“The Paper Chase” started as a novel, was made into a movie and, finally, a TV series in the 1970’s.
The story follows a law student in his first year at Harvard. The student’s nemesis is the brilliant, dispassionate and relentlessness Professor Kingsfield.
Kingsfield has an off-putting demeanor and, at first, appears to be indifferent to his students and their problems. What he knows, though, is that his relentless attitude actually serves the interests of his students. He knows that they must posses the same intellectual relentlessness to be successful lawyers.
He opens his class with this speech:
The study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most of you; unlike any schooling you’ve ever been though before.
We used the Socratic method here; I call on you, ask you a question and you answer.
Why don’t I just give you a lecture? Because through my questions you learn to teach yourselves.
Through this method of questioning, answering, questioning, answering we seek to develop in you the ability to analyze that vast complex of facts that constitute the relationships of members within a given society.
Question and answering.
At times you may feel that you have found the correct answer. I assure you that this is a total delusion on your part; you will never find the correct absolute and final answer. In my classroom there is always another question; another question that follows your answer.
You are on a treadmill; my little questions spin the tumblers of your mind. You’re on an operating table; my little questions are the fingers probing your brain.
We do brain surgery here. You teach yourselves the law but I train your mind.
You come in here with a skull full of mush and you leave thinking like a lawyer.
I find myself thinking about this speech when I am working with my Scouts. I question relentlessly, there is always another question and there is often no ‘right’ answer.
I am “spinning the tumblers” trying to help them unlock their understanding; trying to get them to learn how to think for themselves. My Scouts aren’t in their first year at Harvard, so I temper my relentlessness with humor and empathy. I don’t tell them that they have a skull full of mush (sometimes, though, I think that they do!).
Every so often the light comes on; its an actual physical phenomenon! They brighten up; the lock is open. They have done more than just learning the right answer; they have learned to teach themselves.