Individual Thoughts by Trusted Knower

Michael Strong: Socratic Innovator

In Part 2 of Episode 1 of Individual Thoughts by Trusted Knower (embedded below), we interviewed education innovator Michael Strong, author of The Habit of Thought, about how he uses Socratic Practice as part of the schools he creates, as well as how his own background led him to understand the importance of focused dialogue as a tool of learning.

“Independent judgment is the ability to make decisions for oneself, based on the available evidence and on one’s knowledge of one’s self and the world, without looking to the approval of others in order to make decisions.”

Michael Strong, “On Socratic Seminars”, The Habit of Thought.
Cover of Michael Strong's _The Habit of Thought_

In our interview, Michael Strong tells us that his self-teaching started while growing up in northern Minnesota, where the poor TV reception encouraged him to become an avid reader. A particular high school class that focused on reading and having free discussion of philosophical texts made him realize that this was the educational format he preferred. He intended to go to St. John’s College, which has a Socratic-style Great Books program, but was talked into applying to Harvard. He went to Harvard, but was bored by being lectured to, so after a year transferred to St. Johns College, Santa Fe campus.

Michael Strong has created a number of innovative schools including KoSchool in Austin. Today, he runs the Academy of Thought and Industry, which has a number of campuses (in NYC, San Francisco, Austin, and St. Louis) as well as a virtual program.

Autodidacticism as Strategy

In all my schools, a significant trend has been Socratic… I see it as the essence of autodidacticism. If we can learn how to learn on our own, then we can learn anything.

Michael Strong

Autodidacticism is the practice or philosophy of self-teaching. Strong gets young people to learn how to do this by practicing reading and discussing difficult texts.

“We read texts very closely… I have students read much more difficult texts than they would read on their own… Most young people don’t read very much, if they do, it is very easy material. So one of the ways, on a concrete basis, we get great SAT verbal scores, because if we are reading and discussing difficult material: Plato, Toni Morrison, Borges, on a regular basis, and the students are arguing about what the text means, that creates a deep relationship with prose and ideas, and sometimes even punctuation. Why did the author put the semi-colon there? But, in addition to the text-based autodidacticism, they are also obtaining a sense of empowerment that they can think through their own ideas.”

This practice of creating the ability to teach ourselves, also has implications for our personal freedom/independence of thought. Strong continues:

“…I’m opposed to the hierarchy of knowledge, where we are trained from the time we are are young to submit to the teacher’s belief, then submit to the professor’s belief, and then submit to the politician’s belief, submit to the minister’s belief. That is the default setting in our society. — we don’t have our own ideas, other people tell us what to believe.”

“Whereas, I think in reality, we all become learners and independent agents when we realize we have to figure it out on our own. We can’t really trust anybody — each of us has our own priorities, beliefs, convictions, and our own experiences. I see this big autodidactic Socratic process as, ‘Let’s try to make sense of reality as it stands’. And it’s really hard.”

“Once you accept that you’re responsible for making sense of reality on your own, all of sudden the doors open up and you become a much more empowered learner. Any time you don’t trust or you are not sure, or you are confused by what somebody else says, go and learn, figure it out, look at other sources, look for contradictions. Judge for yourself.”

Creating Your Own Education

Students and their families don’t have be beholden to their local public school system.

Ivan Illich made the point that all these institutions try to create dependency. They want us to be dependent on them. They want us to believe that we need them.”

“The fact is, for most people, most of the time, you have to find a way to structure your child’s attention. If your child is focused on something useful, I don’t care what they are reading, what logic puzzles they are doing, what math they are doing, what educational videos you are doing. You don’t want them just playing video games all day. But, as long as they are focused on something positive.”

“Most of schooling is where kids are forced to do crap they don’t want to do, and they forget almost everything.”

In Michael Strong’s essay, “An Expensive Private Education for Less than $3,000 per Year”, he outlines a strategy for creating an add-on education:

“Get them to be readers. Through Socratic dialogue get them to explore ideas. Gradually, get them to be writers. Math requires discipline, so maybe half an hour to an hour of math everyday in a disciplined fashion. Then beyond that get some tutors and some interesting people.”

“There are so many educated people, there are so many great resources. A lot of the most educated people in history say, ‘At this age, I read all the books in my father’s library.’ If your kid is a reader, school is a waste of time.”