The neo sophists: Intellectual integrity in the information age
First Monday

The Neo sophists: Intellectual Integrity in the Information Age by Randall K. Engle

This paper examines the pervasive intellectual deceit clearly documented in the tobacco industry and provides evidence to support the notion that these practices are not unlike those currently being perpetrated by the popular media, computer industry, and certain members of the educational community. Examples of determined efforts to erase the intellectual boundaries between the profit–generating models of business and the intellectual pursuits of the academic community are considered, and the inherent conflict between academic pursuits and business pursuits are discussed.


The information age: Reality vs. perception
Selling computers: Fabricating perceived need
Minds for sale: The commodification of education



In Greece, during the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. there arose a professional class of educators, known as the Sophists. The Sophists traveled from place to place, offering their expertise on whatever topics were currently in favor with the populace (Runes, 1960). Their teachings concentrated on rhetoric, the study of writing and speaking effectively; indeed, Gorgias (483–378 B.C.) claimed that scholarship in a particular content was unrelated to the ability to convince an audience of knowledge in the purported subject. This assertion led Socrates to conclude that attending the lessons of the Sophists to attain wisdom was analogous to consulting a pastry chef to cure a physical disease (Untersteiner, 1954). By the time of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), the Sophists had gained a reputation for devising clever, and often specious arguments, designed to confuse, confound, and eventually subdue opponents.

Although the techniques attributed to the Sophists have been discredited in the intellectual community, recent events provide compelling evidence that the academic community is currently experiencing a renaissance in specious practices, or a “Neo–Sophism.” Some developments may simply be attributed to the hasty infusion of business models into non–business venues such as public education; however, others point to a systematic perversion of intellectual ideals and a reversion to deceptive practices.

One of the most glaring examples in the academic community concerns the wholesale buyout of the medical research community by the tobacco industry. In a 1996 book, Smokescreen, Philip Hilts writes:

“The tobacco executives themselves appeared incurious about the hazards of smoking and about the science that was trying to outline those risks. To build their defense, they were able to find scientists outside the companies who said cigarettes were very probably not the cause of cancer.” [1]

In response to dropping stock prices and the publication of a 1953 report clearly linking the chemical condensates of smoke to the growth of cancerous tumors (Hilts, 1996), the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) launched an all–out attack on the academic tobacco research community (Hilts, 1996). In a public relations campaign that cost the industry upwards of a billion dollars, the TIRC initiated a massive scientific research grant program, in which the primary criterion for successful funding appeared to be directly linked to the suppression of the true scientific evidence associated with the harmful health effects of tobacco products. By rejecting all research proposals which might potentially link tobacco to health hazards and by generously funding any tobacco research proposal which neglected to examine the health effects of tobacco, the TIRC effectively exercised absolute censorship over what was published and made available to both the research community and the American public. Through rigorous examination of tobacco industry internal files, executive memos, and thousands of pages of research lab reports, investigators (Glantz, et al., 1996; Hilts, 1999) have unequivocally demonstrated that the tobacco industry engaged in public deception, knowingly misrepresenting scientific evidence through the funding and promotion of specious, fallacious research, and for many years successfully realized huge financial gains from such practices.

In the remainder of this article, evidence will be presented to support the notion that the pervasive intellectual deceit documented in the tobacco industry is not unlike that currently being perpetrated by the popular media, computer industry, and certain members of the educational community, resolute in their determination to erase the intellectual boundaries between the profit–generating models of business and the intellectual pursuits of the academic community.



The information age: Reality vs. perception

It is no coincidence that the popular media has shown a profound interest in promulgating the concept of the “information age.” In fact, the historical record attests to the fact that by the early 1900s the public relations/advertising industry was learning well, from the likes of John D. Rockefeller who proved to the world, that profiteers need not attend to banal issues such as honesty, fairness, and intellectual integrity.

The phrase, “the information age,” which dates back to at least 1903 (Lubar, 1993), has recently been cleverly massaged, retooled, and “spun” by the popular media to conjure up a collective image of modernity, generating “a religiously inflected rhetoric celebrating moral, political, and social improvements.” (Czitrom, 1982)

The industrial revolution and the unprecedented urbanization that accompanied it provided the necessary setting for popular ideas, movements, and persons to become “mass” ideas, movements, and cultural symbols. By 1920, the increasing infusion of image–based media into the everyday experience of Americans had culminated, in an intense fascination with celebrities, performers, and other public figures (Fowles, 1999). A “star system” was born, in which film stars, sports heroes, politicians, and other public figures achieved a god–like status in the public consciousness. The public’s growing identification with “stars” provided an ideal mechanism for the systematic manipulation, by the media industry, of mass tastes, habits, and ultimately, thought processes.

