Contending with Sophistry in the Classroom
“So refined that only fools cannot perceive it,” the salesmen said of the emperor’s new clothing, in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of that name. Afraid to be thought a fool, the emperor smiled, nodded, and pretended to see it. So did those around him, driven by that same fear. From his advisors down to the townspeople, everyone pretended to perceive what wasn’t there. In love with the idea of his own imaginary attire, the emperor paraded through town—until one brazenly honest small child declared the truth: the emperor was naked.
In their pretentious use of language, too, people can be unwittingly naked, metaphorically speaking. For the purposes of this essay, let us define unnecessarily complex and unclear communication as sophistry in the broadest sense. How can we college educators avoid it? How can we encourage our students to do the same? And how should we respond when we encounter it?
The Philosopher as Brazen Child
The men of Athens (or, more precisely, a narrow majority of them) killed Socrates for making them feel like fools. By contrast, the philosopher’s competition, the Sophists, were wildly popular. Their secret? They didn’t care about the truth. They cared about winning arguments and being popular. Such things can be useful tools; but when they supplant the pursuit of truth, they can also serve as distractions or worse—as in the case of those sighing into the emperor’s ear, “Ah, yes! What beautiful seams and stitching!”
The Student as Sometime Sophist
The path of the Sophists is a temptation for a significant number of college students. In their writing and presentations, and even during some class discussions, a certain kind of student seems keener to sound impressive than to communicate clearly.
This baffled me at first. After all, according to Forbes, The Huffington Post, and numerous other cultural commentators, authenticity ranks among millennials’ most deeply held values. Few things could be less authentic than sophistry. For some millennials, projecting an image of authenticity matters more than actually being authentic. One must forgive certain cultural observers and advertisers for confusing the two. Counterfeits can be convincing.
Why do some students prefer to be impressive rather than clear? Perhaps it is human nature. The problem is at least as old as Socratic philosophy. We academics are often part of the problem. Countless journal articles and conference presentations are erudite to the point of being nearly incomprehensible, even for fellow insiders in a given field. It is easier to smile, nod, and not be thought a fool.
Why? Why do many of us and our subfields cultivate needlessly complicated ways of saying things, as if this were a virtue? Some of us like to sound impressive, even if it means excluding others from the conversation. Or, perhaps, for the very reason that this does, in fact, exclude some people from the conversation. Language is, after all, an exercise of power. Worse still, I fear that we academics often risk saying nothing in particular. In a culture where anti-intellectualism runs rampant, we often have ourselves to blame. (For a fuller discussion of this problem, see Steven Pinker, Eric Charles, Joshua Rothman, and others. A recent Economist article explores the linguistic dimension of such issues.)
Degrees of Sophistry
There are varying degrees of guilt when sophistry is at work. First-degree sophistry is a premeditated choice. By definition, liars know that they are lying. It can become a way of life. This was the case for the salesmen of the emperor’s new clothing in the fairy tale; or, if you prefer, the role of the fake Rolex salesman in the subway station. A variation of this, still very much premeditated, is that of the impressive person who speaks, indifferent to whether what they are saying is true or not, neither knowing nor caring, because truth is not the point. Educators must convince first-degree sophists that their path is less effective (i.e., not actually impressive) and less purposeful than the clear, straightforward articulation of one’s position, even if this involves frequently admitting the limits of one’s knowledge. Our task is to lead by example (saying “I don’t know!”) and to teach them that sophistry does not really work. At the very least, we must avoid rewarding such behavior.
Second-degree sophistry is a spontaneous action. Like first-degree sophists, the second-degree variety know what they are doing. But the distinction is that there is a greater chance that they regret their actions, once taken. One might spread it actively by perpetrating it or passively by permitting it. Many of the emperor’s advisors and the townspeople were examples of the latter. They knew, deep down, that he was naked, but they chose to act otherwise. Our task is to remind students why sophistry is wrong: it is intellectually dishonest. We must apologize when we fall into it ourselves. How tempting it is to say something impressive rather than something truly straightforward!
Third-degree sophistry is accidental. This is the intellectual equivalent of manslaughter. The perpetrators are not deliberately unclear and confusing. They believe that they are saying something meaningful. Perhaps they do know what they mean, but in some cases it appears that they don’t understand what they are saying. Such students find themselves in the position of the emperor. Rather than offer a blanket critique, I find it more effective to highlight specific, confusing phrases. “What did you mean by saying X?” I ask, to which most reply with one of two responses. In the case of, “I just meant to say [more conversational alternative],” I can reply, “Why didn’t you just say that?” Or, if a student responds with a shrug, we might best suggest omitting the passage in question.
Breaking with Socrates
In dealing with self-aware liars, carelessly inaccurate show-offs, and the incorrect but genuinely oblivious, we must take care. So worthy of emulation elsewhere, Socrates may fall short of what college students in any of those categories need.
Historically speaking, Socrates’ method was not merely the asking of questions in the pursuit of truth; it was the public exposing of intellectual fraud. Public figures deserve public scrutiny, but students deserve a gentler approach. Our reproaches should be gentle and clear, best delivered after class, in office hours, and in written comments. Socratic or not, anything less is bad pedagogy and likely to yield more resentment than results.
No one wants to feel foolish. No one wants to be exposed as a fraud. Yet this world needs more brazen innocents to embarrass the rest of us. How else can we learn to face the truth? We all require intellectual humility to accept such awkward moments with gratitude and grace. Otherwise, we risk falling in love with the praise of our peers and superiors, praise for substance that is merely imaginary.