I always enjoy Professor Jonathan Wolff’s ‘Marginal Comment’ column in the ‘Education’ section of The Guardian. He talks a lot of sense about the trials and tribulations of being an academic or a student in UK Higher Education. A piece he did a few weeks back particularly caught my eye because it was entitled ‘Sophists’ return? We’re not quite back to Athens’ pseudo-tutors for hire’. A little confusingly, the online version of this has a different title: ‘Has higher education recreated the conditions that led to Sophistry’s rise?’
Wolff’s argument is a little hard to pin down. On the one hand he concedes that ‘many sophists were decent thinkers’ and seems to understand that Plato’s image of them as pseudo-philosophers should not be taken at face value. (On this, see one of my old posts). On the other hand, he builds an argument to the effect that university academics are in danger of becoming the modern-day equivalents of the Sophists of fifth-century Athens and that they will similarly ‘fall’. Wolff points out that current usage of the term ‘Sophist’ is entirely negative and he is not wanting to rehabilitate the label.
(Contrast the writings of American anti-foundationalist intellectual and literary critic Stanley Fish, who revels in the label ‘sophist’, despite the fact that the term is used by his many academic critics to characterize his ideas as sinister, specious, lacking in ethical foundations and logical rigor. I always get worried about the fact that, on the one hand, I admire so many thinkers who have gone on record as anti-Fishians and yet, on the other, I rather like Fish’s book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and it’s a Good Thing too. I have the same experience with the work of Judith Butler …).
Anyway, why are we academics in danger of becoming Sophists? Wolff argues that what did for the Sophists’ reputation was their popularity with politically ambitious rich young men who paid them handsomely in return for rhetorical training. Wolff cites Protagoras’ claim to be able to make the weaker argument defeat the stronger. And although academics have always been paid for their services and competed for students, Wolff thinks that the recent introduction of significant fees for university education in the UK offers a parallel. The fact that Athenian young men spread positive and negative gossip about the quality of their sophistic teachers is compared to ‘rapid opinion sharing in the form of the National Student Survey (NSS), repeated every year and widely publicized’. The fact that the Sophists were clearly competing with each other for audiences and pupils is compared to ‘desperate competition between universities’. Wolff also thinks that the ambitious young men who created a demand for ‘Sophistry’ had an ‘instrumental approach to learning’: they ‘had no interest in philosophy or logic for its own sake’. He then asks whether today’s university students are enrolling in degrees for the love of knowledge and to learn the skills and content which we academics judge they ought to know. At the moment, it’s all okay, he thinks, but he then adds this warning:
‘ I don’t want to alarm anyone, but do watch out for students who want you to teach them how to make a weak case look strong. Heightened enthusiasm for presentational skills could be an early warning sign.’
This is all good fun. But of course, academics have always helped students to get good at evidence-based reasoning, making coherent, clearly-structured arguments (written or oral), weighing two sides or interpretations of an issue, being confident, assertive and effective communicators (and so on). And even if we didn’t do so with their future lives and careers as an explicit focus, we surely knew that most of them weren’t going to be translating Sophocles for a living in ten years’ time. And as for ‘making the weak case look strong’, well we don’t really know for sure what Protagoras meant by this. Again, one thing which academics have always done is helped each other and their students to see the weak points in their essays, theses, monographs and articles. I don’t think we should be embarrassed about the age-old practice of reading students’ and colleagues’ work or listening to their arguments with a view to improvement. And I certainly don’t prioritize style and delivery over substance when it comes to my students’ presentations. Furthermore, if my students want to know how to present their work more clearly, loudly, logically and confidently, all power to them. I don’t want them to be the colleagues of the future whom everyone else wishes would speak louder, make more sense or be less excruciatingly apologetic.
No, the real worry for all academics is that they become perceived as ‘sophists’ in the same way that Socrates was. We don’t think of Socrates as a ‘sophist’ because Plato and Xenophon did such a good job of depicting him as the scourge of the so-called ‘sophists’. But several decades after Socrates was put to death, the orator and politician Aeschines could still remind the Athenians that they executed ‘the sophist Socrates’ for being the teacher of Critias. (Critias became a murderous oligarch – one of the ‘Thirty Tyrants’). The UK government’s REF-led ‘Impact agenda’ means that we academics are now required to show that our research has caused significant changes in public policy, culture or the general public’s perception of our subject. We are encouraged to find ‘user groups’ outside the academy for our research and to make sure our research can be shown to have influenced what they do and how they think in a measurable way. The temptation here is to pretend that our work solves problems which it cannot or claim that we can help or provide understanding in areas where we can’t really. I have myself very recently been in a situation where I had to resist the temptation to claim that my own thoughts on Euripides and extant plays of the ancient playwright himself were ‘applicable’ to modern morality or politics in a straightforward and simplistic manner. I think I managed to avoid this pitfall and my audience were just happy to learn something fresh about the ancient world for its own sake. But if I could show that my work on Greek rhetoric had changed the communications strategy of Vladimir Putin and his aides, I’d probably get a better Impact score. Not likely to happen, but ‘Impact’ is making paid consultancy and simplistic ‘applications’ of our work more attractive as a proposition.