Why Tradition Does Not Justify the Socratic Method

One of the standard defenses of the Socratic method, which I criticized in my last post and here, is adherence to tradition. If American lawprofs have been using the method for decades, there must be something to it. Who are we to question the approach that worked so well for Professor Kingsfield?

I am generally skeptical of the “Burkean conservative” case for traditionalism. But I do recognize that voluntarily adopted (as opposed to coercively imposed) traditions have some value and may be entitled to a measure of deference. Perhaps the Socratic method is an example of this kind of tradition. No one forced lawprofs to use it, and law students could potentially have chosen to attend schools that don’t use it – a preference they might have imposed on lawprofs through market pressure. On other hand, the AALS [update: should have said ABA] certification cartel diminishes competition in the market for legal education and makes it much harder for new schools to enter the field and gain a competitive edge by emphasizing novel teaching methods.

In any event, the tradition-based argument for the Socratic method fails even on its own terms. It ignores the fact that virtually every academic discipline other than law has a long tradition of not using the Socratic method. That includes professors who teach courses on legal issues in political science, economics, history, and philosophy departments. Similarly, the Socratic method isn’t generally used by law professors in other countries, including other Anglophone common law jurisdictions such as Britain, Canada, and Australia. There is no reason to believe that either non-law classes in the US or legal education abroad suffers because they don’t inflict SM on their students. Nor is there any significant movement to adopt the Socratic method in any of these other academic departments and foreign law faculties. Relative to the traditions of most of the academic world, the widespread use of the Socratic method in American legal academia is an outlier. That doesn’t by itself prove that the Socratic method is wrong. But it does suggest that it can’t be justified merely on the basis of tradition.