Sometime towards the end of the fifth century BC the young Athenian Xenophon encountered a man in a narrow side street. The man blocked his way and asked where every kind of food was sold. Once he had received a reply, he asked another question: ‘And where do men become good and honourable?’. Xenophon was rather puzzled by this. ‘Follow me,’ said Socrates, ‘and learn’ (based on Diogenes Laertius 2.6.48).
The rhetorical questi0n about directions to the market – where food was sold - made sense in ancient Athens, since Socrates did indeed teach in the Agora – the city’s major marketplace. He spent his time there chatting to people – passers-by and a number of young men who regularly came to hear him, including, from this day on, the young Xenophon. Socrates’ teaching, at least as presented to us by Plato and Xenophon, consisted of questioning, of teasing out answers, of leading others, step by step, to new ways of seeing and understanding.
Today academics working in UK universities are also finding their way to the marketplace. But now it’s not fish and lentils that are being sold with incidental teaching merely going on at the edge of the square: we are getting ready to sell education itself . I have just come across a story from the USA which suggeststhat in such a market Socratic questioning might not always be quite so agreeable to the customers.
Inside HigherEd reports that an assistant professor at Utah Valley University was denied tenure (in effect this means he was sacked) because the students did not like his teaching.
They complained that … he asked them questions in class even when they didn’t raise their hands. They also didn’t like it when he made them work in teams.
Apparently, this university teacher deviated from the usual routine of lectures; he tried to stimulate discussion, asked students to prepare and made them engage actively with the arguments – a ‘Socratic’ method of teaching.
As we in the UK embark on our new adventure of teaching in a marketplace, do we have to worry that something similar might soon happen here? At the moment, innovative teaching styles are very much in demand, and – to give credit to our students - the general response to experiments and to attempts to break the routine of the lecture is usually very positive. And the most Socratic of all university teaching methods, the tutorial as practiced in Oxford and Cambridge, remains the gold standard in UK higher education.
There is, however, one sign that customer satisfaction might not always follow the traditional ideals of higher education: students and their parents are increasingly eager to measure the fees they pay against the hours they spend in the presence of a lecturer. It is clear that in past years, when research was the only aspect of academia which was highly valued, some institutions neglected teaching; hours were cut and in some areas, students clearly had legitimate reasons for complaint. I understand that people now faced with increased fees want to know whether they get value for money. But merely counting hours, no matter the quality and type of teaching, is not a very effective measure of a good higher education. As universities collude with students in focusing on contact hours as a crucial measure of quality, we should be careful what we make them wish for. The customer is king – but how do we make sure that customer-students understand the crucial properties of the product they are buying?
If higher education can give a student anything, it has to be independent thinking – a skill which has to be learned by, well, thinking independently. Lecturers and tutors have to make students think and engage – and then send them away to think some more on their own, work out problems on their own and start to look for information for themselves. No doubt, this is more work for individual students and might be awkward at times if you get caught out in a group discussion - but higher education ought to be an adventure, a journey of discovery, and the best of those can’t be undertaken without a willingness to take a certain amount of risk. Passive presence should not be sufficient for any student. Yet, this is what the students in Utah expected, and the university backed them up.
If the Higher Education market ends up encouraging a demand for more spoonfeeding and less independent thinking, as it seems to have done in Utah, the system will have failed. Socrates would not have found it acceptable in his marketplace, so much is certain.