The term Sophomore literally means, “Wise fool.” It refers to those who’ve read a little bit of this or been exposed to a little bit of that, and arrogantly feel they have a deep or masterful grasp of the subject at hand.
That’s why we refer to a second year high school or college student by this designation. Metaphorically speaking, the second year student refuses to acknowledge and respect the greater experience and knowledge of upperclassmen who’ve been at the school longer and whose studies are more advanced.
This student might even attempt to dismiss or disregard the counsel or mentorship not only of older more seasoned students, but of teachers/professors as well.
Being sophomoric therefore, is always undesirable. It indicates a type of naivete and/or arrogance, and an inflated sense of one’s skill or knowledge that is more of a hindrance than a help.
In a world made smaller and more accessible by the instant gratification of Google searches, YouTube clips and Wikipedia entries, the sophomore virus might be at near-epidemic levels. Many are deluded into thinking that the quick information they obtained makes them “the man” or “that chick” way too early in their journey.
In addition, quick and easy access to information often results in data overload. Trivia and quick “facts” begin to displace deep thinking and critical analysis; mimicking others and uncritical worship of European scholarship has replaced legitimate appreciation for Black and white radical scholarship. Learning consistently, patiently over time from those who’ve mastered their craft has given way to the equivalent of microwave scholarship and learning (as my friend Ishmael Bey terms it).
And we’ve clearly lost something in the balance. Even basic things like making sound logical claims supported by credible evidence, seems lacking in some quarters. In other areas, we witness a serious lack of intellectual reference to radical Black movements and intellectuals. Where are the references to DuBois, Baldwin, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Audre Lourde, Angela Davis, Amos Wilson, Charshee McIntyre, Dr. Ben, Dr. Clark and others?
Then there is the stubborn refusal to admit when one is wrong, in violation, or simply off track. How can we grow and mature if those who know better cannot correct or redirect us?
Our people – besieged on all sides by poverty, brutality, ignorance, and exploitation – simply cannot afford to mass produce sophomores. Our community will only be empowered/liberated by those who are actually up to the job, not those who mistakenly and arrogantly believe they are (especially after years of ignoring sound advise, taking shortcuts, and avoiding discipline and hard work).
Perhaps our only hope is to practice the principle of Sankofa. We must remember that humility and serious and sustained study, practice and reverence for our master teachers, warriors, artists, etc. and our craft, is a time-tested path to actual mastery.
Case in point: I am now close to 50-years of age. But I remember vividly two and three decades ago, an assortment of phenomenal mentors challenging, questioning, and refining my thinking, writing and organizing strategy with a loving spirit.
I remember working really hard on papers and feeling frustrated at the sight of all the underlined sentences, circled words, and corrective comments written in the margins (and those were my best papers).
At Syracuse University, Dr. Mayes pushed me to better understand and decode the protest message of “Native Son” the nuanced symbolism, satire and social critique of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” or the internalization of self-hatred embodied in Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”
Dr. Randolph Hawkins and Dr. Sang pushed me to develop a more nuanced and informed understanding of sociology, political science and revolutionary movements throughout the Diaspora.
At Cornell University, Dr. Assie-Lummba helped me understand the pedagogy of tge oppressed, and to develop revolutionary understanding, cririque and applications of education.
Dr. James Turner said my speeches were “heavy on emotion and entertainment, but light on analysis and remedy.” He encouraged me to educate listeners on how oppression worked, how we internalize our oppression, and how we can transform our thinking and behavior. He made me do more rewrites of my master’s thesis than I care to mention, and he drilled me with questions at my thesis defense for two hours! However in doing so, he prepared me WELL.
At Umass, professors and seasoned activists William Strickland and Ernest Allen refined, retooled and nuanced my understanding of the victories and shortcomings of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalism and the Black Power Movement.
This critical mentorsip occured outside of the classroom as well. Khalid Muhammad challenged me for not being in an organization at the time, and not doing enough to fuse Pan African politics with my Nationalist thinking; Kwame Ture challenged me to organize Black people locally and nationally and work to institutionalize my thinking and activism. Ruby Sales reminds me to understand, critique and resist U.S. empire, take a stand against patriarchy and sexuality oppression.
Sometimes this teaching or criticism from my mentors came with a smile and soft words; Other times it stung; Nevertheless, I never disrespected or disregarded their wisdom.
Recognizing their superior experience and knowledge, I listened and did my best to incorporate their perspectives, regardless of my feelings. I did not become defensive by their critiques. I understood that they took their craft seriously, and they wanted me to be conscious, competent and committed. And because I didn’t take things personally or become defensive, I grew exponentially as an intellectual and activist.
Because of these individuals and many others, my writing, thinking and activism are sharper and more effective. I am – because of their time and energy, love and critique – a better, more effective and more competent man.
And as fate would have it, I now mentor younger people myself. I usually begin by telling them what I recently posted on Facebook. It is advice I think we need to share with more of our youth, to prevent them from traveling the sophomore path and to instead develop into a generation of competent and creative intellectuals, institution builders and problem-solvers rather than mediocre and arrogant social media commentators or glamorized event planners who are unable to create effective institutions and movements:
Good advice for youth: Refuse to be a sophomore (wise fool) in life. Learn and practice the virtue of humility asap. When you say, write or do something in error and someone brings that to your attention, resist the ego urge to fight them. Submit to truth quickly and save precious time. Avoid idle arguments and weak defense mechanisms. Get the lesson, give thanks and move on. You will spend more energy and time furthering yourself, your knowledge base and your skill. And you won’t piss off mentors in a position to take you to the next level…..
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.