Review: The Master’s Tools: Deconstructing the Socratic…

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By Rory Bahadur, Washburn University School of Law

The Master’s Tools: Deconstructing the Socratic Method and its Disparate Impact on Women Through the Prism Of The Equal Protection Doctrine by Tanisha Makeba Bailey
3 MARGINS: MD L.J, RACE, RELIGION, GENDER & CLASS 125 (2003)

This article traces the history of women as law students and empirically documents the tangible disparate impacts of Socratic Pedagogy on female law students. The second half of the article, which is not discussed in this review, is a fascinating discussion about how these disparate impacts may be significant enough to warrant an Equal Protection challenge.

The article initially describes the history of women in legal education and summarizes the exclusionary attitude law schools had toward women by quoting Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley as follows:

[T]he civil law, as well as nature herself, has always recognized a wide difference in the respective spheres and destinies of man and woman. Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life . . . . The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother

Next the article does something important and rare; it defines the Socratic Method. It’s modern incarnation is described as, “a masochistic interplay of domineering, and at times evasive, professors attempting to inform humiliated, and silenced students.” The author describes this method as both humiliating and debilitating, concluding that the gravity of the effect on female law students is simply ignored. She concludes, “the Socratic Method impairs the ability of women law students to perform and excel academically, leading to a crippling of their long-term performance in terms of grade-based opportunities.”

She uses interviews, testimony, and data to quantify the effects of Socratic teaching on female law students. She groups the effects into two broad categories: silencing and grade disparity. Components of the silencing category are actual silencing of law students who are not comfortable interacting in a Socratic class, the oppressive atmosphere of the Socratic classroom and the resulting psychological debilitation it causes.

Grade disparity is documented by comparing prelaw school academic success and rank of entering male and female students with the ranks after the first year of law school. The data clearly indicates that something favors the increased class rank of the male students after the first year of law school. Her conclusion is summarized as follows; “The fact that women consistently academically outrank men prior to law school admission, and then during law school their grades become grossly disproportionate, reflects the egregious effects of the Socratic Method.”

While the documentation of these effects is something we all need to take seriously if we are to provide the same opportunities for success for all our law students regardless of gender, another crucial fact is the conclusion the author reaches when she describes the recommended pedagogy for minimizing the disparate impact on female law students. The author suggests in part, a pedagogy based on the “ethic of care, which includes “using alternative methods of teaching, giving more exercises, practice examinations, and other feedback . . . .”

Even if you are a Socratic diehard, the assumption is that student learning is something every law professor cares deeply about. If that assumption holds true, then we cannot dismiss the almost normative identity of this author’s recommendations and those of the Carnegie and Best Practices Reports on legal education.

 

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