What do Stalin, Hitler, and college professors have in common?
“The Socratic Method,” explains professor and program director of Comparative Literature David Lenson at Umass Amherst, “Has left a legacy of totalitarian thought that we have never lived down completely.”
For Commonwealth College’s first faculty lecture of the semester, David Lenson addressed a packed auditorium in the Campus Center. So many students showed up that even after the organizers lined up extra rows of chairs in the back, the wall space was completely filled with students who came out to listen to Prof. Lenson speak.
Following a slew of student testimonials dubbing him “the smartest professor on Umass campus,” “the man,” and a total “bad ass,” Lenson took the stage. He was wearing a tan jacket and a button down shirt, and his eyes twinkled a bit as he gestured and spoke to the audience with a distinctive rhythm in his voice.
He warned: “Im going to say some nasty things about Plato.”
“He probably never took a bath, he walked around all day, he didn’t do anything constructive, and he was probably an asshole. Is that enough reason to put someone to death? “All of us University faculty would be decimated.”
Lenson, in his trademark style, spent the remainder of the lecture joking around while also discussing deep, philosophical topics.
His focus was a critique Socratic Method, a philosophy of teaching involving the unending questioning of students to expose contradictions in their theories or ideas. Professor
Lenson explained that this style asserts that the instructor really has all of the knowledge. When this philosophy is stretched, it leads to the kind of “enlightened guardians” that many authoritarian leaders and regimes have used to justify their position.
In a pretentious faux-British accent, he mocked professors who claim that they’re doing students a favor by using the Socratic Method, rather than lecturing.
“Just as surely as a lecturer will bludgeon you with his opinions and force you to sit there passively while you’re hit over the head with them, no more so the Socratic method knows the conclusion that it wants to reach as certainly as a lecturer does, and will slowly, gradually lure you in until you give your consent to it. “
David Lenson has been a professor at Umass Amherst since 1971. He has written five books, including a semi-academic study of drug culture titled “On Drugs.” Lenson has served as an editor for the Massachusetts Review, and plays saxophone at approximately one hundred gigs a year. His lectures in CompLit 131 “Brave New Worlds” are legendary among Umass students, who have gone as far as to archive recordings of his lectures online.
“ I can talk as long as necessary on any subject,” Lenson admits. The UMass community hopes he will keep at it for a long time.