discussions of the "banking" and "transfusion" models so prevalent in education today). But he was a teacher and has been regarded and admired as a teacher for centuries.

If Socrates was not a teacher, then perhaps we ought immediately to dismantle the shrine we maintain in his honor in the pedagogical hall of fame. But does anyone seriously doubt that Socrates was a teacher or that he saw himself as an educator? His claim not to be a teacher resonates with Charles Barkley's famous statement, "I am not a role model."


Studying Socrates and the effects of his agonistic pedagogy upon the interlocutors has reinforced for me the notion that teachers must choose their role models very carefully. Like personal teaching metaphors (Gere, Roop, Davis, & Schaafsma, 1992; White & Smith, 1994), the role models we choose for ourselves both reveal and influence our own "core beliefs" about teaching, learning, students, and subject matter. Taking a closer look at Socrates has helped me to see that some very contemporary attitudes toward teaching and students might be rooted in the example of this ancient, venerated teacher.

Attitudes toward students

For example, Socrates' place of prominence in the pantheon of education might help to explain an attitude pervasive among teachers and professors today: "If my students resist me, challenging my competence or my authority, or even if my students just don't understand the material, I can attack them. I am justified in disparaging them. It's their fault; it's their defect; it's their deficiency. I don't have to worry about changing my approach or my strategies. I don't have to work on the ways in which I relate to them as a person and as a teacher. I am the expert, and I have the cure for their ignorance. Some day, some of them will be grateful for what I have done to them. I know far more than they do--even though, like Socrates, I might suggest to them that I am actually their student and that they are teaching me. My job is to teach; their job is to learn. I am teaching. If my students fail to learn, it is because they are not doing their job or they are somehow incapable." In other words, "the fault lies not in ourselves, but in our students."

Obviously, there is arrogance in this attitude. It is perhaps the same arrogance that "readers of Plato, and contemporaries of Socrates, discern ... behind Socrates' ironic mask" (Teloh, 1986, p. 30). What is most interesting about this arrogance is that it springs not from pedagogical success, but from failure. The students have withdrawn from the teacher, from one another, and from learning. Like Thrasymachus, some are belligerent but beaten; like Cephalus, some leave the learning to others and cover their retreat with laughter; like Polemarchus, some are confused and embarrassed. But all are hostile and defeated, having surrendered under a barrage of verbal and emotional violence.

Some teachers practice verbal violence against students behind their backs (in teachers' lounges or in e-mail to colleagues) while pretending to respect them in the classroom; others marshal Socratic arrogance against their students openly and directly. Whether covert or overt, verbal antagonism and pedagogical violence are far more likely to drive students away and lead to disaffection, as we see in Book I of the Republic and in modern classrooms everywhere, than to draw students in and stimulate engagement.

The Notion of Pedagogical Violence

Although the word "violence" is usually associated with physical aggression, I use it to describe the verbal, emotional, psychological, and intellectual force some teachers use against students, often in the name of teaching and learning. The effects of psychological violence and emotional abuse can be as debilitating and as lasting as the effects of physical violence and, as Kassebaum and Cutler (1998) point out, teachers often "[underestimate] the prevalence of psychological mistreatment sensed by students" (p. 1150).

Part of the reason for this underestimation might be that most teachers genuinely have good intentions: they want their students to learn, to change, and to grow. I do not argue that most teachers resort intentionally to pedagogical violence or that they are purposefully destructive in their interactions with students; rather, with Jackson, Boostrom and Hansen (1993), I argue that

the moral impact of what goes on in classrooms is by no means tied to the intentions of those in charge. Such intentions are not irrelevant, for surely many actions have a greater impact if we know or suspect that they were done on purpose and that their purpose was what we perceive it to be. Nonetheless, the power of things done casually and unintentionally cannot be disputed (p. 56).


Perhaps many teachers follow the Socratic example unknowingly, uncritically and casually, wounding students unintentionally. Even if this is true, however, even if Socrates' shadow does fall on modern teachers and students, students' disaffection cannot be laid solely at the feet of Socrates and more modern, antagonistic teachers. Many societal and academic forces combine to turn students against their teachers, subject matter, and one another. But when I recently returned to teaching high school English full-time as part of a sabbatical project, I was startled to discover the degree to which the behavior of my sophomores and juniors paralleled the behaviors of Socrates' interlocutors.

