In the Middle East, public and private schools are monopolies with top-down controls (a bureaucratic system of appointees setting education policy for millions of students) that are still focused on outdated education: the warehouse model of one teacher lecturing to a captive audience of students in a dumping place (the classroom) for “knowledge.” National commissions on “excellence in education” are all over the region looking for the imperatives for educational “reform.” Yet, the search for reforming education cannot become realistic without epitomizing the impetus to discourse, skepticism and an inquiring mind upon which students embark on original thinking in all subjects.
We often place less faith in our students’ intellectual powers. When our educational system runs in an intellectual vacuum, where young people are “educated" to deny their uniqueness (their capacity to think), genuine reform becomes increasingly difficult. This problem is particularly worrisome in a sector like education since mistakes may be cumulative: elusive reforms affect all.
The “Prince of Poets,” Ahmad Shawqi (1868–1932), has sharply called this overall societal decline into question: “Nations are but ethics, as long as they remain; if their morals are gone, thus are they; gone.” Previous educational approaches have ignored, for example, entrepreneurial behavior. We inadequately tackle the problem of how entrepreneurs improve their knowledge over time, test their ideas and constantly engage in problem-solving that involves exposing their conjectures to the possibility of refutation. Thus, elementary and secondary schools should emphasize the fallibility of our knowledge so that students can widen their perceptions, the degree of their alertness and the directions in which their entrepreneurial energies are channeled.
The Greek philosopher, Socrates (470-399 BC) engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for the truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students’ views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the “Socratic Method,” the brilliance of which is in developing one’s love of asking and answering questions in the pursuit of knowledge.
The ultimate goal of the Socratic Method is to increase understanding through inquiry. When a young man -who was introduced to Socrates as a student of brilliant promise- told Socrates he has wondered a great deal, “Ah, that shows the lover of wisdom,” Socrates answered, “For wisdom begins in wonder.” Socrates claimed to know nothing, yet he knew the power of asking the right questions. His style of conversation involved his own denial of knowledge (the “Socratic irony”). He was acclaimed a wise man who progressively exposed himself to more and more of the unknown. The Socratic Method teaches us that today’s students (tomorrow’s entrepreneurs) should pledge their skills not for what they know but for their curiosity toward what they do not know. It has this valuable influence on the development of critical thinking to the extent that it makes people comfortable questioning their own ideas.
This disciplined thought is precisely what we are lacking at public and private schools in the Middle East. As a practical matter, our schools (and universities) lack the useful social understanding accessible across cultures; balancing, for instance, the Socratic West, Confucian East, Hegelian dialectic, Ibn Khaldoun’s social thought, and Scottish moral philosophers together. The Socratic Method is one teaching tool to improve our education by laying the groundwork for the union of imagination and intellect which allows creative thinking. It can be applied widely, potentially region-wide, thus greatly increasing the incentive to invest in this creative sector of our economies.
Socrates is famous for saying “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The Socratic Method demands a classroom environment characterized by “productive discomfort”: it is a dynamic format for helping our students to take genuine “intellectual risks” in the classroom and to learn about critical thinking, a skill highly neglected in our public and private schools. Our classrooms should be conducted as a Socratic environment with open-ended questions to enable students to approach subjects of study as intellectuals who explore alternative perspectives instead of sticking to a dogma.
Our schools along with their Socratic guides (teachers) should seek to inspire, arm and train the next generation of disciplined entrepreneurs, ready to stand in the sandals of Socrates during their ventures in business, government, law, sciences, arts, media, etc. And any curriculum should rest on the Socratic spirit: “Know Thyself,” a never-ending search for the truth about success and creativity. Ibn Khaldoun once alarmed us that when societies collapse, visions are often shortened by confusion. But Socratic discourse cultivates disciplined entrepreneurs with a clear vision, as it makes the truth their guide in their domains of life.