What Is Demagoguery?

The words pedagogue and demagogue are both of Greek origin. The first means a leader of boys (or, more generally, of children); the second a leader of people. In the present day usage, while pedagogue is a teacher, tutor, instructor (sometimes a pedantic one, but, on the whole), with a positive influence on the subject, the word demagogue has universally negative connotation: a demagogue acts with an intention to mislead rather than to lead. One practices the art of pedagogy (never pedagoguery), the other the art of demagoguery (seldom demagogy.)

One aspect of demagoguery is usually emphasized in modern dictionaries. The entry for demagogue in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is characteristic in this respect:

dem·a·gogue or dem·a·gog: a person who appeals to the emotions and prejudices of people esp. in order to advance his own political ends

While probably all politicians engage in demagoguery at one time or another, the fact is that these same methods need not necessarily be employed just for the purpose of stirring emotions. They may be and are being used in arguments among friends, in a family, or meetings with colleagues. Most and foremost, more often than not, demagoguery is a deliberate distortion of logic, although unadulterated lie is also a frequent part of social discourse. I submit a demagogue must have an audience whose judgement he intends to influence, although the demagogic methods apply also to private deliberations with no ill intent, in which case they result in self-deception. Unfortunately, pedagogues are only human and occasionally resort to demagoguery in defending or promoting their pedagogical views.

An excellent write-up can be found at the wikipedia site that includes a reference to a Russian article (by a mathematician) of which I appended my unauthorized translation. An exceptionally lucid analysis in a political context was given by Trish Roberts-Miller from the Department of Rhetoric and Writing, University of Texas, Austin.

Following are a few samples from the domain of education, math education in particular.

Let's start with the oft heard battle cry: "The time has come to give our children education they deserve" [Katzenelenbaum, 3a]. What follows is of course the speaker's (or the writer's) ideas as to what our children deserve. It is clear that the same "argument" could be used to promote any possible view point. However, the implied conclusion (i.e. the conclusion the listener or the reader is led to arrive at) is that the worthy one is exactly that of which the speaker is the proponent. The urgency of the appeal underscores the deep polarization between the proponents of the status quo and the speaker. The status quo no longer serves the intended purpose.

Indeed, the discourse in math education overflows with loaded juxtapositions: understanding vs. memorization (although there is no understanding without memorization), learning through understanding vs. learning by rote (although there is no way to gain understanding without practice), progressive vs. traditional (although progressive is not always better). There are many more.

One of the methods mentioned by [Katzenelenbaum, 2a] is a confusion between temporal and causal relationships. Now, the essence of progress is improvement, advancement over a period of time. Progressive means being indicative of a progress. Calling a curriculum or a stream of thought in math education progressive is a clear confusion between a temporal change (always moving forward) and a (hoped for) social progress. (Alfie ="../gifs and probably others refer to the traditionalists - whatever this may mean - as the Old School.)

This correlates with the tendency to blame an older generation for the lack of enthusiasm in accepting progressive ideas, like the use of calculators in school. This is a known thesis that new ideas and theories gain acceptance less by persuasive evidence of their veracity but simply because in the course of time their opponents tend to die out. But to claim that, with fading away of an old generation, the heterodox ideas of today will gain acceptance in any future generation, is a fallacy. Ideas and theories are subject to the process of extinction no less than the human beings. Most people die in obscurity, and so are most of their beliefs and theories.

The argument is close to the confusion of an implication and its converse [Katzenelenbaum, 2c]. In a paper "The Structure of Educational Revolutions" making rounds on the Internet, a notable computer scientist Anthony Ralston articulates his belief that very soon calculators and mental arithmetic will displace the pencil-and-paper algorithms from elementary classrooms, as the adherents of the traditional education "are almost all nearing the end of their professional lives." This is a conspicuous case of self-deception. If it comes to beliefs, then, according to mine, pretty soon the majority of children will be homeschooled and then each will follow a pedagogy - pen-and-pencil or calculators or a mix of the two - most suitable to his or her mental setup. The educational revolution that is under way will eventually lead to individualized instruction.

In the paper, Ralston devotes some time to the notorious Math Wars between the proponents of the progressive and the back-to-basics streams in math education:

At times these wars have led to acrimonious exchanges between the two sides; at other times the exchanges have been more genteel. There have even been recent attempts at truces and fudges. But an end to the Math Wars is not in sight nor, I believe, should it be because the essential issues are too important and the essential positions of the two sides are so far from each other that what is needed is victory for one side, not a pale compromise that, in the long run, would not be good for anyone.

This is a clear case of demagoguery in several respects. For one, a little earlier Ralston mentions that "Some places, notably California, have, after some experiments with calculators in elementary school mathematics, returned to a 'back-to-basics' curriculum in which calculators are effectively banned in the classroom through the sixth grade." If it was not an eventually failed victory for one side, then what was it? Is it not enough to stop insisting on one-sidedness? Also, why a compromise is necessarily pale? I would be happy if the waring parties could settle for a period of truce and deliberate experimentation. I believe children are different and no single pedagogy may fit the whole population. Labeling a possible compromise as not "good for anyone," Ralston appears to insist on the opposite: calculators in elementary classrooms now!


  1. A. ="../gifs, The Schools Our Children Deserve, Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000
  2. T. Roberts-Miller, Characteristics of Demagoguery
  3. B. Katzenelenbaum, "Demagoguery: Attempt at Classification", Nauka i zhizn 9 (1989), in Russian (here's my translation)

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