Thrasymachus and John

For example, one sophomore named John went out of his way to insult and to challenge me in the first few minutes of class on my first day. He then proceeded to insult some of his classmates. He was very aggressive and appeared to be quite angry--and this before any instruction had begun, before there had been any interaction beyond "Please take your seats." His energy filled the room; his words and actions had everyone's attention. Some students were obviously a bit afraid of him; I watched him very carefully myself. Once instruction began, however, he was remarkably withdrawn. Like Thrasymachus, John was a fighter, but somewhere along the line, he had been beaten into submission. He responded slavishly when asked to open his book, to read a passage, to write something. He seemed absolutely disinterested in learning, and he watched the clock with eager, sometimes desperate anticipation, the way a prisoner might watch for the guard who holds the key to freedom. Like Thrasymachus, John began atagonistically, challenging his teacher, inviting a fight. Having given up, both John and Thrasymachus represent so many of our modern students who have surrendered the field, who no longer struggle, who are engaged only procedurally (Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991), who submit themselves to the greater powers of teachers, texts, and authors (Smith, 1992; Rabinowitz & Smith, 1998; Scholes, 1985).

Cephalus and Bob

Of course, not all of the students I worked with were so overtly belligerent. As the days wore into weeks, I noticed that the group of overtly antagonistic students in my classes was really quite small. While the belligerent students responded with open hostility or cold submission, usually obeying but almost never engaging, other students attempted to exert control and to avoid learning by laughing, by goofing off. They seemed just as averse to interacting with their teachers and with the subject matter as were their more overtly belligerent classmates, but they practiced their aversion and protected themselves by joking around, refusing to take anything or anybody seriously--especially themselves and their work.

One student in particular, Bob, expended his huge stores of energy by demeaning himself in humorous ways, showing others how "dumb" he was; he went to great lengths to withdraw from learning and to distract others with his jokes, funny voices, and silly faces. Like Cephalus, Bob and several of his classmates withdrew from their teachers, their classmates, and the subject matter at hand, cloaking their escape in laughter.

Polemarchus and Olive

The largest group of students who resisted learning seemed neither openly belligerent nor jocular. They just seemed. . . confused. Dazed. Most of them were willing to write briefly; a few were willing to talk. But for the most part they were content just to sit there. Some were so content to be still that they tried to sleep through nearly every class period. When they did participate openly, they didn't like to be asked what they were thinking and they seemed ashamed of their ideas, embarrassed about their abilities. Most of them didn't seem to mind reading the literature or writing in their journals, but they didn't want to be held accountable for much real thinking. Even good students, students like Olive, just wanted us to tell them what to think; when pressed gently to say what was on her mind, to give an opinion about a literary character we had just read about, Olive just looked away and said, "I dunno." How like Polemarchus: "I'm not sure what I think."

These three groups of students expressed their hostility toward learning in different ways, but they all worked hard to prevent substantive engagement, to drive the threat of it from the classroom. In some of my classes, any student who took a step toward substantive engagement was in danger of being mocked and ostracized by her peers (Wilhelm, 1997, p.21). Perhaps pedagogical violence has led not just to a "students versus the teacher" war zone; maybe it has also divided the students from one another and kept them from learning and pursuing knowledge together. Instead of "entering into the activities of others and taking part in conjoint and cooperative doings" (Dewey, 1916/1944, p. 24), these students have decided to isolate themselves, to protect themselves.

Like the ancient interlocutors, many of our students have learned that it is dangerous to say what one thinks in the presence of teachers and fellow students: the danger is that one could be made to look a fool. Far better to withdraw, to be quiet like Olive, than to take the risk. There are enough opportunities to look foolish in high school; no sense walking right into one.

And what about university classrooms, where students seem so willing to do and to believe what they are told and so unwilling to push against well established professorial power? If high school students are the victims of violent, Socratic invasions, perhaps college students are the survivors of those invasions, living now under Socratic occupation.


Obviously, the similarities between these modern students and the ancient interlocutors do not necessarily indicate that modern students have been subjected to contemporary, Socratic pedagogical violence. Earlier in my teaching career, I attributed students' passivity, withdrawal and disaffection to family problems, the abuse of alcohol and other drugs, and other factors. No doubt those forces are acting upon many of our students. But my recent work at the high school happened to coincide with my determination to give Book I a more careful reading--and I was astonished to discover Thrasymachus, Cephalus, and Polemarchus sitting in my 4th hour class. I had to wonder: have these students been subjected to pedagogical violence? Has the influence of Socrates extended so far?

