Monday, September 15, 2008

The Bush Doctrine and The Socratic Method

Bob's promise to stop talking about Gov. Palin has only made me want to talk about her more. Not having television, I did not watch Charlie Gibson's interview with Gov. Palin. I first heard about it on NPR. Lots of folks have weighed in on this interview. I have a very specific observation to add regarding the line of questioning related to the Bush Doctrine and how it might affect voters.

In sum: Sarah Palin's complete ignorance only endears her to the completely ignorant voting public.

If you'd like to refresh your recollection of this line of questioning, please scroll down to the bottom of this post to see a transcript of the part of the interview related to the Bush Doctrine.

At first I thought all folks who teach would relate to the following assessment of voters' reaction to this line of questioning. But reflecting further I suspect my assessment is more influenced by my specific experience in law school under the Socratic method than any other educational environment. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

Initiating a new topic, Charlie Gibson asked Sarah Palin, "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?" This is a classic law school question. It tests two things. First, do you know what the Bush doctrine is. Second, do you understand it enough to articulate an opinion on the matter which will show your deeper understanding.

So the first part is strictly definitional. In law school, this would be considered the easy part. Of course, if you hadn't read the assignment or simply drew a blank on the specific terminology, you'd be in trouble from the get go. If you've ever seen a used case book (which is the type of textbook most law classes use) you'll see the lengths to which law students go not to fall into this type of trouble. Law students don't just underline, they color code their underlines and highlights and write margin notes in clear letters so that when they're called on with this sort of question they can quickly flip to the page in the case with a special term written in the margin next to the highlighted definition.

When a law student stumbles over the definitional part of a question like this, usually the professor will harangue them until they find the definition in the case book or finally take pity and provide the definition themselves. Occasionally the student will have that "oh yeah" moment where they clearly indicate that they totally get the concept but just forgot the term. This is a good day. Occasionally the student will get the definition and still have no clue what's going on. This is one of those awkward moments that happens every hour in law schools across the nation, creating a whole profession of people suffering from Socratic Method Induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Clearly, Gov. Palin either blanked on the terminology or didn't have a clue what was going on. In the complete transcript of that interchange I cannot find an "oh yeah" moment where she indicates she gets the concept but forgot the term. Technically, her failure to know the definition of the Bush Doctrine is a failure of her media prep team. As my husband, the poli-sci major, so astutely pointed out, no, the average citizen should not be expected to know the definition of the Bush Doctrine, but anyone involved in politics should.

Her failure to have an "oh yeah" moment implies two things. First, not only did her media prep team not drill the definition of the Bush Doctrine, they seemed to have failed to cover that material at all.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Gov. Palin failed to listen to Gibson's definition and craft an insightful answer in response. This is called bullshitting, and it is key to surviving law school and I hear it is a key ability for politicians as well. After her answer which clearly showed she didn't know the term, Gibson fed her the definition, "The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?" Anyone who went to law school knows that the correct response includes at least the phrases "anticipatory self-defense" and "preemptive strike." The key to surviving the Socratic Method is to use the information the professor gives you in his or her questions. Palin's response, "I agree that a president's job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America." No key phrases. Barely an understanding that what we're talking about is the President as Commander-In-Chief. In law school, this is when everyone else would be preparing their answer to the same question because clearly the professor is going to move on to another student because this student has nothing more to offer.

But interview/class preparation is only part of my concern. She's not running for the post of successful law student. The important question is how does this interchange affect voters' opinions of Gov. Palin. My answer is again informed by my experience in law school.

A group of students undergoing the Socratic Method experiences a collective anxiety. Usually law professors call on students rather than waiting for students to volunteer to answer. When a student is asked a question like, "Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?" the rest of the class is looking for the answer to that question knowing that if the first student doesn't know, they might be called on. If, like the vast majority of the U.S. population does not know the term "the Bush Doctrine," the vast majority of the law students don't know the definitional part of the answer you will hear mass page flipping searching for it. And if they don't find it, you hear the rattle of laptop keys as they Google it. And the few folks who already know the term aren't just sitting there thinking, "What a dumbass." They're formulating their answer to the rest of the question in a way that shows the depth of their understanding of the topic.

