Democracy depends on enlightened citizens, by Christopher Phillips

Logo for Madison Vision Series Contemporary issues in an engaged society

On April 30, Christopher Phillips, a specialist in the Socratic method, concluded this year’s Madison Vision Series: Contemporary Issues in an Engaged Society with a speech on “Re-Thinking Democracy.” His presentation on inquiry, curiosity and dialogue served as a capstone for the lecture series. Phillips’ words encouraged the opportunity for audience members to reflect on what previous speakers have discussed, as well as take his words and carry them into their own lives and civic engagement.

Phillips explained that around 1996, he noticed that any time he turned on the television, he was dissatisfied with the way people were engaging in supposedly “intellectual” discourse. “More often than not, it was browbeating or one-upping,” Phillips described. “There was intellectual snootiness. People were using knowledge as a cloak and shield rather than using it to diffuse enlightenment.”

His biggest fear? The fact that he was observing the same things that had brought the great Athenian democratic system down happening again in the United States.

“Democracy hinges on an enlightened citizenry,” Phillips said. And it seemed to him that it was becoming weaker and weaker.

Phillips decided to revive the Socratic method and bring it into a modern setting. He conceived the idea of a “Socrates Cafe,” where groups of people could come together in a cafe-like setting and discuss things freely. His plan at the time was to simply have one intimate group that could fulfill this mission – but that soon changed.

A reporter from The New York Times stumbled upon Phillips’ session in a coffee shop one day. After observing the discussion, the reporter covered what they had seen and soon published a story on it. The next time the Socrates Cafe met, 150 people showed up to engage.

Phillips began traveling around the world to share his method, and soon wrote best-selling books on the importance of true dialogue, human interaction and intellectual discussion. What he observed was that this method could transform students’ abilities. “Often, students who don’t perform well on other activities do well with the Socratic Method,” Phillips shared, “because there is no right answer.”

And with students and working adults alike, Phillips found an emerging trend in which “just by having the hutzpah to come discuss issues publicly, it was a step toward more civic engagement.” Engaging with the Socrates Cafe led citizens to feeling like their voice mattered and that they could take action.

Phillips’ discussion melded perfectly into both the ideas of Madison “the man” as well as James Madison University. By encouraging more of Phillips’ ideas in practice, JMU can continue to produce students who are part of an engaged and enlightened citizenry.

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By Rosemary Girard (’15)

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Published: Friday, May 2, 2014

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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