These student behaviors are troubling to me. I would not argue that the example of Socrates alone is to blame for them; I cannot demonstrate a causal connection. Nor can I quiet my nagging suspicion, however. As a profession, we have idolized a teacher who antagonized his students, who sought to defeat them and to shame them. It seems likely to me that many educators have accepted his example uncritically and perpetuated his influence unconsciously. I have only circumstantial evidence, but the evidence exists in the form of human beings who give every appearance of having been beaten into submission in Socratic fashion.

Even if the Socratic model is not at all to blame for my students' hostility and withdrawl, following the Socratic model is not the way to reach them (Smith, M.W., personal communication, 10 January 2000). A teacher can do little about the destructive forces working against students outside of the classroom. Inside the classroom, however, a teacher can reject models who promote pedagogical violence and antagonism.

As I noted above, some of Socrates' defenders have argued that the agonism of his culture required him to teach agonistically, to antagonize his students. But other great teachers, in antiquity and in more modern times, have lived and worked in agonistic societies without resorting to verbal attacks upon students. There are less violent models to follow. And some of them have been far more successful than Socrates.



Consider the example of Jesus. First century Palestine was at least as contentious as Athens was 400 years before Jesus' birth. Jerusalem's political and religious factions were deeply entrenched, bitterly divided, and publicly antagonistic. Add to this general agonism the fact that Jesus' own life was in danger almost from the moment of His birth: Herod tried to kill Him when He was very young (Matthew 2); His family fled to Egypt to save His life. Later, in His early 30's, His words and actions led the powerful leaders of His community to seek His death again and again (see Luke 13:31; Luke 22:2; John 5:18; John 7:1; John 8: 37,40; John 11:1-53). He knew that, eventually, He would be killed.

Jesus certainly lived and taught in an agonistic culture, one in which He was personally antagonized and threatened everywhere He went. But Jesus' relationships with His students were not antagonistic. The agonism of His culture and even of His personal life did not lead Him to treat students as opponents to be attacked.

I do not mean to say that Jesus never antagonized anyone or that He never engaged in agonistic dialogue. He did, but only with His enemies, never with His students. For example, His enemies often treated Him the way Socrates treated his interlocutors, asking Him questions to test Him, to make Him come out so that they could try to refute Him (see, for example, Luke 11:53-54; Luke 20:20-26; Matthew 22:15-46). At other times, Jesus seemed very willing indeed to provoke His enemies (see Luke 11:37-54), to do and to say what He thought necessary even though His actions and His words would draw the attention and the antagonism of the powerful forces arrayed against Him (Mark 11:15-18; Mark 3:1-6).

Jesus was no coward; like Socrates, He did not shrink from engaging in sharp dialogue with His enemies when a person's well-being or a high principle was at stake and He did not hesitate to invite His antagonists to share a meal with Him. But when among His students, Jesus' behavior was not Socratic. He did not view His students as opponents to be beaten. When Socrates encountered resistant or even confused students, he attacked them and attempted to overpower them. But when Jesus faced resistant or confused students, He served them patiently and powerfully.


When Jesus encountered a student who might be so opposed to Him as to be unreachable, He knew that His behavior toward that student could still teach other students by example. If ever Jesus had an inimical student, a student who was a threat to Him, it was Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him. But Jesus did not engage Judas in debate to try to force Judas to feel shame or perplexity, to compel him to see things differently. Instead, on the very night of the betrayal, He washed Judas' feet, knowing all the while what Judas was about to do to Him (John 13).

Jesus knew that no force could pry open a heart, but that loving service and self-sacrifice could. On that dark night, Jesus knew that He would soon be gone and that the community of teachers and learners He was leaving behind would need to know how to carry on apart from His physical presence. "You call Me Teacher and Lord," He said, "and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you" (John 13:13-15). Even if they resist, even if they don't understand (John 13:7), even if they threaten you, serve them. Don't attack them. Build a community of teachers and learners in which people serve one another.

In His example and in His words, Jesus set forth His view that a teacher must be a servant (see Matthew 23:10-11). Teachers, He said, must not "lord it over" their students (Luke 22:24-27); instead, they must level the power relationships, respecting their students as siblings (Matthew 23:8), serving them as in a community of family members, arranging the environment so that they can learn, encouraging them to do what they can, and helping them to do together what they cannot do alone.


