October 30, 2003

"The Socratic Method" vs. "Pimping"

On Brian Leiter's blog, there are some links to some good discussions of the "Socratic method" of law school teaching.

All of which made me think of the pimping that goes on in medical school.

Both techniques are controversial in the same way: are they effective teaching tools, or merely an effective means of selective humiliation? Both have their critics and defenders, and neither seems likely to be resolved within my lifetime.

That essentially the same debate about the same technique takes place in both law and medicine leads me to ask if there's anything common to the two professions that could explain why these debates matter. Remember that an outsider might well wonder what's the big deal; you're in school, a teacher asks you questions, so what? Why are law students and medical students so obsessed with this?

Law students share with medical students one characteristic that is virtually guaranteed to make the public, interrogative teaching techniques of both professions controversial: they both are gripped with the desire to "know the right answer." Much of their self-esteem is built on their long track records of succeeding in school, of answering the teacher's questions correctly. Whatever their other insecurities or failings, most law or medical students can at least be proud of their high grades, their high test scores, and their hard-earned knowledge.

When a medical student on rounds is barraged with obscure and seemingly random questions to which he doesn't know the answer, he often feels humiliated, regardless of the conscious intention of the attending or resident asking the questions. Why? "Because I didn't know the answers!" The mere proof of ignorance, displayed in front of others, is enough to make him feel humiliated. "What am I if I don't know? A loser!"

Same thing with law students. If they can't give the "right" responses in class in front of everyone, they feel like failures at the one thing they've always been good at: pleasing the teacher and mastering the material. Even without any intention on the part of the professor to humiliate anyone, these law students will feel humiliated.

So the "controversy" surrounding the Socratic method is a lot like that surrounding "pimping." And no matter how respectful the attending is, no matter how encouraging the professor is, there will be many medical students and law students who feel humiliated every time they're publicly asked a question to which they don't immediately know the answer.

Posted by Carey at October 30, 2003 08:03 AM

re: pimping

I can only speak of my experience in medical school. As an educational tool, pimping is useless when concerned with obscure minutiae and facetiae. When the intent is to rehash basic and fundamental facts of medical education, one is far likelier to recall material from pimpings than something read from a textbook. It is unfortunate that many residents and attendings use pimping to bolster their delicate egos.

Posted by: Mr Fotze at October 30, 2003 11:43 AM

Judging from my experience (I was a law student, lawyer for 10 years, and now have forsaken the law for a much more enjoyable career being a computer geek for a major university health science center, where I get to make some observations of professional education of physicians, dentists, nurses, and pharmacists), I can say with complete confidence that medical education has one advantage that legal education lacks: It is impossible to go through medical school (or dental or pharmacy or nursing schools, for that matter) without seeing any patients. While clinical legal education is popular, it is still quite possible for the aspiring lawyer to go from first year law student to freshly minted attorney without ever having seen a client.

Posted by: Len Cleavelin at October 30, 2003 03:15 PM

Attendings and residents that try to humiliate students by pimping them are sad creatures. In the course of their education, most of them have been mistreated by others in the same way they're mistreating students now. Rather than trying to do better, they take delight in the chance to do unto others what was done unto them.


It isn't a priority for law schools to get their students out among clients. No, the priority is to train them for a Biglaw job, which means years of servitude in the interests of corporations, taking commands from senior associates and partners, rarely speaking with clients, and feeling incapable of quitting.

If students were taught to relate to clients in law school, their skills at graduation would be much more consistent with legal self-sufficiency. The "incentives" offered by Biglaw (including, ironically, 'training') wouldn't look so good anymore.

Posted by: Carey at October 31, 2003 08:08 AM

Great comments guys. Peter FDA

Posted by: Peter at November 10, 2003 12:29 AM