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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1945

Sophistry III

page 15

Sophistry III

It is the common complaint of the student that his courses are not practical enough; the dilemma of the graduate to find himself fitted for nothing in particular. But there is another snag in University Education which is just as difficult to avoid and just as serious. The student of political science, economics, philosophy or history, soon finds that though through his knowledge he comes to understand his world and its events more completely, yet this knowledge is at the same time its own weakness when it makes him incapable of entering into the very activity for which he is relatively well qualified—incapable, that is to say, of glimmering in the darkness of daily discussion.

A similar enforced separation of those who have knowledge about people from the people themselves, is often evident at lectures given by a speaker who is so well informed that the rift between him and his audience cannot be bridged in the time available. Every student who has taken part in "smoke discussions," which typically ramble from sex to sixpences and back, will have despaired of ever passing on his knowledge or of influencing his fellow men by its use. In these discussions mere knowledge, no matter how sage it may be, is not enough. Indeed, anyone unashamedly displaying more than the normal ration allowance runs the risk of being ostracised, like the witches of old, for trading on the black market. Sometimes, in his innocence, it is the student's own fault. To counter an argument by informing a dock worker or a shepherd that he is committing the fallacy of undistributed middle is as futile as it is ludicrous. A student of psychology might try to persuade a worker that his distrust of Jews is an example of in-group out-group emotions. A student of sociology that the distrust is not justified in the light of economic and social surveys. This is poor stuff against the worker's own experience of some particular slippery customer, with a better job, superior air, or an accredited uncanny skill at swindling, and who happens to be a Jew. Unless our student can match the force of this instance, the worker's estimate of the student and his argument will never be in doubt.

Now I know this is no new problem. Yes, Plato was aware of it—and so have been many other philosophers—while organised religions have often sponsored two grades of belief, one for the priest caste, one for the layman. And some such arrangement seems to be inevitable. If we wish to interact, then when in Rome we must "do" whoever or what-ever we can, however we can. We may differ, however, from the old rigid means-test, dualisms in that we need not "splendidly isolate" ourselves in what is after all our own backyard surrounded by a wall of Academic Scholarship, plastered with no trespass signs, and guarded by the mongrel dogs of Traditional Form and Technical Jargon. On the contrary, we will do our uttermost to tame the dogs (or at least draw their teeth), and knock the bricks from the wall, so that, by jumping high and often, the outsider may glimpse enough of our pleasant verdure to understand a little of what is possible and even less of how it may be achieved.

Nor will we travel abroad incognito along underground routes except in so far as we pass unrecognised by those whose vision needs sharpening. For though we will accept page 16 as expedients all the devices of the propagandists we will be very careful to avoid his vices. The true argument will be our standard and at all times we will be prepared to offer the full extent—and no more —of our knowledge to whoever is able and wishes to accept or reject it; but, on the other hand, we will be tree to quote angel against thief, personal instance against personal instance, to commit all the other errors of logic and any falsehood. At present only those who abuse such a practice employ it. The time has come for people of integrity to beat them at their own game.

To this end it might be worthwhile starting a course in Sophistry. Sophistry I could be included in all degree courses. Sophistry III would be the prerequisite for the politician and other "liars in public places," while to graduate Master of Sophistry, First Class, would require a practical thesis wherein the candidate would have to convince the Professor of Philosophy that he deserved the Honour. Finding a lecturer will present some difficulty, for though second-rate sophists are like the fish in the sea and as easily caught, to discover the perfect sophist, the perfect criminal, requires nothing less than a confession. Since, however, perfection is the last quality to be looked for in a lecturer, we could no doubt get along without it. A syllabus which concentrated on semantics and logical fallacies would give the student experience in actually digging potholes in the paths of reasoning. This should be not only of inestimable practical value outside the University, but might well enable the student to avoid the fallacies in his own thinking more readily than any mere plotting of them would do.

But whatever is done, the problem of transposing the content of University Knowledge from the forms with which the student is familiar, and which are economically and aesthetically desirable, into forms with which the worker is familiar, has in the past been neglected. It is a problem which will probably continue to be inadequately dealt with, and yet one which would have to be solved for the layman to struggle to within coo-ee of investigators' discoveries and findings. The necessity seems obvious and if to achieve our aim we must employ means which we dislike, surely that is better than throwing up our arms in disgust and horror at the uncouthness of the ignorant.