Legal Education, Feminist Epistemology, and the Socratic Method

by Angela N. Johnson

Susan Williams is a professor of law at Indiana University School of Law (Bloomington) and previously clerked on the D.C. Circuit for Ruth Bader Ginsburg (my absolute heroine).  Williams’ article, “Legal Education, Feminist Epistemology, and the Socratic Method,” examines the use of the Socratic Method and other pedagogies and the impact they may have on educating women.  She also examines other articles on this subject, most notably, Deborah Rhodes’ paper, which criticizes both the style and substance of contemporary legal education from a feminist point of view (finding the pedagogy to be hierarchical and authoritarian, emphasizing students’ inadequacies and encouraging counterproductive competitiveness).

Time for a New Pedagogy?

Williams believes that the way law is taught (taking emotions, morals, and values out of the discussion) hinders learning, especially for women.  “That is, we cannot really understand a case without understanding its context and its personal impact.  The knowledge afforded by the traditional legal curriculum is, therefore, woefully inadequate to the task of lawyering and also, I believe, to the task of thinking about the law.  In other words, there is an epistemological failure here as well as a moral failure” (S. H. Williams 1993, 1573). Further, the use of the Socratic Method, seemingly harmless, “has become the repository for all of the problems of mainstream epistemology” (S. H. Williams 1993, 1574). The problem with the Socratic Method, according to Williams, is that it “rests on the assumption that there is a fact-of-the-matter to be discovered and the teacher knows that fact while the student may or may not . . . the fact that the questions in the series are not individualized to the student implies that anyone can come to that knowledge and all can come by the same path: the one mapped out by the teacher’s questions” (S. H. Williams 1993, 1574).  When in reality, students travel different paths and arrive at different conclusions based on one’s social framework.  Moreover, “knowledge is socially created, not individually discovered, and it is created through a process that involves emotion as well as reason” (S. H. Williams 1993, 1574).

In sum, Williams does not suggest doing-away with the Socratic Method pedagogy style all together, rather a slightly reformed (and possibly feminist reconstruction) should be implemented.  To do this, the instructor must ask the kind of question that requires the student to take in the knowledge and information it has, think and feel about the information in possession, look at it in a new way, and articulate it.  In this slightly modified version, the Socratic Method would then be fully consistent with a feminist epistemology (S. H. Williams 1993, 1575). The distinction is that the modified version does not imply that the teacher holds the knowledge (or only single correct answer) that the student must provide. The improved ideal would be more of a Socratic dialogue, in which information flows in both directions.  Questions should also seek to engage not just rational analysis, but also emotional responses.  Williams says that thinking about empathy and moral outrage aids knowledge creation (S. H. Williams 1993, 1575).

Source Citation: Williams, Susan H. “Legal Education, Feminist Epistemology, and the Socratic Method.” Stanford Law Review 45, no. 6 (July 1993): 1571-1576.


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