In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I find Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Moggcast quite interesting. I then went on to point out that I don’t agree with him about everything. I felt the need to do this, even though it is probably quite obvious. Now, I think I understand why.
A month-or-so ago, I published a piece for Quillette. I had been aware of Quillette for a while, having read a few interesting articles that appeared in my timeline. I did not always agree with everything – again, I feel the need to point that out – but Quillette is written in long form with a kind of openness that I enjoy.
When I noticed that the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), an Australian Thinktank, was broadcasting an event on Marx’s ‘Conflict Theory’, I initially did not pay much attention because it sounded a little dull. CIS is a free-market organisation into free trade and all that kind of thing and so I expected a bit of Marx bashing. However, when I noticed that Claire Lehmann, founder of Quillette, was speaking, I thought I would check out the Youtube video:
It’s really interesting…
Oh, hang on, I forgot to mention that I don’t always agree with the CIS. Has everyone noted that? Good.
…I cannot comment on the entirety of the presented thesis. The claims about university humanities departments certainly have resonance with the kinds of issues that I see in education faculties. Although it is alarming to think that critical theory might be being pushed in law degrees, I am unsure of the impact this will have.
However, from the outset, Lehmann introduced an idea I have been thinking about ever since. It is from Scott Alexander, author of the Slate Star Codex blog, and it is the distinction between those who hold a ‘conflict theory’ and those who hold a ‘mistake theory’.
I am clearly a mistake theorist. For instance, I believe that most politicians of whatever political persuasion are genuinely motivated by good intentions. The problem is that they are often quite wrong. I am an adherent of Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Mistake theorists think that social problems and the problems of running a state are, well, really difficult problems. Some of the proposals for solving these problems are bad but others are better and the purpose of debate is to try and sift through them. According to Scott Alexander:
“Mistake theorists think you can save the world by increasing intelligence. You make technocrats smart enough to determine the best policy. You make politicians smart enough to choose the right technocrats and implement their advice effectively. And you make voters smart enough to recognize the smartest politicians and sweep them into office.”
Yes. That’s me. That’s why I am involved in education. That’s my motivation.
Conflict theorists, on the other hand, see the world in terms of a conflict between the haves and the have-nots. They believe that the world is deliberately set-up in the way that it is in order to benefit the wealthy and privileged. Worryingly for mistake theorists, “Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict.” They perceive mistake theorist’s requests for an open debate as an attempt at obfuscation or gaslighting. I think I already knew this at some level and that is why I have been at pains to point out the obvious when I state that “I don’t always agree with X”. I am preempting the inevitable tactic of those who would paint me into a corner as an enemy. It’s probably pointless.
Conflict theorists don’t see the solution as increased intelligence. Instead, the oppressed need to seize power:
“Conflict theorists think you can save the world by increasing passion. The rich and powerful win because they already work together effectively; the poor and powerless will win only once they unite and stand up for themselves. You want activists tirelessly informing everybody of the important causes that they need to fight for.”
This is my understanding of Freire’s aims for education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a book that I found rather interesting, even if I did not agree with all of it.
The distinction between mistake theorists and conflict theorists also suggests an important divide in educational aims. Do you, like me, seek to save the world by increasing intelligence? Or do you seek to save the world by increasing passion?
The answer to this question will affect the curriculum we teach and the methods we use to teach it.