Cognitive change is not social change

I want to reflect some more on this Freddie post where he equates activism with education:

To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job.

I’ve thought long and hard, but I don’t know how to reconcile that passage with this one from February 2014:

But at some point you have to actually grapple with reality, which is that for a complex and controversial set of reasons, some people are harder to educate. Not everyone is equally capable of educational success. They just aren’t…[Most students] don’t care, unless there’s the basic human accountability of sitting down with them at a table and going through the changes together. That’s how I drag them to the skills they want.

Or this from June 2013:

I don’t exaggerate, and I imply resistance for a reason: most students, in most educational contexts, resist being educated. It’s true. It’s not just true, but banal and obvious. Why do we have truancy officers? Why do teachers device intricate schemes of punishment and reward? Why do we have Norman Rockwell visions of students playing hooky or sitting in the corner with a dunce cap? Because many students have only the barest desire to learn. That’s why people made it illegal for them not to go to school!

So if it’s so hard to educate full time students who on some level want to learn, how on earth do activists educate? Freddie has spent years working with college students at an elite public research university. These students are among the intellectual elite–“near the top.” And even then he finds it “a struggle to educate them.” He has to drag them to learn and threaten them if they don’t. If a teacher as dedicated as Freddie often fails in an environment designed for education, writers won’t fare any better. Most people, after all, barely skim what they read.

I agree it’s important for writers to have some notion of how to create the world they want. I’ve argued as much when it comes to religious freedom. But I’m starting to think I was too harsh. Take it from someone who struggles with it: writing is hard. It’s painful enough to produce something worthwhile even when you focus on a single topic. An essay that simply describes a problem does serve a useful purpose.

If it’s unreasonable to expect all students to learn calculus, it’s equally unreasonable to expect all writers to both identify and help solve problems. These are different skill sets and Freddie can’t possibly expect all writers to do them both. His standards are way too high.

There’s another problem with Freddie’s critique. Even if we could educate by essay, even if we knew that reading and thinking would change minds, we couldn’t guarantee that would lead to anything meaningful. It’s a mistake academic types seem to make. Social change requires much more than cognitive change. While a theory of politics is surely needed, it involves a helluva lot more than education. So even if writers created an elegant theory of politics, it probably wouldn’t accomplish much. Few people reorganize their life priorities after reading a few essays.

And again, Freddie oddly seems to have forgotten his own writing. Freddie himself has written powerfully on the limits of education as a tool in achieving social change. This basic point–which he applies so well to school reform efforts–is also relevant to the status of adjunct faculty and religious freedom. In all of these cases and more it’s worth repeating: education is a limited tool to achieve social change. Freddie should heed his own advice.

I’ve highlighted this David Roberts quote before. But since I think it applies here, and it’s so good, I’m posting it again:

You’ll be shocked to hear that Socolow, who spends his life in a world of ideas and explanations, concludes that the answer is better ideas and explanations…I don’t think [David Victor] has ever said anything more on the money than this:

The community of policy advocates—especially folks drawn from academic science and engineering—is shockingly naïve about politics and the strategy of political action.

Ideas and explanations–and by implication writers and intellectuals–are never enough.


  1. I find the notions of education and activism here provincial and somewhat inadequate in describing what goes on today or in some communities throughout time.

    1) It seems the education that is talked about here seems to refer to only lower levels of learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy – remembering, understanding, maybe even applying. It doesn’t seem to apply to higher levels of learning which involve things like creation.

    2) Again the educational models described here seem to describe the traditional, hundreds-of-years-old model in which the teacher transfers knowledge to the student. Not only have there always been fringe models of education run by certain communities but these alternative models are becoming more and more mainstream in which the activity of education is primarily and dominantly (and in some models solely) done by the student. The teacher (if there is one) is more of a facilitator or someone coming alongside the student. I would hope that a professor at such an institution is at least starting to shift his or her classroom into some of these new modes in which his or her role stops being trying to force, push, or get students to learn. Fundamentally, that model is flawed. The easiest way for students to learn is to refuse the role of pushing, forcing them to learn. The best way to get them to learn is not to get them to learn.

    3) For a fascinating study of social change and, specifically, the interplay between movements and institutions, please watch Selma. I just did, and it was fascinating and utterly moving. Usually when studying social change movements, there are a plethora of things that move the various, moved individuals. Some are changed by intellectual arguments, some join due to emotional arguments, some act due to instinctual arguments, etc. Whatever reasons move individuals, all of those are part of the change milieu that propels such change forward.

    So it is very true that for many people cognitive change does not imply social change. It’s not true for everyone. There is a minority that, for certain issues, simply change (on an individual level) due to cognitive change. So I think what the paper means is that cognitive change does not necessarily lead to social change (though it can).

    So I like the statement that they are different. This is partly because of what we know from psychoanalysis and people like Lacan. What you say you believe (conscious) and some of the motives and thoughts (subconscious) are very different from what you actually believe (unconscious). What you believe, even different from your actual thoughts, is made evident in your patterns, habits, and actions. This is the unconscious to which I refer and which reveals belief (unless there are barriers like apathy; for example, you can believe we are destroying the earth and we are heading towards a shortened life for the earth but don’t really care because it won’t happen to you or in your life time and you don’t care about others). So I think the reason he makes this statement is because the cognitive change he refers is more of what we call the conscious beliefs in psychoanalysis. It’s not related at all to actual beliefs.

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