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educationThe 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.

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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Crisis Magazine.


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

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Published: Sep 20, 2013
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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5 replies to this post
  1. Steven,
    Retiring teacher to teacher here, scapegoating one or two parties for the public education’s failures doesn’t work. It is like inflating one or two flat tires while driving in denial that rest of the tires were also flat.

    On one hand, we have those who are responsible for lowering academic standards: school administrators and parents. On the other hand, we have those who go along for the ride: teachers and students. And it doesn’t have to be this way. It wasn’t this way when I was a student in the public school system.

    Let’s target the parents first. Parents who demand that teachers who give low grades, especially f’s but could apply to b’s as well, be fired are lowering standards. We live in a suburban school district. On occasion, our children would get a tough teacher, one who would fail students for failing. And as soon as that would happen, there would a parental campaign to have the teacher fired. I remember one specific instance where this happened in our school district. The teacher would fail students who didn’t earn a passing grade. The parents complained and demanded that the teacher be fired. Finally, this teacher’s former students started a write-in campaign testifying how they were better prepared for college because of the standards that this teacher enforced. In addition, I use to know a woman who represented one of our local school districts in court. This person told us of how schools have to write policies to avoid lawsuits because of how litigious the parents were.

    Our next flat tire is school administrators. Administrators pressure teachers to pass students regardless of student performance. And merely passing students regardless of performance is not the only problem–btw, this pressure to pass students is also seen at the college level where I worked though never at my particular school. In fact, I know of one business professor from another state who is the only one in his department who has a degree in statistics but who is not allowed to teach it because he didn’t give enough high grades. In addition, too many administrators regard student performance on standardized tests as a way of getting federal money from the gov’t. Therefore, they pressure the teachers to teach to the test and thus objectify the students.

    Teachers who don’t use union protection in order to ride the storm that comes from giving low grades or bucking teaching to the test. For too many of them, job security is job one. In addition, they accept class assignments for classes for which they are not qualified to teach. Unions are important. But teachers fail to use them to protect higher education standards.

    Students see all of the lowering of standards and just go along for the ride. Why? It is because many of them see the work that is associated with school as interfering with their real lives. Real life to these kids is being entertained. Instead of looking to learn and question, or being willing to be frustrated in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, kids prefer distance learning. And what I am referring to here is not the use of technology to compensate for the physical distance that exists between a student and a teacher; rather, it is the personal distance between the student and the subject. They want subjects to be taught in ways were only mere memorization is the only requirement for learning. They don’t want to experience the frustration that comes with having an in-depth understanding of a subject.

    There is one more flat tire to consider. It is the overuse of technology in the classroom. I found this out when teaching freshmen math courses. In one Trigonometry quiz, one-fourth of the students complained about the impossibility of performing one problem. That problem required them to divide 34 by 60 without a calculator. Their response was that either they could not do it or that it was impossible to do. Some freshmen math students would tell me that their high school teachers taught them by giving them the formulas and calculators so all they had to do was to press the buttons. I spent much of my time telling my students that the over-dependence on machines robs us of having confidence in their own thinking because the correct answers are only associated with machines.

    Sorry about the length, but I hope you see why I oppose scapegoating teacher unions and public classrooms when they have worked well in the past. BTW, there are other factors that are hurting student performance but these factors are outside of the scope of any school or school district.

  2. I generaly agree with Curt, but note that at the core of the problem is democracy. Public education for all would only work if high standards were rigorously enforced for their own sake. Thus undemocratic because enforcing high standards eventually segregates capable from incapable students, as well as degrees of capability. Democracy presumes the the goal of everyone getting a higher education. The fact is that many kids would be better off apprenticing in factories (although now the de-industrialized west doesn’t have those anymore). Instead, we lock entire generations in the school system. In Europe, people enter the job market at 25 having never had a job and having learned nothing useful, let alone true or beautiful. Meanwhile, in China and India, kids have real jobs in real industries where they learn real things. Meanwhile those capable continue their education, and those passionate enter vocations like the arts (theatre, poetry, literature etc). We need to jetison the democratic presumption that everyone has a right to education or – if we seriously believe it, we should enforce the duties and standards associated with it instead of letting parents pressure teachers and schools into lowering standards to protect the esteem of their children.

