Socrates and His Absence from the Land of the Ganges: Comparing Teaching Methods from India to the U.S.

Differences in teaching style pieceLaw schools in India – like those in the U.S. – are churning along at a fairly brisk rate, spitting out bucket loads of legal graduates every year (currently there are 1.3 million lawyers in India, comparable to the 1.2 million in the U.S.). However, the methods of teaching used in the law schools of India, and consequently the abilities of the individuals graduating from such schools, are very different from their American counterparts. A debate that has gained increasing importance in the country, including within the Bar Council of India, is the question of whether the Socratic method should be implemented in Indian law school.  Having undergone five years of law school in India and just about one semester of the seemingly patented American brand of legal study, I believe a combination of the existing Indian legal teaching methods with features of the Socratic method would be ideal — teaching students encyclopedic knowledge of the existing legal rules, as well as the ability to modify and combine such rules to suit novel situations.

In most law schools in the U.S., the Socratic method is holy doctrine. Named after the Greek philosopher who supposedly invented this method to solve the conundrum of who was smarter than him, the Socratic dialogue is meant to challenge deeply held assumptions in order to inspire critical thinking. This teaching style aptly makes the professor more of a conductor than a lecturer; their ideal role seems to be to interrogate the students, stimulate seemingly random discussions, generally cause mayhem, and leave the students more confused than before class started. And that’s the whole point – students are supposed to think for themselves, to analyze real-life occurrences, and deduce from them the applicable principles.

However, the system does have its inevitable shortcomings: apart from a few eager souls, students frequently ration their classroom answers and participate in discussions only when required to do so. The professor in one of my classes follows a designated call system where everyone knows when they might be called upon to talk. Unless I think the reading material for the upcoming class is blow-my-mind interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever finished the reading for any class that I wasn’t on call for. Often, the Socratic method seems more like an attempt to “guess the answer” that the professor has in mind.

By contrast, the system of legal teaching in India is almost exclusively lecture-based. There is very little or no pre-class preparation. Students are expected to come to class, be lectured at by individuals of varying competencies, take hordes of notes in class, and go back home or wherever else their interests lead them. Although the study of case law is central, lectures are usually focused on the rules developed by the court and the application of such rules to various situations. The professors are the purveyors of all knowledge, statute and precedent alike.

The perceived advantage of this system is that as a result of the rote memorization of statutes and case law, the student is expected to be a storehouse of information. For instance, I could at any time tell you the substance of at least a hundred sections in the 658-section long Indian Companies Act (or I would have been able to if I wasn’t a subscriber to the “in one ear and out the other” philosophy, which on reflection does not make me a very good Indian student – so sue me). The problem with this system lies in the fact that life, as every jaded practicing lawyer knows, very rarely serves up a full-toss that you can just swing at and launch over long-on for a six (I’d say cricket analogies are much more apt here than, say, baseball). The meat and potatoes of every lawyer’s job is the gray area – the range of occurrences that are out of the ordinary, which may or may not be covered by a specific rule. These borderline cases require the ability to deduce the essential ingredients of an existing rule as well as re-interpret it in a way that would fit the specific situation one finds oneself in. For this, the Socratic method is best.

However, introducing the Socratic method in India would not be easy. I believe the biggest challenge is the student-teacher ratio in most Indian law schools. Teaching jobs are not as well paid in India, and as a result teachers are usually a mix of the highly dedicated and the recently graduated who see the position primarily as a stepping stone to more lucrative legal jobs. The result is a dearth of law teachers and overburdening of such teachers who are required to teach multiple courses to multiple sets of students simultaneously. Asked to use the Socratic method in their teaching would place a much heavier burden on them, and may in fact be counter-productive. Indeed, even some American law professors, with a lower student-teacher ratio, still find the method a bit overwhelming in practice. Unless more qualified and eager teachers are brought into the system (which means raising salaries), Socrates’ legacy may never be able to reach the Ganges after all.

Kaustuv Banerjee is an LLM from New Delhi, India, and was previously employed at a corporate law firm in India.

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