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Fatal Flaws, Errors, Mistakes

This week in my mythology class we discussed Oedipus the King, the famous ancient Greek tragedy about a man (a king) who discovers that he accidentally, unknowingly killed his father, slept with his mother, and had offspring who were also his siblings. The day of that discovery was a bad day for him.

According to Aristotle, Oedipus is doomed by hamartia. This term has often been translated “fatal flaw,” but my students and I had some fun debating that translation. Our textbook suggested that a better translation would have been “error.” I threw out questions to the class about how the play might be interpreted differently if we see the problem as an error, a mistaken behavior, rather than as a fatal flaw that is somehow inherent in the person.

I imagine that this discussion has taken place in many college mythology classes. While my students were sharing their ideas about how particular scenes did or did not demonstrate that Oedipus was prone to personality traits such as “arrogance” or “stubbornness,” I was struck by how difficult it is for us to talk about making mistakes or even correcting mistakes as normal human behavior.

We tend to think of error in relation to the perpetrator/victim binary. If I’ve made some type of mistake, it’s either because I’ve done something blameworthy (e.g., “I didn’t pay attention”) or because I’m a victim of circumstance (e.g., “I misheard your directions because the traffic was too loud”). Another problem with this binary is that whenever we need to change course in some way, we are potentially involved in a battle of wills, a win/lose blame game.

As teachers, we are supposed to be helping students learn new things, and they are supposed be learning by making mistakes and revising their work and their thinking. The idea that one learns through failure is a commonplace. We know we should try being kind when pointing out mistakes to students or when asking them to change their ways of thinking. What happens in this formulation though if we balance such learning gains against the students’ potential loss of face? I don’t have the power to magically nullify emotional effects of face loss even if I don’t explicitly call something a mistake or an error, but I do know that saving face, feeling in control and respected, is strong human need.

This little 4×4 cannot resolve the psychological stress generated by the right/wrong, victim/perpetrator binary embedded in acknowledging and learning from mistakes. Heck, a tragic play could only begin to make the dilemma visible to its audience. Still, I think it’s good to think about the risks students take when trying out new ways of thinking and expressing themselves in our classes.

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