Although the first television broadcast occurred in 1939 (Heyer and Crowley, 1999), the time period between 1950–1960 marks the extension of the early film industry’s star system into network television. By 1960 there were more than 100,000,000 televisions in operation, and acceptance was so widespread that some theorists believe that television has altered the fundamental structure of the American family (Spigel, 1999). America became the world’s first “television society” and by the 1990s, two–thirds of the American population would report that they receive most of their information about the world via television, with the average individual watching television upwards of 56 hours per week (McKibben, 1992).

Researchers (Mitroff and Bennis, 1989), in examining the broad–based cultural effects of television, hypothesize that the American public has been systematically conditioned into wide–scale acceptance of “artificial” reality and “pseudo” reality. Artificial reality refers to electronic images, often of unknown origin and veracity. Pseudo reality refers to deliberate distortions of reality, often with the intention of enhancing the “entertainment value” of programming. Mitroff and Bennis’ (1989) interpretation of how the popular media alters the way that Americans view the world is not unlike Noam Chomsky’s (1988) notion of “manufacturing consent,” which forms the basis for his prediction that the popular media will and does “function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.” [2] The popular media, Chomsky (1988) asserts, exercises monopolistic control over the dissemination of information to the public, engages in overt acts of censorship, and “manufactures consent” for dominant corporate agendas.

Nicholas Negroponte (1995), the director of MIT’s Media Lab, and an uncritical proponent of “the information age,” provides cogent evidence of the linkage between the popular media and those promoting the concept of “the information age” in our culture. In 1995, he stated:

“Computers are moving into our daily lives: 35 percent of American families and 50 percent of American teenagers have a personal computer at home; 30 million people are estimated to be on the Internet; 65 percent of new computers sold worldwide in 1994 were for the home; and, 90 percent of those to be sold this year are expected to have modems or CD–ROM drives. These numbers do no even include the fifty microprocessors in the average 1995 automobile, or the microprocessors in your toaster, thermostat, answering machine, CD player, and greeting card. And the rate at which these numbers are growing is astonishing. The use of one computer program, a browser for the Internet called Mosaic, grew 11 percent per week between February and December 1993. The population of the Internet itself is now increasing at 10 percent per month. If this rate of growth were to continue, the total number of Internet users would exceed the population of the world by 2003.” [3]

Negroponte devotes the remainder of his book Being digital (1995) to clearly articulating the manner in which the telecommunications industry and the popular media industry will become indistinguishable, evolving into a highly efficient, anonymous machine, delivering digital information in a seamless, global fashion to information–hungry consumers.

Negroponte’s message has certainly not been lost on the popular media. Heavily promoted by a well organized, wealthy group of media/news/computer conglomerates, including Rupert Murdock, Prentice–Hall, Bertelsmann, GE, Time Warner (AOL), Disney, Warner Brothers, News Corporation, IBM, Microsoft, and Apple (McChesney, 1999), a group that the Wall Street Journal (Murray, 1997) refers to as the “most powerful lobby in Washington,” the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed by the U.S. Congress, and signed into law by President Clinton. The provisions of the Act, which include a total dismantling of regulations on monopolistic practices by the broadcasting industry, were apparently deemed unnewsworthy by the popular media, thus accounting for the utter absence of comprehensive reporting to the American public.

This significant Congressional act, in conjunction with the 1994–1995 handover of the backbone of the Internet, after years of public sponsorship, to corporate entities such as IBM and MCI, set the stage for a myriad of lucrative schemes. These enabled the popular media to share the profits in Negroponte’s dream of a digital “information age,” and continue “manufacturing consent” for the products and ideas that they bring to market.

Not all theorists share Negroponte’s optimistic and glamorous view of the alleged “information age.” Neil Postman (1986), a long–standing critic of the popular media, warns:

“Television is our culture’s principal mode of knowing about itself. Therefore — and this is the critical point — how television stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged. It is not merely that on the television screen entertainment is the metaphor for all discourse. It is that off the screen the same metaphor prevails. As typography once dictated the style of conducting politics, religion, business, education, law and other important social matters, television now takes command.” [4]

Postman (1986) acknowledges what he believes to be the innocuous phenomenon of exploiting images and provocative topics by the popular media for the sole pupose of entertainment, and suggests that even though its products (e.g., Wheel of Fortune, The Survivor, Big Brother, Beevis and Butthead) are often tasteless and devoid of serious intellectual content, they pose little threat, in and of themselves, to the increasing impoverishment of the broader cultural discourse.

