Beware of Sophistical Education “Reformers”

The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a short book called Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power and in it he examines the misuse of language and the corruption of the word for the purpose of manipulation and personal gain.  He focuses on “Plato’s lifelong battle with the sophists, those highly paid and popularly applauded experts in the art of twisting words, who were able to sweet-talk something bad into something good and turn black into white.” Plato illustrates that the errors of the sophists are a timeless temptation, “a danger and a threat besetting the pursuits of the human mind and the life of society in any era.” Sophistry is ubiquitous in contemporary American society and especially pervasive in the public schools.

The German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) referred to the sophists as “extremely refined and learned people,” just as our sophists are today. The distinguished German classicist Warner Jaeger (1888-1961) saw the sophists as “the earliest humanists.”  Pieper notes that the sophists are praised as great educators and teachers and the danger they pose increases “as the human mind progresses in terms of ever greater sophistication.”

The book explains that language has a twofold purpose: first, to convey reality, for there is nothing else about which we can properly communicate; and second, to name and identify something for someone, an interpersonal service to the other. These two purposes are distinct, but inseparable. They also represent the twofold nature of the possible corruption. Pieper reminds us that words and language are a medium that sustains our common human existence and the word reflecting reality makes existential interaction possible. If words are corrupted, then human existence will be corrupted too.

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Pieper asserts that willful corruption of language for the purposes of deceiving is not communication because “it means specifically to withhold the other’s share in reality.”  Communication ceases in the case of a lie and language is subverted from mutually beneficial dialogue into a monologue used as an instrument of power.

Because of these two corruptions, that of the word and of communication, we see Socrates constantly reproach the rhetoric of the sophists.  Pieper here emphasizes that Plato’s laments and accusations have an astonishingly modern relevance as he characterizes the sophist: “reality, you think should be of interest to you only insofar as you can impressively talk about it! And because you are not interested in reality, are unable to converse. You can give fine speeches, but you simply cannot join a conversation; you are incapable of dialogue.” The sophistic phenomenon is especially evident in public education and in several reform movements.

In twenty-two years, I have been to countless staff meetings, teacher trainings and exposed to countless professional texts. The sophistry is glaringly apparent for anyone who dares to initiate dialogue in an effluence of shamefully artless monologues. For emphasis, let us turn our gaze to a larger stage. Though what follows is hardly news, it represents the persisting characteristic paradigm of sophistry driving public education and illustrates how easily many in public education abuse language and power.

Waiting for “Superman”: Sophistry on Celluloid
In 2010, the movie Waiting for “Superman” hit the silver screen and regaled a softened American Public with a sophistical masterpiece soaked in the utopian mythology that the state is supposed to raise our children and that the public schools replace parents as their first teachers. One of the first lines in the movie is “but our schools are failing” our students. And though schools are utterly failing students, it is lost that schools are born out of communities, communities out of families, therefore it is the families that are failing these kids long before the state schools get their hooks into them.

The film’s producer, Davis Guggenheim, claimed that the film “is all about families trying to find great schools.” This disingenuous reduction of his film’s intentions signals the sophistical yarn that a student’s success or failure is solely dependent upon admittance to a “great” school. The movie is a series of pathological arguments taking the form of heart wrenching stories. Daisy wants desperately to be a nurse, a doctor and a vet, and to go to “medical college to become a surgeon.” She is unlikely to achieve all her ambitions under the best of circumstances.

Guggenheim (who is also responsible for the Al Gore film Inconvenient Truth) and his ideological backers propagate the myth that the kids “whose lives hang in the balance” are solely dependent upon a lottery to go to a “better” school. We are given the impression that if the tragic victims portrayed in the film don’t win the lottery, there is no hope for their futures. The school official in the movie selecting the winning lottery balls absurdly conjectured “it all boils down to geography and luck.” These deterministic reductions are worse than just an offence against truth; they ignore the majority of the realities that govern human learning such as the role of the family, the cultivation of character, subsidiarity and free will.

Mega-philanthropist Bill Gates promotes and appears in the film.  In an interview with James Rocha, we read that “Gates explained he’s been involved in making sure audiences have a number of ways to interact with Waiting for ‘Superman’.” Barbara Miner, although a foe of conservatism, exposes the financial and ideological backers who provided the “supersized dollars” for Waiting for “Superman”. They are listed in the film credits as Paramount Vantage, Participant Media, and Walden Media.

Waiting for “Superman” is a pathological work of genius that successfully yet subtly propagates the victim narratives springing from class warfare ideologies, the racist multiculturalism creeds and the politics of recognition dogmas that have effectively choked the remaining life out of an already bankrupt educational system.

The movie rightfully vilified the teachers unions and the public classrooms, but not nearly enough and not for the right reasons. The attacks were used as instruments to highlight the sophistic heroes of the movie, Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada.

