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How Leading a Gigantic Socratic Dialogue Taught Me to Lead Smaller Socratic Dialogues

In early April, I traveled with my Challenge IV class to Staunton, Virginia’s Blackfriar’s Theater to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on stage. The night before the play, we met with a couple of other Challenge groups at Youth Development Inc.’s lodge for fellowship, dinner, and games before we went to see the play together. What follows is an account of the evening’s festivities.

After dusk, the YDI group, operated by a Classical Conversation family in Virginia, started an enormous bonfire around which students from Jennifer Dow’s Challenge III class in Charlotte, NC, Heather Shirley’s Challenge III class in Kernersville, NC, my Challenge IV class in West End, NC, and a handful of siblings and friends from Challenge A and Challenge I classes gathered for s'mores and conversation. The tutors and chaperones ganged up on me and elected me to lead a Socratic discussion[1] around the campfire with this group of forty or more teenagers.

I climbed onto a tree stump near the fire and got the attention of the kids by introducing myself. I quickly realized that with a group this large, I really did not know who had read Julius Caesar (the object of our discussion), who was familiar with the story, or who was even familiar with William Shakespeare. So I began by asking questions along those lines. As I asked questions and elicited responses, we began summarizing the play. One contributor suggested that the entire play could be summed up with the word rhetoric, another countered with ambition, and a third with patriotism. A fourth suggested that ambition was being driven by patriotism and that rhetoric was the tool used in the play to advance that ambition.

I then asked the group to define rhetoric. Someone suggested that rhetoric is the art of persuasion toward the good and the True (capital “T” truth was being emphasized). This was followed by multiple head nods. Another student, however, disagreed and suggested that rhetoric was the art of persuasion regardless of whether the persuasion was toward good or evil; others demonstrated their agreement with their head nods. I saw division. I asked everyone involved to raise their hand if they agreed with the first definition and then to move to the left side of the fire. I asked those who agreed with the second definition to move to the right side of the fire.

After a few clarifying questions, everyone fell into one or the other camp. Wanting to continue building on the idea of division, I asked one of the group members from the right side, the “persuasion can be for good or evil group”—we will call them the Black Hats—to give me a point with which both sides could agree. He stated, “Both sides agree that rhetoric is the art of persuasion.” The “persuasion is only rhetoric when it is used for good group”—the White Hats—agreed, so I asked if there was any additional information we could add to the statement with which both sides would agree. It was suggested, “Both sides agree that rhetoric is the art of persuasion that can be persuasion toward Truth.” Both sides did, in fact, agree with this statement.

At this point, I did not even have to ask what they disagreed on. Students from either side began asking questions of one another to define their terms, to compare one statement with another, or one act of persuasion with another. They wanted to know from each other what different authorities had to say on the matter. Was Hitler a rhetorician, or Satan, in the Garden of Eden? If these were not examples of rhetorical acts, then what were they? Students suggested different analogies to make sense of their arguments. Sometimes the analogy was accepted by the other side, sometimes clarifying analogies were offered.

I did very little from that moment on: I summarized or repeated points when necessary, I ensured that each side was given an opportunity to talk, and I called on people to offer their points of view. I reminded them, from time to time, to love their neighbors by contributing less (so others could speak) or by contributing more (so others could hear their perspectives). I quieted a few side conversations that shifted attention away from the speaker. I watched, and I learned.

I saw some very interesting things happen. I saw kids very quickly move from the Black Hats to the White Hats, and from the White Hats to the Black Hats. I saw them move back and forth, and back again with one argument and the next. I saw some kids stop after an argument from the other side, say that they were almost convinced, but needed to clarify some final thoughts, and then four of five statements later, switch sides and stay there the rest of the night. By the end of the night, all but five or six of this amazing group of teenagers were seated with the White Hats. This was not an argument of words and terms, but it was an argument about the very nature of rhetoric, the White Hats argued.

Rhetoric is not just a tool, like a gun, that can be used for good or evil. It has a nature unto itself, and when that nature is perverted then it is no longer rhetoric, they said. The very first of the classical five canons of rhetoric is inventio, or “invention,” in which you must define your terms, make comparisons, and ask questions about circumstances, relationships, and authority. If you define a term incorrectly, or present the wrong conclusion about cause and effect, then you have not accomplished invention and therefore you have not engaged in rhetoric. You have manipulated and deceived, you have persuaded for evil. After a two hour conversation—it could have been shorter or longer…it felt like twenty minutes—we ended the conversation with some observations and compliments, and left the group free for the rest of the evening.

These forty teenagers, rather than grab their iPhones or Gameboys, broke off into smaller groups of six to ten and continued the conversation! In fact, many of them were still discussing the topic the next morning at breakfast, and one group continued it on the drive home to North Carolina the next day!

Still, that evening, the parents and I discussed how this was able to work so easily with that large of a group and how to replicate it in our smaller Classical Conversation groups. Here are a few observations:

1. Do not jump straight into “deep” questions. The large group, mostly unknown to me, made it necessary for me to ask simpler, introductory questions so that I could get a feel for the group’s makeup. This enabled the group to discover what was most pressing and needed to be discussed, and they did.

2. Do not try to force the conversation to go a certain way. One student and one mother mumbled a few times, “When are we going to get to Julius Caesar?” They had a checklist mentality that, if followed, would have missed out on the amazing Truth these kids were able to discover. Sure, we could have done a character analysis on Brutus, Caesar, Antony, Portia, and Cassius, but it would have meant far less than what they actually gained—and it surely would not have engaged them into breakfast the next morning or the car ride home.

3. Do not try to force the truth you want them to see. Conversations like these have their own built-in “Pentecost” moments. Pentecost moments are when the learner himself discovers the fire of Truth. We often want to bring the fire down from the mountain ourselves and put it on them. This kind of fire burns out, unfed and uncared for. When the student himself discovers the fire burning, he protects and keeps it because he does not want to lose it.

4. Do help them to love their neighbors. The passion for that fire will lead some to try to bring that fire to their friends and classmates, but they run the risk of violating rule three themselves. Help them to share the “floor” with their friends and give everyone an opportunity to participate and have their own Pentecost moments.

5. Do emphasize the inquiry. At this age, it is more important that they learn how to discover Truth than that they understand all Truth. Help them to develop a spirit of inquiry by emphasizing the question instead of the answer. A couple of kids stopped me to ask, “Well what is the right answer?” “I don’t know,” I told them. They needed to have the spirit of inquiry that would lead them to good questions that will lead them to Truth. If I just gave them the Truth, they might lose the spirit of inquiry and never learn the tools of discovery. Emphasize inquiry by emphasizing questions instead of answers.

If you or your students participated in that conversation that night, thank you. I am amazed, then and now, with the great degree of respect you showed one another. Not one of you attempted to assert your opinion on another, but rather strove to travel the journey to truth together with questions and meaningful dialogue. You taught me, by example, how to do that very thing better myself. Thank you.

If you were not a participant, but want to be, pick a book or a movie and talk about it. Start slow and simple, get a feel for the topic, let them lead the way, and follow these five simple rules. Trust Truth!


[1] Socratic Circles is a handy book describing what that is and how to do it.

TIERS: challenge
CATEGORIES: Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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