However, the systematic production of both artificial reality, and pseudo reality (Mitroff and Bennis, 1989) by the popular media, do pose a serious threat to the maintenance of a coherent cultural conversation (Postman, 1986). In other words, when image–based entertainment becomes the primary interactional mode for serious discussion, news reporting, and educational discourse, the actual content of the cultural discourse becomes a mere adjunct to show business. Marshall McLuhan (1964), of course, referred to an identical phenomenon in his now famous aphorism “the media is the message.”

There are numerous examples which attest to the legitimacy of Postman’s fears. Significant examples include the following: (a) recent attempts by the former President of the United States to prevaricate before a court of law, and on national television, regarding his sexual involvement with a White House intern; (b) the elaborate anti–Iraqi/oil shortage collusion by the media and oil industry, which eventually ensued in the scripted/televised series “Operation Desert Storm,” and cost the American public $23 million in the first six weeks (O’Neill, 1991); (c) the now famous televised O.J. Simpson trial, in which the American public learned that athletic fame transcends even clear, physical evidence, and; (d) U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s ruling that Microsoft and Bill Gates blatantly and knowingly violated U.S. antitrust laws by engaging in anti–competitive strategies to monopolize the international Web browser market. Just as the besieged medical research community was manipulated by deceitful practices of the tobacco industry, the American public has been assaulted, knowingly misled, and subjected to what Giroux (1988) refers to acts of symbolic violence, through the wholesale manufacture of the images and illusions that comprise much of the “information” in the alleged information age.



Selling computers: Fabricating perceived need

In the first half of the twentieth century, German sociologist Max Weber (Beninger, 1999) had already predicted the rise of bureaucratic forces in shaping modern society. By the mid–1990s it was abundantly clear that microprocessors offered not only a natural extension for new forms of bureaucratic control, but a means for establishing military superiority in the world.

The years between 1930 and 1960 were marked by unprecedented government support and investment in the microprocessor industry (Flamm, 1988). Although there were no tangible health risks involved in the development of the microcomputer, the strategies for funding research were not wholly unlike from those of the tobacco industry. Buoyed by government funding for private ventures, companies such as IBM were able to develop extensive research and development agendas, financed through public tax revenues. Computer research was openly promoted in academia, as was anything related to the military or national security issues. By 1950, the United States government was funding computer research at a rate of more than $20 million (current value) per year (Flamm, 1988). Start–up companies, cognizant of the growing military market, targeted these ends, further strengthening the connections between the military and private sector enterprise.

In the meantime, economist Fritz Machlup (1962) was developing his ideas on the economics of information. He estimated that between 1947 and 1958 the information sector (i.e., communication, media, computers, information services) expanded at a rate double that of the gross national product, leading to his prediction that the U.S. would soon be predominantly an “information society.”

Although IBM had initially been reluctant to commit resources to the development of a commercial market for microcomputers, by the mid–1950s, Machlup’s (1962) predictions were beginning to become reality. Huge infusions of taxpayer money and military contracts allowed IBM to establish a dominant position in the computing market, and effectively control the direction of the industry. As microprocessor companies struggled to compete with IBM, the government attempted to create a more equal playing field by steadily increasing funding levels from less than $10 million in 1960 to over $1 billion in 1995 (Bloch and Sheehan, 1999).

A concurrent development was a system of “corporate welfare” which allowed large, profitable semiconductor corporations to take advantage of government subsidies, funded by public tax dollars. One example is the case of the technical consortium “Sematech,” (including Intel, Motorola, Digital Equipment Corporation, IBM, AT&T, Texas Instruments, Advanced Micro Devices, Rockwell, and National Semiconductor), which in 1986 received $800 million from American taxpayers. Each of these consortium members makes well in excess of $800 million each month; yet they and other corporations continue to canvass the federal government for research and development funds.