Jesus' pedagogy of community is diametrically opposed to Socrates' pedagogy of antagonism. He was very patient with those who were wrong, with those who failed to understand, even with those who refused to understand. But He was not so patient with those who attempted to introduce antagonism into the teacher-student relationship. The sharpest words Jesus ever spoke to a student are found in Matthew 16:21ff. He had been telling His disciples that He was about to be killed and that He would then rise from the dead. Peter, determined that Jesus should not be killed (and perhaps afraid that something unpleasant might happen to him as well), took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. "God forbid it, Lord," said Peter. "This shall never happen to you."

Jesus responded to Peter's opposition with a startling rebuke of His own: "Get behind Me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to Me, for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." Jesus delivered this uniquely harsh rebuke, not because Peter was wrong--he had been wrong before and would be wrong again--or even because he was acting selfishly. The word "satan" means "adversary" or "enemy." Jesus rebuked Peter for introducing antagonism into their relationship, for opposing Him instead of following Him, for trying to trip Him up instead of walking with Him in community.

Although some of Jesus' friends and enemies have construed and portrayed His pedagogy very differently, in reality Jesus' teaching was deeply collaborative, powerfully inclusive, and profoundly communal. Indeed, Jesus strove to include even His most powerful enemies, inviting them to join Him in conversation and in fellowship. For example, in Luke 15 the Pharisees and the scribes criticized Him for dining with sinners. In response, Jesus told them the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which a righteously indignant older brother castigates his father for celebrating the return of a previously profligate but now repentant younger brother. The older brother refuses to join the feasting, so the father goes out to try to convince him to come in and celebrate with the rest of the family. So far as I know, this is the only parable Jesus didn't finish (cf. the other parables in Luke 15): we don't know whether the older brother will relent and dine with his father and his repentant younger brother or whether he will remain outside in haughty protest. It seems that Jesus told the parable this way because only the Pharisees and scribes could write the ending: would they enter into fellowship with Jesus and His students, or would they continue to resist and to attack? The parable shows the extent to which Jesus was willing to reach out even to His attackers; it was an invitation to His enemies to dine with Him, to converse with Him, to celebrate with Him.


Both Socrates and Jesus were devoted to seeking and protecting the truth (John 18:37). Both were willing to defend the truth with their very lives. Both were teachers and both sought to do and to say what they thought was best for their students. Both have inspired millions. Like Socrates, Jesus was clearly concerned about both His contemporary community and future generations; unlike Socrates, Jesus taught well in His community. As a teacher, Socrates failed miserably while Jesus succeeded to the point of transforming individual lives, whole communities, entire nations. One need not be a believing Christian, as I am, to recognize the power of Jesus' anti-agonistic pedagogy or to see the devastating results of Socratic agonism.

At the high school level, those results are visible in the reactions of students who have been invaded by a superior force and have withdrawn from the field in defeat. At the college level, the results are different, but just as visible. Our college students--who learned in high school how to live under Socratic occupation--discovered long ago that resistance is futile, that you have to go along to get along. In Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1958) wrote about a man who used to sing on the streets of Atlanta, "Ben down so long that down don't bother me." That's where many preservice teachers are: down, but not bothered. My fear is that they will step into their own classrooms as certified teachers with the expectation that their students should surrender, prolonging the invasion of agonistic pedagogy and perpetuating the occupation of antagonism.

Ancient models can have profound effects upon modern teachers. We must be alert to their influences and choose carefully whom we will follow. Jesus offers a clear alternative to the failed pedagogy of antagonism. His example is worth studying and following. He reminds us that "those who take up the sword will perish by the sword" (Luke 22:51; Matthew 26:52). Now is the time to beat our pedagogical swords into plowshares and to invite our students to join us in crafting a productive peace.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 11, 2001
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10734, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 6:02:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Brian White
    Grand Valley State University
    E-mail Author
    Brian White is an Associate Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. His teaching and research interests include teacher preparation in the language arts, the teaching of literature and composition, and the influences of various pedagogical models. His work has appeared in English Education, the Journal of Educational Research, and the Middle School Journal. His most recent publication (in the Clearing House, Vol. 74, Jan/Feb 2001) focuses on the use of prereading activities to enhance studentsí responses to literary texts.
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