  3. Mr. Strzelecki Rieth,

    Scapegoating involves the erroneous accusation of blame of persons. I don’t believe I am scapegoating anyone at all, but trying to highlight the damaging effects of sophistry. “Ideas have consequences!” If there appears to be “someone” whom I am scapegoating, that was not my intention and it would indicate a shortcoming in my ability to effectively articulate that our war is with ideology, not particular persons. Where a person propagates ideology, as in the case of Davis Guggenheim, I merely attribute the ideas he has publically expressed to him. I don’t know him, but the movie is dreadful and full of error. Same with Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada, these are public figures making false claims and the sophistry they propagate is not their fault, they are spreading it.

    Further, far from singling out specific union members or particular teachers, I tried to make the point that the ideologies that undergird both of them are damaging to the human mind and soul. So any teacher that participates fully in the endeavors of either the public schools or the union would likely be acting to the detriment of others. It is a point worth considering.

    I think pointing to “democracy” as the problem would be an overgeneralization of the specific ideologies and sophistries that are causing so much harm in the public schools. The fact that Dewey cut moral and divine agency off from concerns of public education is surely more exacting food for thought in considering our educational plight, for a “democracy” guided by divine and natural law would surely be exponentially better than our present fiasco.

    The discussion about ‘lowering of standards’, ‘parent pressure’, ‘lazy students’, ‘self esteem’, ‘flat tires’ and ‘the need for unions’ these are merely symptoms, or fruit of the tree if you will. To see them as root causes of anything is to ill-weight them and to misdirect the debate. We have a real crisis on our hands, it is the rotten fruit from the tree of ideology, there is no ideology that will help solve this. We need to recover language to convey reality.

  4. Steven,
    When you talk about correctly vilifying teachers unions and public classrooms, I would say you are scapegoating especially when so many other factors that have caused public schools, which were once successful with the same unions and classrooms, to fail.

    Another perspective might add to the mix of variables that have hurt public schools. The Left’s contention is that places of education are one of many institutions of indoctrination for maintaining the status quo to benefit those with wealth and power. School Administrators who dictate that teachers must teach to the test could be an indicator that contention. But sophistry alone does not account for the parental sabotage of public schools.

    In short, there are just too many factors to vilify one group. And we should distinguish between being critical of a group from vilifying it. Teacher unions have both good and bad in them.

    • Mr. Day,

      I do thank you for commenting so vociferously, but I am afraid we are unable to have a dialogue. I take you to be sincere and kind, but I am sure we do not speak the same language.

      In waiting for superman, I might agree that they were scapegoating the teachers unions and to some degree teachers. My personal opinion is that the platform of the teachers unions is vile. Your personal opinion is that they worked in the past, I disagree with you unless you are specifically talking about the type of union organization described in Rarum Novarum as a proper use of a union, and I assure you that the teachers’ union is no such type of union today and Pope Leo XIII would not defend the teacher’s union as you do.

      The bigger point between us is that your questions and comments don’t reflect an understanding of what I have written and I suspect that is because you interpret words through an ideological lens that distorts my intended meaning. I have tons of evidence to demonstrate that what teachers are asked to do in classrooms is antithetical to the human person and human learning, therefore I rightfully conclude that public classrooms are horrible places for children. It is irrelevant to make the unsubstantiated claim that “classrooms used to work.” There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that they don’t and they didn’t. Dr. Kreeft is fond of saying “what does it take to believe the 100 stupidest things man has ever said? A PhD.”

      There is no defense for what is being done to our children in public classrooms and to divert the subject to accusations of scapegoating is to ignore the elephant in the room.

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