If the questioned student has an "oh yeah" moment, the whole class relaxes a bit. First, it means they're less likely to get called on. Second, it means the professor is less likely to get cranky and assign more reading. Third, if they can share that "oh yeah" moment they know all they need to do to prepare for the final exam is to memorize the term that goes with the idea they already understand.

If the questioned student totally misses the mark and can't recover after a definition is provided the whole class becomes more tense because their chances of getting called on increase. And in a less self-interested way, if the teacher doesn't move to another student, everyone has to sit there and watch their classmate get publicly humiliated for as long as the professor's sadism requires. If you didn't know the term and didn't have an "oh yeah" moment either, then watching your classmate's intellectual excoriation massively increases your empathy for that student. The professor is only doing his or her job, which within the Socratic tradition completely justifies publicly humiliating students. After class students who do not even know the questioned student will offer support and sympathy. They'll email the questioned student their notes from that date. They'll compliment them on simply not bursting into tears. They'll share their stories of being caught in a similar situation. End result: not knowing the answer vastly improves a student's name recognition and empathy from fellow students.

Applied to Gov. Palin and the Bush Doctrine exchange I think her complete ignorance improved her poll numbers more than a competent answer would have.

Here is the transcript of this entire line of questioning from the ABC News website.

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush doctrine?

PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?

GIBSON: The Bush -- well, what do you -- what do you interpret it to be?

PALIN: His world view.

GIBSON: No, the Bush doctrine, enunciated September 2002, before the Iraq war.

PALIN: I believe that what President Bush has attempted to do is rid this world of Islamic extremism, terrorists who are hell bent on destroying our nation. There have been blunders along the way, though. There have been mistakes made. And with new leadership, and that's the beauty of American elections, of course, and democracy, is with new leadership comes opportunity to do things better.

GIBSON: The Bush doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense, that we have the right to a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?

PALIN: I agree that a president's job, when they swear in their oath to uphold our Constitution, their top priority is to defend the United States of America.

I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.

GIBSON: Do we have a right to anticipatory self-defense? Do we have a right to make a preemptive strike again another country if we feel that country might strike us?

PALIN: Charlie, if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend.

GIBSON: Do we have the right to be making cross-border attacks into Pakistan from Afghanistan, with or without the approval of the Pakistani government?

PALIN: Now, as for our right to invade, we're going to work with these countries, building new relationships, working with existing allies, but forging new, also, in order to, Charlie, get to a point in this world where war is not going to be a first option. In fact, war has got to be, a military strike, a last option.

GIBSON: But, Governor, I'm asking you: We have the right, in your mind, to go across the border with or without the approval of the Pakistani government.

PALIN: In order to stop Islamic extremists, those terrorists who would seek to destroy America and our allies, we must do whatever it takes and we must not blink, Charlie, in making those tough decisions of where we go and even who we target.

GIBSON: And let me finish with this. I got lost in a blizzard of words there. Is that a yes? That you think we have the right to go across the border with or without the approval of the Pakistani government, to go after terrorists who are in the Waziristan area?

PALIN: I believe that America has to exercise all options in order to stop the terrorists who are hell bent on destroying America and our allies. We have got to have all options out there on the table.

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Rebecca said...

Pretty entertaining postings about Palin. I particularly liked the anti Palin rally in Alaska post.

Rebecca said...

I meant to comment on the Sarah's post and hit the publish comment by accident. I heard only a small clip of the interview with the first question asking if she knew what the doctrine was and I felt like it was kind of jerky and made me feel a little sympathetic towards her. But when I read the whole thing where she continued to not really give a straight answer eroded my sympathy.