Grecian Graduations and the Socratic Method

Professor Keith McLay, the University of Derby’s Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities & Education, discusses his recent trip to Athens to attend the graduation ceremonies of our Greek partner colleges.

And so to Athens, cradle of western civilisation, education and, according to the Athenian statesman Pericles in his 431 BC Funeral Oration for the dead of the Peloponnesian War, a city which ‘alone among her contemporaries is superior to the report of her’. Professor Judith Lamie, Pro Vice-Chancellor – External Affairs, and I were attending the graduation ceremonies of the Greek partner colleges, Vakalo Art & Design College and Mediterranean College.

While not as ancient as ancient Greece, both Colleges are longstanding partners of the University of Derby and have since the mid-1990s (Vakalo) and the mid-2000s (Mediterranean) been offering franchise and validated undergraduate and postgraduate programmes across a range of subject areas from Art and Design to Business, Computer Science, Culinary Arts and Hospitality, Education Engineering and Psychology.

Just as the spirt of renewal was expressed through the home fire and homage to Hestia, goddess of the family, in the Athenian city-states, our partnerships with Vakalo and Mediterranean College have been continually revitalised and maintained through a dynamism on both sides seeking out the next development and opportunity. To that end, before, between and after the ceremonies, we met with the senior leadership teams from both Colleges to scope out what’s next: doctoral supervision, new undergraduate, postgraduate and foundation year programmes were all discussed with commitment for the local teams in both countries to speak further.

The graduation ceremonies were a joy to behold. Anticipatory, rumbustious, energetic, tactile and colourful: Professor Lamie and I were treated to a cacophony of klaxons (several of which rather alarmingly emitted smoke), cheering and, on congratulating the graduates on stage, much European style mwoa mwoa cheek kissing and hugging. Fair enough: the blog’s author’s proffered handshake was never going to be enough but this alternative embracing congratulation was certainly not part of my formative experience in a (very) small fishing village in the North East of Scotland. Still by observing the Pro Vice-Chancellor External Affairs, who seemed to have the touch from the off, I soon captured the rhythm.

A more serious point shone through the tumult of the ceremonies, however. In Greece, in Athens, it was another of the city’s favourite ancient sons who loomed large: Socrates. Author of the Socratic Method, an educational methodology which underlies university teaching today, Socrates encouraged his students to ask questions, to cross-examine, to seek out inconsistencies and contradictions and to aspire to original and profound thought.

Socrates was, of course, put to his death in 399 BC on account of the Socratic Method allegedly ‘corrupting the youth’. But as he said in his defence at his trial, ‘If you put me to death you will not easily find another of my sort…a kind of gadfly to a big generous horse…and all day long and everywhere I fasten on you, rousing and persuading and admonishing you.’ There was not another Socrates (self-evidently) but his pursuit of critical enquiry and flight as a gadfly to conventional and established thinking ultimately lived on in the medieval and modern European universities.

From participating in the ceremonies, and speaking to colleagues and graduates, it was clear that the 300 or so University of Derby graduates from Vakalo and Mediterranean Colleges were the product of that Socratic tradition and a credit to the trans-national educational partnerships and partners to which Derby is committed.

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