Chomsky (1996) has documented a practice even more alarming than the U.S government’s direct subsidies and tax breaks to multinational corporations, which he refers to as “dual use technology.” Chomsky defines dual use technologies as:

“Technologies that are developed with public funds under the military and space exploration system, and then handed over to corporations to be patented and sold back to the public that financed their development in the first place.” [5]

Chomsksy (1996) claims that over 50 percent of the research and development conducted in the electronics, computer, aeronautics, metallurgy, laser and telecommunications industries is conducted with public money in the form of government giveaways that ultimately enhance the wealth of corporations.

Indeed, this appears to be the case in the development of commercial digital television. After 10 years of publicly expressed fears that the Japanese electronics industry would dominate the high definition television market, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to give away the entire HDTV spectrum to corporate media concerns. Critics have estimated the true market value of the spectrum as high as $70 billion (Murray, 2000).

Recently, Microsoft recently successfully lobbied for a clause in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 that will result in $1.7 billion tax break for Microsoft and other software makers (Bartlett and Steele, 1998). Ostensibly, the measure was designed to encourage more aggressive exporting activities, but since Microsoft is already a highly successful exporter, it appears that the American taxpayer will soon be subsidizing Microsoft for doing something it already does with huge financial success (Bartlett and Steele, 1998).

Based on congressional testimony given by Erich Bloch, government consultant, former director of the National Science Foundation, and corporate vice–president of IBM, researchers (Moore and Stansel, 1995) estimate that putting an end to corporate welfare could potentially save the American taxpayers as much as $275 billion dollars over the next five years. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be a likely development in the near future. Rather, the infusion of corporate/industrial models into public venues (e.g., education) continues to gather momentum, as the high tech industry furthers its agenda of converting American children into the next generation of technology consumers.



Minds for sale: The commodification of education

Educational technology has become ubiquitous in popular discourse on school reform in recent years. Although it is not entirely clear how information technology came to occupy such a privileged position in educational thought, a brief historical overview is in order.

Throughout history, technology has been afforded an extremely prominent position in our understanding of human thought. The mechanics of tool–making/using have almost universally been considered indispensable to human evolution. It is my contention that this largely unsubstantiated belief is the direct product of the burgeoning influence of the industrial revolution, the values inherent in mass production, and the well–maintained machine of social reproduction operating in our public school systems.

The historical record is replete with compelling examples of the influence of the industrial mentality on educational thought and attempts to generalize the values of mass production to educational contexts. A notable example is the “Lancasterian” system of education, commonly referred to, at the time, as “manufacturies of knowledge” (Spring, 1990). These institutions were explicitly dedicated to the production of a submissive, industrious, orderly, and obedient workforce, able to meet the growing demands of industry for cheap labor.

In the nineteenth century, a virtual flood of communication and transportation technologies was developed and successfully marketed (e.g., electrical lighting, telephony, automobiles, photography, photojournalism, sound motion pictures, broadcast radio). More importantly, powerful holding companies were created, designed to maximize corporate profits. Corporations such as Standard Oil, J.P. Morgan & Co., United States Steel, and American Telephone & Telegraph systematically engaged in a variety of illegal and unethical practices (e.g., union busting, vote buying, corporate welfare, hostile takeovers, monopolistic strategies), providing the dominant ethical model for business, which persists to this day in the microcomputer industry (Ver Steeg, 1982).

Equally important, however, were reactions by the scientific, educational, and business communities to the politics and propoganda of the Cold War. Driven by fears of nuclear attack and communist infiltration, the U.S. Congress created the National Science Foundation (NSF), and aggressively began work on development of a communications system capable of withstanding a nuclear attack. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), designed to link a number of military sites, comprised the beginning of what is now the Internet. Although this work was ostensibly military in nature, America’s purported decline in the areas of scientific and technological expertise soon became the rallying cry of military and business leaders alike, resulting a wave of open criticism of America’s educational institutions.

Callahan (1962), in his research on the infusion of business and industrial models into educational decision–making, suggests that between the 1930s and 1950s the role of school administrator had already undergone a dramatic conceptual shift from the traditional role of scholar and philosopher to that of business manager, fund–raiser, and account executive. The economics of Cold War military research contributed to a strengthening of the bond between education and the business community. In the late 1950s criticism from the military and business sectors had become so intense (e.g., Rickover, 1959) that Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, legislation which explicitly laid the blame for perceived deficits in national security on the alleged scientific and technological indifference of American schools.

