While I was in college preparing for law school, 20th Century Fox released a movie called “The Paper Chase.” A few years later it became a television series. In both versions of the story there was provided to the general public, and to me as a pre-law student, a glimpse of how law professors treat the minds of bright young law students, and dim ones, too.
The teaching style is known as the Socratic method, defined as follows from Wikipedia:
The Socratic method (also known as method of elenchus, elenctic method, Socratic irony, or Socratic debate), named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer’s own point.
To an impressionable college student it was a bit frightening and certainly didn’t resemble the more open and inviting method I had become accustomed to as an undergraduate English major.
Yes, I had grown up with a very intelligent and well-read father who challenged my thinking quite frequently, but what I encountered in law school was a contest of analytical thinking that gripped my attention and focused my thoughts much like a personal trainer keeps you pushing yourself to strengthen your body.
I viewed law school as an opportunity to become my best, and so I tried very hard. In the end I was rewarded not only with a degree, but one which came with honors for high grades and scholastic achievement.
I mention these things because the training of law school and the practice of law are sometimes reviled. Recently I fell into a very familiar rhythm of discussion with another person who immediately took offense. He had hurt feelings and felt as if he was being personally attacked. It dawned on me that he was much younger and did not have the experience of competitive thought which has so reshaped my thinking processes that what I do by second nature shocks a more sensitive younger generation.
You see, lawyers are not trained to know the law. Lawyers are trained to question everything, to push and challenge and test the ideas of others in order to ferret out weaknesses and eventually arrive at the strongest and most reliable conclusions. Some people react adversely to having their ideas challenged. They feel personally attacked. And some, quite frankly, are simply not accustomed to “The Socratic Method” and, as such, give up the quest for a better answer, feeling exhausted.
In the professional aspect of our lives, our training and analytical stamina serve us lawyers very well. In our personal lives, this kind of trained thinking can be problematic. Friends, spouses and social acquaintances tire of the relentless probing that we enjoy. The kind of mental and verbal jousting that we were trained to relish is, for most non-lawyers, like riding in the back seat with a great dane puppy.
In modern parlance, an argument is a disagreeable encounter to be avoided. To lawyers, argument is like a game of chess. We look forward to the contest, we appreciate the skill of the opponent, we are like pit bulls in our determination to win and, in fact, we even enjoy watching arguments (aka debates) as a spectator sport. Of course, we “Monday Morning Quarterback” all the ones we watch.
Why do I write about all of this today? Because as the upcoming elections get closer, there will be more public debates on the calendar. For us lawyers, it is like the approach of the NFL season or the first game of college basketball. Not only is it a sport we enjoy watching, it is one that we know has the potential to arrive at the better answers to many of the problems facing our nation.
I know that to many citizens, the harangue of politics is a huge turn off. And that is part of the reason why so few people turn out to vote. But in a world looking for answers to difficult questions, a process by which the best ones can be found should be embraced rather than shunned.
Stay tuned folks. Debate season is about to open, and if you want to get a sense of how it can work to your personal advantage, get an old copy of “The Paper Chase” and watch John Houseman probe his young law students to think. You might actually come to love politics all over again.
Marcus Carey is a Northern Kentucky lawyer with 32 years experience. He is also a farmer, talk radio host and public speaker who loves history and politics. He is a prolific and accomplished writer whose blog, BluegrassBulletin.com is “dedicated to honest and respectful comment on the political and cultural issues of our time.” He writes a daily commentary for KyForward.