Legal Education Essay 130 Harv. L. Rev. 2320

The Socratic Method in the Age of Trauma


When I was a young girl, the careers I dreamed of — as a prima ballerina or piano virtuoso — involved performing before an audience. But even in my childhood ambitions of life on stage, no desire of mine involved speaking. My Korean immigrant family prized reading and the arts, but not oral expression or verbal assertiveness — perhaps even less so for girls. Education was the highest familial value, but a posture of learning anything worthwhile seemed to go together with not speaking. My incipient tendency to raise questions and arguments was treated as disrespect or hubris, to be stamped out, sometimes through punishment. As a result, and surely also due to natural shyness, I had an almost mute relation to the world.

It was 1L year at Harvard Law School that changed my default mode from “silent” to “speak.” Having always been a student who said nothing and preferred a library to a classroom, I was terrified and scandalized as professors called on classmates daily to engage in back-and-forth dialogues of reasons and arguments in response to questions, on subjects of which we knew little and on which we had no business expounding. What happened as I repeatedly faced my unwelcome turn, heard my voice, and got through with many stumbles was a revelation that changed my life. A light switched on. Soon, I was even volunteering to engage in this dialogue, and I was thinking more intensely, independently, and enjoyably than I ever had before. Eventually, learning through speaking, reasoning, questioning, and revising in conversation with others became a way of life that I treasure and try to cultivate in students.

As a law professor over the past decade, I have seen students experience their own epiphanies and transformations in relation to the law school classroom. But I know that some students viscerally dislike the pedagogy that typifies law school, viewing it as outdated and oppressive, and even reporting ill effects on their sense of equality, identity, and well-being. And critiques of law school teaching that point to a disproportionate adverse impact on the educational experience of women and minorities are of special concern to me — as a feminist, a teacher, and the first Asian woman to have been tenured at the school that formed my legal mind and opened my greatest opportunities.

This Essay on the occasion of Harvard Law School’s bicentennial is a reflection on the present connections and contradictions between our inherited pedagogical traditions, the desires and needs of students in a diverse law school, and aspirations for law graduates in a changing world today.

* John H. Watson, Jr., Professor of Law, Harvard Law School. Thanks to Jacob Gersen and Bert Huang for patient counsel; Yaseen Eldik, Tara Grove, Justin Murray, and colleagues at Harvard Law School and the University of Chicago Law School for thoughtful comments; the editors of the Harvard Law Review for wonderful editorial help; Jagmeet Singh, Clara Spera, and Sunshine Yin for excellent research assistance; Duncan Kennedy and Elizabeth Warren for mentoring my teaching; and a decade of my criminal law and family law students for being so game.