Beware the Witchery of Words

Over at Flypaper, Mike Petrilli calls on us to treat our education opponents fairly. “Both opponents and proponents of ‘school reform’ tend to vilify the other side with caricatures,” he writes. “Union bosses are power-hungry Machiavellians who want to keep poor children trapped in failing schools. Reformers are greedy capitalists determined to outsource our public education system to the highest bidder.”

Meanwhile, Robert Pondiscio proposes an “Ed Reform Devil’s Dictionary,” which would help us understand what certain commonly employed phrases actually mean. For instance, a “real reformer” is “someone who agrees with me.”

Michael John Demiashkevich referred to this sort of verbal trickery as “the witchery of words.” In An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935), he writes:

This sophistic logic is at the basis of wholesale assertions which would omit all gradations, distinctions, and nuances found in the realities of life. The sophistic logic consists in reasoning to the effect that A is either B or non-B. In reality things are not so simple, and A can be both B and non-B at one and the same time; in some of its aspects A can be B and in some other aspects non-B. The ancient sophists (see p. 153) worked out a whole set of samples of tricky sophistic reasoning. With the help of these samples they trained their disciples toward amazing verbal trickery. Many such samples are recorded in Aristotle’s work, De Sophisticis Elenchis (On Sophistic Refutations).

How would the ancient sophistic logic play out here? Someone can tell you that you are either pro-child or pro-adult; take your pick. In reality, there can be considerable overlap and interaction between the two. Or another example: in a professional development meeting, teachers might be told that the “old” ways of teaching are outdated and we must embrace the “new.” Actually the division between “old” and “new” is not so clear, and teachers have been combining older and newer techniques for centuries.

In unveiling trickeries and employing courtesy, let us become even sharper in our arguments. Let’s engage over the ideas, as Petrilli suggests. Treating each other decently is not the same as proclaiming that “I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!”

Diana Senechal