As university teachers, are we heirs to the Sophists or Socrates the philosopher? Or might there be a way to transcend this binary?
Sophistical teaching aims to pass on institutional know-how to learners, for example, academic ethics and strategies like study skills that offer shortcuts to institutional competence; it seeks to produce efficient knowledge-workers. Philosophical teaching aims to draw forth knowledge from students, that is, to elicit wisdom and develop ethos (Gk. character), or fidelity to a way of thinking; it seeks to produce good citizens. Do we teach a skill or a good? Are we insiders offering the keys to the institution or mentors nurturing our apprentices—or mentees?
A way beyond this unfortunate binary might draw on Carol Dweck’s distinction between a “fixed” and a “growth mindset” or “self-theory” in learners. Learners of the former group believe their success is based on innate ability (they are “naturals”); those of the latter group believe their success is based on hard work and learning (it can be nurtured). To extrapolate, Dweck offers us a way to have the best of both worlds, sophistical and philosophical. As Trei (2007) writes, “[Her] research showed how changing a key belief—a student’s self-theory about intelligence and motivation—with a relatively simple intervention can make a big difference.” By making a sophistical intervention in a student’s learning process, for example, passing on a study skill to them, we might change a key belief or “self-theory” and thereby enable a student’s philosophical growth.
Lisa Trei. (2007). Fixed versus growth intelligence mindsets: It’s all in your head, Dweck says. Retrieved Aug. 24, 2009, from http://news-service.stanford.edu/pr/2007/pr-dweck-020707.html.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.