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The Cafe of Critical Thinking
Students and professors meet informally to practice philosophy, arguing ideas and questions and learning the fine art of meaningful conversation.
Are terrorists rational? Why is anything funny? Is affirmative action just? What is beauty? These are just a few of the past topics debated by SCU students at Cafe Socrates, an informal discussion group in which participants gather with shared snacks and open minds. Along with other faculty members and guests, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Classics Scott LaBarge helps keep discussions moving, while modeling for students how to talk about provocative issues in a philosophical manner.
It started in 2000 with an idea championed by Philosophy Professor William Prior. Now, Cafe Socrates meets once a week for a couple of hours in a Bannan Hall classroom that participants quickly rearrange for comfort and informality. It’s dinner time, so students bring snacks. But what they’re really hungry for is heated discussion of topics that they find relevant, controversial, and fun to talk about.
“Philosophy is such a broad discipline,” says LaBarge. “There are issues that are very interesting philosophically to students that we just never get a chance to talk about in class. What Cafe Socrates does is make it possible for us to have those conversations.”
Voluntary and bottom-up
Not a course and not for credit, Cafe Socrates is a purely voluntary activity and more like a club. Any Santa Clara University student can come, not just those taking philosophy courses. “We don’t expect people to stay the whole time, but they often do,” LaBarge says. “It’s not uncommon to see students still arguing as they’re walking out at the end.”
LaBarge is the faculty member responsible for overseeing the Cafe, but, as he hastens to point out, it is meant to be a bottom-up organization. Each week, the students decide what their next topic will be. Typically, several professors are in attendance; the students obviously enjoy watching them debate with each other.
“We try to model for them how to conduct a discussion and how to debate respectfully and articulately,” says LaBarge. “What’s most important is a commitment to the process of examining and testing one’s opinions, of trying to understand each other.”
When explaining the group’s name, LaBarge points to Socrates’ reputation as a conversationalist.
“One of the things that impressed people most about Socrates wasn’t how brilliant and clever he was, but how skillful he was in getting people to talk,” says LaBarge. “He understood that there has to be a kind of trust that all parties buy into, a commitment to seeing that conversation is a partnership, not a competition, where the partners seek truth and understanding.”