The Socratic method has long been considered a defining element of American legal education. Among both lawyers and laypersons, Socratic questioning is perceived as a rite of passage that all law students endure in their first year of law school. However, the traditional Socratic method is today more myth than reality because legal pedagogy has changed dramatically, and the Socratic method still common during the 1950s and 1960s is nearly extinct. The purpose of this paper is to explore this revolution by examining the teaching styles, attitudes, and classroom influences of the faculty at one leading law school. Section II of this article summarizes the debate over the Socratic method that has appeared in both academic journals and popular culture. The discussion explores the strengths and weaknesses of the method and provides a context for understanding the various approaches to its use. Section III presents the results of interviews and explores how today's Harvard Law School professors teach law. The professors are categorized as traditionalists, who derive their style from the traditional Socratic method; quasi-traditionalists, who combine significant elements of the Socratic dialectic with substantial innovations; and counter-traditionalists, who expressly reject the Socratic paradigm. Section IV profiles the professors in each of the three categories, focusing on how they reacted to the Socratic method as students and how their teaching styles have changed since they began teaching. Section V concludes the article by offering an explanation for the decline of the Socratic method at Harvard and suggesting how the results of this article might lead to a rethinking of the contemporary debate over the Socratic method.
Orin S. Kerr,
The Decline of the Socratic Method at Harvard,
78 Neb. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol78/iss1/6