Socrates and The Lecturer

Alexander Shtyrov 6 November 2019
Image Credit: Pixabay

In another week of our Education column, Alexander Shtyrov experiments with a dialogue between Socrates and a Cambridge lecturer…

Socrates converses with a lecturer, and is disappointed…

The LECTURER is on the last slide of her presentation. She has just completed the final lecture of her course and is reminding students to complete the online student satisfaction survey, to the sound of laptops being closed and doors opening and shutting. Finally, she removes her microphone and commences arranging her notes.

Enter SOCRATES, a philosopher. The LECTURER looks up, but continues shuffling sheets of paper.

SOCRATES: I wish to pose a question, lecturer.

LECTURER: Yes?

SOCRATES: Why must students complete satisfaction surveys at the end of each lecture course?

LECTURER: Because, Socrates, we care about what our students think.

SOCRATES: How so?

LECTURER: Students, when they come to our university, are acquiring knowledge capital. They are making an investment, a great investment. And they, well they expect it to pay off. It is our duty, as the providers of education, to cater to the needs of our students, to make sure that they they are having a positive experience and acquiring the skills required to compete on a highly crowded employment market. We have passed the days of dull lecturers delivering content that is out of touch with these requirements. In modern, progressive universities, it is the student, not the lecturer, who determines what is taught. Students are the main change factors, and we must cooperate with them. The surveys are an important strategy for achieving that. If, say, I find that there is content that most of my is uninteresting for most of my audience, I do not hesitate to throw it out.

SOCRATES: I quite understand. If a man goes to a cobbler, and asks for paving slabs, he expects that they are of good quality.

LECTURER: Of course.

SOCRATES: The slabs should be of a solid construction, durable, and not chip or crack. And the cobbler should install them with care, so that there are no gaps where weeds may grow.

LECTURER: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And what should the customer do if he is not satisfied with the construction of the stones, or with the quality of the cobbler’s services?

LECTURER: He should complain, of course, and exercise his rights as a consumer.

SOCRATES: And do you agree, lecturer, that we may say the same of carpenter and his services, or of a tailor and his services?

LECTURER: I do, Socrates.

SOCRATES: But what if our customer wants to become an athlete? He is, at the moment, not the most able person at boxing, or throwing the discus, or running, but he consults a trainer. During his first week of lessons, he is made to do all manner of repetitive exercises, as I think you understand, to develop his stamina. He, however, does not understand this. He becomes bored, and does not see that he is making any progress. Should he then complain to the trainer?

LECTURER: No, he should not. The trainer, surely, knows better what is right than his customer.

SOCRATES: So is lecturing more like selling paving slabs or like training athletes?

LECTURER: Like training athletes. Indeed, I see now that students must not always be satisfied. Nonetheless, the trainer may charge for his services. Otherwise, how will he earn money? The fittest people to provide for him are his customers.

SOCRATES: That is quite true. And if the customer must pay for his lessons, then he has a right to demand that he receives a service of the highest quality. Otherwise, he may take his money and go to another trainer. What, at least in principle, is the effect of such competition for customers?

LECTURER: Each trainer will attempt to provide the best service possible for the smallest charge possible. It is the same in our universities — the competition for students ensures that each institution strives to provide the best education possible.

SOCRATES: But, lecturer, you forget that our analogy is incomplete. You are not quite an athletics coach, for you improve the mind, not the body. Is that not so?

LECTURER: Yes, I suppose it is.

SOCRATES: And how do you propose to determine quantitatively whether one institution is better than another? It cannot be by student satisfaction, as we have seen.

LECTURER: No, it cannot. We can use other indicators, however. We can rank universities by graduate employment prospects, or by graduate salaries.

SOCRATES: Which would suggest that there is a direct correlation between the skills required to obtain and keep a job and the skills you teach in your lectures. Perhaps you are a history lecturer. Most of your graduates will not acquire jobs that require a knowledge of history or the ability to analyse historical events, construct elaborate chains of reasoning. How can there be a direct link between how skilled one of your graduates is in a job and how well you lecture?

LECTURER: I teach my students skills that they can transfer to other fields.

SOCRATES: Although there is mounting evidence that transferable skills are a myth, much like those so exquisitely told by Hesiod, let us for the moment suppose that they are not. Yet ranking the quality of your teaching by the skills acquired in a different field is surely absurd. We would not seek to rank an athletics trainer by how quickly his pupils can type on a typewriter, even if acquiring strength, stamina, and a quick reaction may help them type more swiftly.

LECTURER: What if we were to institute a national exam that assessed students’ knowledge?

SOCRATES: The ability to sit exams is also a transferable skill, so such a method is flawed. We should note that the first rankings were devised by those who sought to determine quantitatively whether one great master was better than another by giving them numerical scores in a number of categories. Roger de Piles, the first of the quantitative art critics, scored composition, drawing, colour, and expression in a treatise published in 1708. I hope you will agree with me, lecturer, that his method of ranking artists was as flawed as our method of ranking universities. Not everything can be given a number.

LECTURER: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Thus, if the principle of value for money cannot be applied to education, why should we force institutions into a competition based on this principle?

LECTURER: Perhaps we should not. But how are we then to identify schools and universities that are failing to perform their educational duties and that harm their students and society?

SOCRATES: Do not conflate identifying failing institutions with ranking them. It is not necessary to compare one university to another to tell that one is flourishing and the other is not. This can be done by comparison of each institution with a set of criteria — with the educational ideal.

LECTURER: And how are we to stop universities competing based on the principle of value for money?

SOCRATES: There is only one way, which is to stop requiring students to pay, and to provide the required funding from a third party. If the monetary nature of the relationship between university and student is removed, then so will the monetary nature of their competition.

LECTURER: In other words, education must be free. Socrates, I see that this room is to be used for the next lecture. I think we had better depart.

SOCRATES: Yes, of course.

Exeunt SOCRATES and LECTURER.

What do you think of this dialogue? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject ‘Letter to the Editor’!