Tyack and Cuban (1986), eminent educational historians, outline the views of many in the business community in their book Tinkering toward utopia:

“In the early decades of the twentieth century, business and professional elites increasingly controlled the school boards of cities. In their attempt to counter criticism that the schools were inefficient, superintendents and university education experts rushed to borrow language and concepts from business, and ‘businesslike’ became almost synonymous with ‘scientific’.” [6]

The notion that management and business leaders might possess insights into the problems of schools, or that business strategies might magically transform schools, appears to have had a pervasive and persistent impact on the educational community. Paterson (1998) highlights the dubious nature of this belief in his statement:

“Today the supreme role is that of the manager. Ambitious and energetic young men and women are encouraged to become managers, offered training in something called management, and promised a way of life in keeping with their status as managers, if they will learn to display the attitudes and supposed skills of managers. Outstanding craftsmen, teachers, nurses, engineers, are to put down their tools, leave their pupils or patients, abandon their designing and building, in order to sit behind desks or on committees. We are told that the successful headmaster or senior academic needs to be a good manager, rather than a good teacher or scholar, although he must know enough (but just enough) about teaching and scholarship to manage teachers and scholars.” [7]

Since the days of Cold War, educational professionals have been confronted with increasingly urgent rhetoric from managerial and technocratic sources. In 1982 Time magazine featured the computer as the “Man of the Year.” Special Time editions were titled “Here come the microkids … by bits and bytes,” and the editors of Popular Computing concluded that “schools are in the grip of a computer mania” (Cuban, 1986). The fever hasn’t subsided, and has resulted in an ongoing series of predictions from the likes of Seymour Papert (1984), a leader in the educational technology movement.

“There won’t be schools in the future … I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum … all of that. The whole system is based on a set of structural concepts that are incompatible with the presence of the computer … But this will happen only in communities of children who have access to computers on a sufficient scale.” [8]

After more than 20 years of non–stop rhetoric, the giddy predictions by technocrats and managers have not yet come to fruition. In fact, most serious members of the educational research community have openly acknowledged the obvious absence of any evidence whatever which might link clear measurable gains to the use of modern technologies in classrooms. It is becoming increasingly evident that the movement to integrate technology into America’s schools is more about the $5,000,000,000 government investment and the $600,000,000,000 (and growing) market that currently capitalizes on the “captive audience” of America’s children than it is about education.

Some think that industry’s tenacious attempts to maintain dominance in the educational market is in fact not based in genuine concern for the education of America’s children, but instead, deeply grounded in the economic fears associated with the rising global economy, and attempts to maximize profits. Schools and educators have been asked to uncritically adopt the goals of business in producing a submissive, industrious, orderly, and obedient workforce.

Giroux (2000) remarks:

“The corporatizing of public education has taken a distinct turn as we approach the twenty–first century. No longer content merely to argue for the application of business principles to the organization of schooling, the forces of corporate culture have adopted a much more radical agenda. Central to this agenda is the attempt to transform public education from a public good, benefiting all students, to a private good designed to expand the profits of investors, educate students as consumers, and train young people for the low–paying jobs of the new global marketplace. And the stakes are high. According to the Education Industry Directory, the for–profit education market represents $600 billion in revenue for corporate interests. And this is an expanding market, ‘larger than either the military budget or social security’.” [9]

As demonstrated above, there exist inextricable historical and psychological links between the rise of the culture of “management,” the accompanying marketing and manufacturing of the notion of the “information age,” and the resulting impoverished discourse that privileges the linguistic conventions of management and technocrats. Jaques Ellul (1990) addresses the relationship between discourse convention and the inherent arrogance that precludes, and acts as an exclusionary device to, full participation by nontechnicians:

“In technical spheres, beyond a certain point, only specialists can practice. This is not just a matter of knowledge but a monopoly, a barrier between technocrats and the public, who are merely allowed to play around with certain lesser techniques. Anyone can tap on a computer, but only superior technicians can program the complex systems on which economic and financial orientations and confidential communications depend. The essential part of technical use is beyond the reach of average citizens. An esoteric language corresponds to the exclusive practices. All aristocrats speak a language of their own that is not that of the common people. It is not a different language in the sense that German differs from French, but a coded language that only initiates understand.” [10]

As the various players (i.e., popular news media, publishing industry, and microcomputer industry) continue to consolidate resources and market revenues, their position in the maintenance of an uncritical educational discourse becomes increasingly authoritative, and crucial to their success.

