Courage: Invite a Personalized Education

I’m often asked by high schoolers and friends who have elected to go to large state schools if the size of the College of William and Mary makes me feel claustrophobic. Since I graduated from high school with a class of 44 students, an undergraduate program with 6,000 undergrads doesn’t really have that affect on me. From the moment I stepped onto William and Mary’s campus while on a tour over three years ago, I desired to attend a somewhat small college. Based on the past two years, I could tell you about our low student/faculty ratio and how great it’s been to have such small class sizes, but I don’t think I really came to understand what I love so much about a small college experience until I began reading Martha Nussbaum’s explanation of the Socratic method.

In Cultivating Humanity, Nussbaum explains the Socratic method and argues that universities ought to continue to emphasize a liberal arts education because when students are able to internalize the Socratic method, they are able to become responsible for themselves as citizens of a Democratic nation, and to control their reasoning and emotions. Examining material that discusses the Socratic method, Nussbaum extracts four claims about the Socratic education:

(1) Socratic education is for every human being.

(2) Socratic education should be suited to the pupil’s circumstances and context.

(3) Socratic education should be pluralistic, that is, concerned with a variety of different norms and traditions.

(4) Socratic education required ensuring that books do not become authorities.

Her second claim really resonated with me. Nussbaum explains this claim:

“If education is understood in the Socratic way, as an eliciting of the soul’s own activity, it is natural to conclude, as Socrates concludes, that education must be very personal. It must be concerned with the actual situation of the pupil, with the current state of the pupil’s knowledge and beliefs, with the obstacles between that pupil and the attainment of self-scrutiny and intellectual freedom.”

While William and Mary does not do a perfect job at personalizing each student’s education, I believe it comes closer to achieving this than larger state schools . Once I completed introductory level courses, every professor I’ve been taught by, with the exception of a few large introductory level courses, has known my name within a few weeks of the start of their class . I’ve sat in almost every one of my professors’ office hours to discuss paper topics and ask questions. I have countless friends who have had the opportunities to do independent studies with professors – pursuing knowledge that personally interests them beyond the topics that are provided in classes in the course catalog.

One time while I was sitting in Dr. Goodson’s office, he mentioned that some students joked about him having an inner circle. He asserted that he didn’t have an inner circle but, rather, that he has begun to understand that each student needs to be challenged in a different way and that he has been able to challenge some students in personal ways who have invited that challenge from him.

That’s how this research was born. One day, I was sitting in Dr. Goodson’s office talking about some of the unspoken tensions I found unsettling about sociology in light of what we had been studying in one of his courses. I think that my willingness to bring up these tensions invited him to challenge me according to “the current state of [my] knowledge and beliefs.”

That’s why this research has been such a growth opportunity. Based on an “elicitation of [my] soul’s own activity,” we put together a proposal to address the kinds of questions that aren’t brought up in sociology classrooms and aren’t studied in depth in any ethics or philosophy courses. Dr. Goodson has a personalized purpose behind every book I read in this research, and he anticipates what I will personally gain from learning all of these different perspectives.

When describing Harvard students, Nussbaum writes:

“A strange combination of arrogance that they are at Harvard and fear that they don’t really belong there makes them reluctant to expose their real thinking in class. Frequently they cope with fear by adopting a brittle sophistication, which makes it difficult to find out what they really believe.”

I remember walking along these paths of this beautiful campus as a freshman and being simultaneously proud of myself for arriving here and fearful that the admissions office had made a mistake in admitting me.

I remember walking along these paths of this beautiful campus as a freshman and being simultaneously proud of myself for arriving here and fearful that the admissions office had made a mistake in admitting me.

While William and Mary is not Harvard, this description resonates with my experience of several of my William and Mary classes. I focused in an earlier blog post on how students ought to be willing to loosen their grip a bit on their traditions in order to see if they stand up to the arguments posed against them. However, I think that students’ reluctance to expose their real thinking creates another detrimental problem. If they are not brave enough to expose what they really believe, students will never be able to invite professors to challenge them personally. It is possible that students are afraid of the loosened grip on their tradition that this kind of invitation requires, and that this fear keeps them from being willing to expose their deepest reasonings.

It is a shame that some of these students who elect to go to a small, prestigious, liberal arts college never muster the courage to invite professors to personally challenge them to better learn to exercise the Socratic method – the educational model that birthed liberal arts education in the first place. Maybe if the College of William and Mary placed a greater emphasis on the virtue of courage, students wouldn’t be as able to dodge the kind of education they signed themselves up for.

For me, the research process is personal. It was born out of a courage to expose my reasonings, and it has served to personally challenge me to submit both the reasonings of the discipline of sociology  and my own tradition and reasonings to self-scrutiny.