Socrates and the Sophists

John Bly

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Forget that it costs over half a million dollars. Ignore that it sounds like a product of name calling between second-graders. Pay no heed to the page of the dictionary defining it as “an unattractive person.”

AU refers students, staff and bystanders who don’t know what to make of its new “WONK” campaign to urbandictionary.com, where one learns that a wonk is “An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.”

Anybody who has sat through a few classes at AU can understand why “WONK” appeals to some students. There’s the slum-wonk in a development class who shamelessly proclaims, “Poverty! I know poverty; I’ve seen slums; I studied abroad in India.” In a politics class there’s the CNN-wonk who can expound endlessly on mistakes made by politicians, how she saw those slip-ups coming and how she could have done better herself. And there’s the postmodernism-wonk in a philosophy class who mentions Žižek or Derrida not because he finds them particularly relevant — or even understands them — but because he enjoys the way the names trip off the tip of his tongue.

Other wannabe-wonks offer their opinions with no prompting but feel it unnecessary to listen to others. Bored by their professors as much as by other students, they often turn to their computers or phones for entertainment. In short, they’re already experts and have no need for learning.

Socrates was positive that knowledge was reached through questioning, which had to arise from a humble acknowledgment of ignorance. After finding out he had been called the smartest man in the world, Socrates was incredulous and set out in search of someone smarter. Finding and questioning wonk after wonk of his day, he quickly lost hope, concluding “Probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do.”

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Socrates and the Sophists