Vantage Point: The Dangers of Sophistry

Fall 2017

By John W. Roth

Schools have always been challenged to not just meet but exceed the mores of society at large. This
has never been more true than today.

Recently, I caught one of my students cheating on a test. I took away his crib sheet and made him take the test without it; he failed miserably. In the subsequent conversation the father requested about his child’s punishment for cheating, the parent argued that since the child never actually used the cheat sheet, he technically did not cheat, therefore obviating, or at least mitigating, his suspension from school. The head of the school replied that while this would be a good defense in a court of law, as an independent school, we were not subject to that line of logic.

If there was ever a moment that has clarified my purpose in teaching for the last 25 years, that was it. A school is in this world, but must not be of it.

As a classicist, I am reminded of the last days of Socrates, and sometimes wonder if I am seeing harbingers of the end of my teaching career. One of history’s true heroes, Socrates did not merely teach the path to Truth; he lived it as well. Ironically, he was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings. That he chose to die when he could have avoided a death sentence by circumventing the system is testimony to his personal integrity and conviction. At the time, he was falsely and derogatorily referred to as a “sophist,” one of the slick breed of orators whose reputations and wealth were made from winning arguments in court through clever displays of reasoning, not the quest for justice. Hence, today we have the pejorative term “sophistry.”

In recent years, I have become more aware of the encroachment of this sophistic reasoning on my classroom. Teenagers by their nature have always been argumentative and drawn to debate. I used to deflect contrary questions about grades with stock phrases like, “Because that’s what you earned.” Now, however, I can expect to hear from the parents of a child with whom I have disagreed.

Recently, I returned a homework paper to a child with a grade of 5 out of 10 points. Disagreeing with my assessment, the student exclaimed, “This is [BS].” In an ensuing conversation with the parent, the father told me that he has taught his son to disagree with and challenge his teachers. While academic debate is a healthy and necessary element of the educational process, encouraging contrariness is sophistry. We live in a culture that does not know the difference.

A culture of relativism and selfishness is onerous for teachers. Gun-shy, we think twice before we disagree or debate. Do I really want to have another conference with parents about, not an F, a D, or even a C, but a B- that their child has earned in my class?

As in the late 5th century BC, during the reign of the sophists, parents today are taking their dissatisfaction with the educational process to the courts. For example, a child is punished by a school for inappropriate behavior. The punitive consequences displease the parents and they sue the school.

Socrates’ death came at the beginning of the end of democracy in Athens, which was suspended for 30 years while 30 tyrants ruled the birthplace of democracy. Lost with Socrates was a respect for education—the pursuit of truth and knowledge.

American culture today places little value on education except as a means to an end. When teachers and schools are perceived as impediments to the self-serving ends of a self-absorbed society, education is truly threatened. As my head of school once so aptly pointed out, a school’s value system is not the same as that of society. Once it succumbs to the pressures of the outside world, a school is no longer a place of education.
But it will remain a place of learning—that power and money are the only real truths.

The challenge for every school is to clarify its values and to model them. The clearer the mission, the easier it is to align against the forces of egoism.

The contentious and agonistic realities of the culture at large will grow no less intrusive nor will they abate. We must hold our ground against them if teaching is to remain a meaningful profession.

The next time I hesitate about a grade, I will think, “What would Socrates do?” 

John W. Roth

John W. Roth is a classics teacher at Bosque School (NM).