Last week I attended a talk by Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Neither of us stayed for the twenty-four hour long live reading of his new book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (he’d written it, I had dinner plans), but the ninety minutes that we did share cast a light on current approaches to policy-making.
Zizek argued that it is important that we ‘love theory’, enjoying the processes of debate, planning and abstract thinking. This urge is familiar to education reformers, who like to develop macro theories of change that describe improved systems of schooling. In this way they resemble enlightenment philosophers that, instead of solving problems of morality and meaning, are in pursuit of improved literacy at Key Stage 2 or better GCSE attainment by pupils on FSM.
So we should love theory, but only up to a point. Borrowing from the X-Files, Zizek then explained – and this is central to his thesis on dialectical materialism – that ‘the truth is out there’. Theorizing is all well and good, but has no material significance beyond the change it can bring about in the world. Thought systems are by their very nature flawed and partial (George Steiner takes up this theme as it relates to Hegel’s Philosophy of Right in The Poetry of Thought) – and our policy-makers would do well to heed this lesson.
I was reminded of this last Tuesday, when I visited Burlington Danes Academy in West London. Recently declared ‘one of the the jewels in the crown of the state education system’ by Michael Gove, the school serves pupils drawn from highly deprived communities and enables them to perform dramatically above national averages. During the day we observed classes, interviewed teachers and talked to a group of pupils about the transformative impact the school had had on their lives.
Henry had been threatened with expulsion from the school on multiple occasions, and only the belief of a single teacher – who knew that the inevitable next step for him would be prison – kept him there. By the time we met him, Henry was an articulate and thoughtful young man studying politics, philosophy and economics at university. But it wasn’t a story of total success. Henry hadn’t been accepted at the best universities that he had applied to and was aware he had settled for second best. On the other hand, if he had ended up in prison, would anyone at the school be telling his story?
It’s hard to imagine a system or policy that would ensure that kids like Henry remain in school. The system inevitably sought to exclude him, because that’s what grand theories do. The actions of the teacher were not computable (Nassim Taleb writes on this in The Black Swan), but at the human level, it is hard to say that they were unpredictable. So how do we account for them in policy-making? We must do so if we consider that a thousand such actions result in a community of graduates rather than criminals. The Prime Minister’s Nudge Unit suggests that policy-makers are finally trying to accommodate these insights (however dubiously) into their arsenal.
Systems see pupils like Henry ‘in theory’, so policy-makers should at least be hesitant about describing perfect systems on paper, then sitting back and marveling at their conceptual brilliance. Instead, we should be good materialists of education reform, getting out into schools to engage with individuals, and remembering the injunction of Mulder, Scully and Slavoj Zizek: the truth is out there!