One could argue that as the culture of corporate America becomes fully integrated into educational culture, the democratic values and ideals which comprise the intellectual history of the United States are weakened further and further. Rather than preparing students to become well–informed citizens capable of participating in America’s great democratic experiment, corporate agendas are explicitly aimed at training students to be compliant consumers and low–wage workers.

The pervasive use of computers is deeply embedded in corporate thinking. Indeed, as explicated by Moore’s Law, in 1965, the computing capacity of the microchip has approximately doubled every 18 months. As more powerful computers become available, software system requirements rise proportionally, engendering an accelerating spiral of hardware and software obsolescence, thereby ensuring a captive market for the microcomputer industry.

These factors have broad implications for schools, struggling not only to fulfill industry’s expectations for obedient low–wage workers, but also racing madly to secure up–to–date equipment that will conform to increasingly demanding software system requirements, only to become obsolete in 18 months. Some have questioned the wisdom of spending multi–billions of dollars on technology, noting that money spent on technology typically translates into money not spent on music, art, libraries, and other essential components of a broad liberal arts curriculum.

The commitment of the Clinton administration to technology is illustrative of the type of hyperbole that surrounds the use of technology, particularly the inflated claims that putatively link the Internet to enhanced learning. President Clinton’s plans (President Clinton’s Call to Action for American Education in the 21st Century, 1997) call for the following actions:

  1. Connect every school and classroom in America to the information superhighway;
  2. Provide access to modern computers for all teachers and students;
  3. Develop effective and engaging software and online learning resources as an integral part of the school curriculum; and,
  4. Provide all teachers the training and support they need to help students learn through computers and the information superhighway.

These measures seem rather extreme in light of the fact that researchers have been unsuccessful in establishing any convincing evidence that the use of the Internet can be linked to higher levels of student achievement. In fact, the very researchers dedicated to documenting technology’s positive impact in education have repeatedly and publicly admitted that “the research on technology’s effectiveness and educational uses is sparse and, in some cases, disappointing in quality.” (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1999)

Lack of solid research evidence, however, hasn’t dissuaded the President and Congress from creating and funding a plethora of federal technology grant programs through the U.S. Department of Education (2000), including the following:


Technology Literacy Challenge Fund $450 million
Next Generation Technology Innovation $170 million
Advanced Technology Application for Education $32 million
Challenging Coursework Online $10 million
Mississippi Delta Initiative $10 million
Technology Innovation Challenge $78 million
Community Technology Centers Grants $100 million
Preparing Tomorrow’s Teacher to Use Technology $150 million
Star School’s Programs $35 million
Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships $30 million
Interagency Education Research Initiative $50 million
Regional Technology in Education Consortia $10 million
E–Rate $2.25 billion


It should be kept in mind that the approximately $5 billion dollars per year (1996 figures) directly controlled through the U.S. Department of Education is miniscule compared with the $75 billion per year given as direct subsidies to the corporate elite by the U.S. government (Moore and Stansel, 1995). It should also be noted that the $75 billion given to corporations exceeds the entire federal allocation for America’s K–12 schools by approximately $52.5 billion (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). An influential Presidential commission recently recommended that the U.S. spend an additional $15 billion a year for educational technology in K–12 public schools, an expenditure that would equal approximately 66 percent of the entire federal education budget for 1998–1999 ($22.5 billion; Cordes and Miller, 2000).

Not surprisingly, the Clinton advisory group was comprised of three CEOs of high–tech companies, several members of Congress (lawyers), and two entrepreneurs who have made their fortunes creating online instructional software. Conspicuously absent from the panel were classroom teachers, child development experts, and critics of educational technology (Cordes and Miller, 2000).

So subsumed has the field of education become by outside corporate investments and computer executives and enthusiasts, that there hardly seems room any longer for teachers. In fact, Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College of Columbia University predicts the final demise of the “teacher.” Once technology has finally transformed education completely, the most renowned teachers will resemble “rock stars,” attracting tens of thousands of online students to their personal pedagogical “Woodstocks” (Levine, 2000).