Education through Testing
Geoffrey Canada runs Harlem Children’s Zone Inc. a well-funded cradle to college charter school program. A close look at Canada’s platitudinous monologues in the movie will reveal attractive but empty jargon, unless we really believe that “celebrating teachers” is a viable plan for improving the quality of classroom teachers. Canada does mention “excellence,” but if he were prodded to explain what he means by “excellence” what would he say? He would say it can be measured by a test score. But what he says is not what he does. He claims to graduate 100% of his students but “Canada has TWICE kicked out an entire class—because their persistently low test scores embarrassed the bankers and lawyers on his board.”

The sophists running the public schools have replaced the original summum bonum, that of being educated, with an artificial final end of a high standardized test score. School administrators now make claims about “success” in terms of higher scores and other arbitrary measures. However, when data is manipulated or falsified, the statements become lies. The dialogue about how the United States fares in the world is not about how educated we are, but about how high our test scores are.  In Waiting for Superman, the measure of success is expressed in terms of standardized test scores and its euphemisms include reading level, math level, graduation rates and college entrance.

Rhee’s concordance with this sophistry can be detected in most of her positions, but particularly in her quote in Time Magazine. “People say, ‘Well, you know, test scores don’t take into account creativity and the love of learning,’ … I’m like, ‘You know what? I don’t give a crap.’” The sophist’s golden cow is a test score.

In the movie, Guggenheim narrates “in 2007 the education world went into a frenzy over the possibility that Michelle Rhee could actually turn around the school district.” Far from turning it around, Michelle Rhee as chancellor of the D.C. public schools, took action and in an unprecedented display of force “fired more than 600 teachers for low test scores, sending a strong message that her priority was higher test scores at any cost”  She rewarded those whose test scores were high with monetary bonuses.  It remains to be seen whether or not the firings were prudent because according the National Commission on Teaching and American’s Future, “46% of all new teachers in the United States leave the profession within five years.” The number in D.C. is called by the Washington Post, “astronomical, at fifty percent of new teachers within two years; 75 percent are gone within five.”

Shortly after Waiting for “Superman” came out, Rhee narrowly sidestepped responsibility for a cheating scandal. Journalist John Merrow wrote approvingly of Rhee at the beginning of her public career. In 2011 it came to light that during the years when Rhee was chancellor, from 2007 to 2010, standardized tests taken under her reign had an extraordinarily large amount of wrong answers erased and changed to right answers. This became known as the “erasure” scandals. Merrow reversed course as evidence began to reveal Rhee’s role in the scandal.  An entire accounting of Merrow’s investigative journalism on Rhee can be read on Diane Ravatich’s blog.

Waiting for “Superman” illustrates how severely broken public education is and brings up the real issues of school reform and the voucher system. However, the “magic bullet” of charter schools is not the answer. A transfer of money and power from the dreadful public classrooms to charter schools is a bit like transferring the administrative duties of running Nazi death camps from the Germans to the Belgians, yet still the need for reform is beyond dire. However, reform is futile if the goal remains a high standardized test scores.

To this day Rhee denies culpability for wrongdoing in the erasure scandals.  In a similar scandal, but not as fortuitous as Rhee, Dr. Beverly Hall, superintendent of Atlanta public schools was investigated for widespread systematic cheating on standardized tests and accepting bonuses for corrupt scores. The New York Times reported that Hall took over $500,000.00 in bonuses personally. Hall was awarded superintendent of the year in 2009 and was celebrated at the Whitehouse. In 2011, she and 178 other teachers and school personnel were implicated and investigated in the cheating scandal. Thirty-five educators, including Hall, were indicted and had to surrender to authorities. They await trial.

With government sponsored bonuses for high standardized test scores and teachers with low test scores being fired, who can speculate accurately about the massive cheating that must be taking place? Could anyone deny that what the public knows about this cheating is anything but the tip of the iceberg?

In one of Plato’s last dialogues called The Sophist he says, “the Sophists fabricate reality.”  Pieper comments on Plato’s modern relevance in asserting that the general public of today is unable to find or even to seek for the truth because they are content with the trickery and deception that form their convictions. They live content “with a fictitious reality created and designed through the abuse of language.”

Our public institutions are habituated in the abuse of language and abuse of power. Real reform of public education would have to be grounded in truthful speech and divorced from the sophistry so pervasive in modern society.

We ought to remind ourselves of one of Pieper’s important concluding statements:

The natural habitat of truth is found in interpersonal communication. Truth lives in dialogue, in discussion, in conversation, it resides therefore, in language, in the word.  Consequently, the well-ordered human existence is essentially based on the well-ordered language employed.

Like the proverbial frog in a pot of slowly heating water, most Americans are unaware of the depth of sophistry that governs our public schools. Generations of sophists have been trying to engineer a brave new world in all spheres of public life, the last place we should accept this is in our children’s classrooms.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are filmmaker Davis Guggenheim and  financial backer Bill Gates on Oprah in 2010 promoting Waiting for “Superman”.


  • Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

    Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

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