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The Socratic Oath of An Academic

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In what follows, I will try to formulate a Socratic Oath of the Academic, as distinct from the Socratic Oath of the Teacher.

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THE HIPPOCRATIC AND SOCRATIC OATHS

 

The Hippocratic Oath embodies an ethical commitment of the community of medical doctors. There are many versions of the Oath, but they all share a core commitment: to treat the ill and prevent disease as best as one can, and to do no harm.

 

Equivalents of this oath can be found in other pursuits, such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Rotblat’s Hippocratic Oath for Scientists (1995). Among such equivalents are versions of the Socratic Oath for Teachers, articulating an ethical commitment of the community of educators.

 

In what follows, I will try to formulate a Socratic Oath of the Academic, as distinct from the Socratic Oath of the Teacher. What do I mean by this distinction?

 

The popular concept of an academic is that of someone employed to perform the functions of teaching (or research) in educational institutions: schools, colleges, universities, and institutes, and perhaps research organisations. My own definition is different:

 

An Academic is someone who is dedicated to contributing to the growth of Academic Knowledge.

Academic Knowledge is a collective body of rationally justified conclusions with varying degrees of certainty.

 

By this definition, teachers/educators are academics only if they contribute to the collective pool of academic knowledge. This definition of ‘Academic’ would include people like Plato the philosopher and the celebrated mathematician Ramanujam, though the popular definition of Academic in terms of employment would exclude them. Since I am currently not a paid employee of any institution, I do not count as an academic by the popular definition – but my given my own definition, I am an academic.

 

MY SOCRATIC OATH AS AN ACADEMIC

 

The term ‘Socratic oath of an academic’ is a confluence of the ethical commitments of an educator and an academic. Let me present two of the ‘vows’ of that oath.

 

The First Vow: The Value of Doubting and Questioning

 

The first vow in my oath stems from the concept of knowledge as a body of rationally justified conclusions that have reasonable certainty, but never total certainty. The classical concept of knowledge is based on the verb ‘know’, which sees knowledge as a proposition that the knower knows, and is a position trapped in total certainty beyond doubting and questioning. The uncertainty and fallibility of knowledge, articulated by scientists like Einstein and Feynman and mathematicians like Morris Kline, departs from the classical concept. If we accept the intellectual hygiene of the Buddha, Socrates, Einstein, Kline, Feynman, and so on, we must also accept the two consequences given below (articulated in terms of Democratic Education in “Education as Cognitive Liberation.”)

We must expect the learner as a critical inquirer to ask: “Why should I believe what teachers, and other authorities and traditions believe, or do what they do? I should examine the justification offered in support of these beliefs and practices, and decide for myself what to believe and what to do.”

Similarly, we must expect the educator as an Academic to pledge: “I have no right to decide what my students should believe and what they should do. I do have a responsibility to help them develop the capacity to decide for themselves what to believe and what to do. I also have a responsibility to familiarize them with the beliefs and practices of past and present communities.”

 

From this position comes my first vow:

Vow 1:  I will strive to help learners develop the capacity to doubt and question me, and others, as well as themselves, and where appropriate, to prove that we are wrong; and will not indoctrinate them with my own beliefs and practices.

 

If the communities of educators take this vow, it is possible that students would develop the spirit of inquiry in their own domains. A significant part of the curriculum would then need to aim at developing in learners the capacity to engage in transdisciplinary and discipline-specific inquiry and critical thinking (e.g., the ability to construct theories, to justify claims, and to evaluate claims).

 

A word about the distinction between the transdisciplinary and discipline-specific aspects of knowledge. A PhD student working on the social behaviour of fruitflies, for instance, would need to learn the techniques of transferring fruit flies from one jar to another, while a PhD student in astronomy would need to learn the techniques of using powerful telescopes. These abilities are discipline-specific. But the ability to design experiments to investigate a causal conjecture is not specific to any discipline: it is needed in all domains of physical, biological, and human sciences that lend themselves to experimentation. This is a trans-disciplinary ability.

 

Likewise, while the concepts of atomic structure, molecular structure, crystal structure, cell structure, skeletal structure, structure of an argument, structure of a poem, and structure of a dance performance are discipline-specific, the concept of structure itself is trans-disciplinary. So are the concepts of function, theory, model, framework, data, explanation, justification, evidence, reasoning, argumentation, correlation, causation, claim, and conclusion.

 

Examples of pedagogical tasks to promote trans-disciplinary inquiry abilities and the concepts that support those abilities are discussed in “Learning to Think like a Scientist and a Mathematician and a Scientist“; the INK Talk “Questioning Authority”; the IISER Bhopal Institute Lecture “Education to Enhance Academic Intelligence”; and “Enhancing Academic Intelligence : Nalanda Conversations” Part 1 and Part 2.

 

The Second Vow: The Choice of Educational Goals

 

The second vow in my Socratic Oath is derived from a principle in my educational philosophy:

What we teach must of value to the learners in their personal, public and/or professional domains throughout their lives.

 

The vow derived from this principle is easy to articulate:

Vow 2:  I will strive to help learners learn what will be of value to them in their personal, public, and professional lives after their formal education; and will not force them to learn what is unlikely to be of value for the future.

 

Vow 2 also has serious consequences to decisions on what we as educators include in our curriculum.

 

Unlike professional and occupational courses, undergraduate programs in mathematics, the sciences, and the humanities do not prepare students for specific careers. Only a small number of individuals who graduate from these programs proceed to higher studies and research in the particular subjects. For the majority, the programs are a path to a wide range of careers that have little to do with their subject major.

 

What is our responsibility to that majority?

 

Consider an undergraduate physics syllabus whose topics include Ohm’s law, Ampere’s law, dynamo, motor, and torque. Someone with such a degree, who does not go on to specialise in physics (e.g., an evolutionary biologist, diplomat, chef) does not need the information and calculating skills related to these topics. What they need, and could gain from the domain, is the ability to rigorously engage with ideas. So, instead, if a student of physics were to learn to discuss ideas like those in Einstein and Infeld’s Evolution of Physics, and transfer that ability to discuss ideas outside physics (e.g., ‘democracy’), my second vow will have seen some success.

 

Given our responsibility to the non-specialist students, ignoring issues of this kind in syllabus design would be unethical.

 

K P Mohanan is a Co-Founder of ThinQ (http://www.thinq.education/). He can be reached at his email: mohanan.kp@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal. 

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