The breakdown of intellectual integrity becoming increasingly blatant, as evidenced by the following examples: (a) the installation of commercial–saturated, for–profit, Channel One television, which is viewed daily in 12,000 middle and high schools in the country, and reportedly costs the American taxpayer $1.8 billion in lost class time [11]; (b) a recently initiated science curriculum, created by Exxon, which demonstrates to children how the oil spill of the Valdez was an example of environmental protection, rather than the environmental disaster it actually represents (Giroux, 1998); (c) the proliferation of exclusive contracts between soft drink vendors and schools, in which individual choice is exchanged for a specified monetary remuneration (Giroux, 1998); (d) a scheme by former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to launch a private sector school project called the New American Schools Development Corporation (NASDC), which abandons democratic ideals, shifts control from a teachers/community base to central administrators, and employs technology by replacing the teacher’s desk with an “electronic teaching center,” where teaching is engineered by what the administrators refer to as “pervasive use of the computer” (Spillane and Shapiro, 1992); (e) revelations that university administrators across the country are so consumed with creating illusions of diversity (as opposed to real diversity) that several schools have been apprehended for digitally altering images, in order to knowingly misrepresent the student populations for advertising purposes; and, (f) recent disclosures that AT&T, Time Warner, General Motors, Marriott International, Hilton, News Corp., and other corporate entities that are buying their way into the educational marketplace are concurrently investing heavily in the $10 billion pornography trade. According to Forrester Research (Egan, 2000), General Motors, the world’s largest corporation, currently maintains more online pornography sites and sells more explicit sex films than the pornography giant Hustler. AT&T owns the most profitable hard–core sex channel in the country (Egan, 2000). Paradoxically, a teacher engaged in such activities would be held to a much different standard, and conceivably, unceremoniously relieved of duty.

The frenzy to infuse corporate management models into intellectual, academic settings not only represents a threat to long–standing academic traditions such as open intellectual discourse, debate, and critical analysis, but also documents the determination of corporate technocrats and managers to become prominent players and decision–makers in all aspects of the ever–expanding educational marketplace.

Noble (1998), recognizing the serious ramifications of commercial and corporate involvement in objective inquiry, warns:

“Research, formerly pursued as an end in itself or as a contribution to human knowledge, now became a means to commercial ends and researchers became implicated, directly or indirectly and wittingly or not, in the business of making money for their universities. The commercialization of academic research brought universitites and industry into close partnership; it made some people very rich and no doubt resulted in the development of some new technologies. But, it also ushered in a brash new regime of proprietary control, secrecy, fraud, theft, and commercial motives and preoccupations. Some argue that this new commercial ethos has irrereversibly corrupted the university as a site of reliably independent thought and disinterested inquiry, placing in jeopardy a precious and irreplaceble public resource.” [12]

Although corporate interests insist on a dominant role in determining not only instructional models, but also the course of university–based scientific research, they blatantly refuse to acknowledge the guiding principles of normal scientific inquiry, as defined by Thomas Kuhn (1970).

“Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science, i.e., for the genesis and continuation of a particular research tradition.” [13]

Like the Sophists of the 4th and 5th centuries B.C., today’s Neo–Sophist entrepreneurs openly spurn time–honored traditions such as adherence to rules and standards of scientific practice. As the tobacco industry wielded its power to subvert the legitimate goals of the medical research community, so corporate, high–tech interests have systematically played on the public’s fears, in order to exploit the educational endeavor for their own purposes. In the process, they undermine the traditions of democratic discourse and intellectual integrity that have been the cornerstone of education since Plato discreditied the techniques of the Sophists in the 4th century B.C. End of article


About the author

Randall Engle is an Associate Professor of Educational Technology at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon. He received his Ph.D. in Literacy/Technology from Utah State University, and has been at Western for six years. He teaches courses in literacy, communication theory, emerging technologies, multimedia technology, and Internet technologies. He currently coordinates the Masters of Science in Information Technology at Western Oregon University.
E–mail: engler [at] wou [dot] edu



1. Hilts, 1996, p. 8.

2. Chomsky, 1988, p. 1.

3. Negroponte, 1995, p. 5.

4. Postman, 1986, p. 92.

5. Chomsky, 1996, p. 1.

6. Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p. 114.

7. Paterson, 1998, p. 28.

8. Papert, 1984, p. 38.

9. Giroux, 2000, p. 85.

10. Ellul, 1990, p. 26.

11. Sawicky and Molnar, 1998, p. 7.

12. Noble, 1998, p. 1.

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Editorial history

Paper received 4 April 2001; accepted 20 July 2001.

Copyright © 2001, First Monday.

Copyright © 2001, Randall K. Engle.

The neo sophists: Intellectual integrity in the information age
by Randall K. Engle
First Monday, Volume 6, Number 8 - 6 August 2001

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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