Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Death of Theory in Education?

In literary studies, the age of "theory" was coming to its end when I was in college, twenty-some years ago.  I took a class or two in which we read Terry Eagleton's little primer on literary theory and sampled work by a various people who'd been read a lot in the seventies and eighties (Derrida, etc.), but as I recall, my friends and I thought the more theoretical stuff was pretty much a joke. Today I read a piece by an economist making the case that the decline of theory has been a trend in economics, too, and indeed across all the disciplines.  Physicists have hit a theory wall; empirical sciences like biology are ascendant; published economics papers are down from over 50% theoretical in the 60s, 70s and 80s to less than 20% theoretical in 2011; and math is increasingly reliant on proving things by means of brute computing force rather than theoretical deduction.

Why has theory declined?
That last example points to one obvious reason for the shift from a theoretical approach to an empirical approach. Computers allow for data-crunching and simulation-testing that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. But computers are only one possible factor. The economist whose post I read suggests that the waning of theory might be due not only to competition from the now-stronger alternative of empiricism, but because theory itself has been played out (he expresses it in econ terms: "Maybe we've temporarily exhausted the surplus gains available from ramping up our investment in theory.")

As I see it, computing is certainly a huge part of the decline of theory, and the endogenous "exhaustion" of theory itself may be another. I wonder if another factor could be the fall of the Soviet Union. For over a hundred years before the time I was in college, the world had a very vigorous non-stop debate over how to see the world. Then, with the rise of the USSR, competition between the two hegemonic political systems fueled theoretical debates even in fields very far removed from politics (literary studies, for one). When I was in college, the global political competition abruptly ended, and the theoretical debates started to taper off as well. The decline was particularly steep in economics, but it happened in lots of other fields, too.

Connection to Education?
Is this related to education?  I think so.  It's certainly true that theory is less important in education than it used to be. This is true in the literature, but we can see it all around us. When I taught in Harlem in the mid-nineties, the headmaster of my school was an old poet who talked about Paulo Freire all the time. By the time I left, a few years later, he'd been forced out by his board and been replaced by a young corporate executive. Twenty-five years ago, Peter McClaren came out with Life in Schools, my copy of which cites the author's "cutting-edge theoretical work"; last year, when I first read something McClaren had written, my first instinct was to make fun, not only of his rock-star style choices, but also of his Marxism.

So the decline of theory in education does seem related to the triumph of capitalism. Recently I've been thinking about how education is both a public good and a private good. Over the past twenty-five years, the standard view of education has moved away from seeing it as a public good and has come to see it more and more in individualistic terms. There has also, of course, been a push for a more "free-market" system in education.  Both of these shifts, I think, would have been very different if the USSR were still around--not because the USSR was doing education in particular so differently, nor because Diane Ravitch or whoever would be at all sympathetic to the communist system, but because theoretical debate in general would be so much more vigorous. As it is now, we find it difficult to believe in theory at all anymore.  I remember reading Flatland in high school and being really struck by the idea that in a two-dimensional world you just can't imagine a third dimension.

What will happen? 
We will eventually rebuild our theoretical discourses. But it might take a while. In the meantime, while we are stuck with capitalism and with appeals to "evidence-based" approaches, we need to be wary of going with the flow.

What should we do?
I like liberation theology's idea that we should have a "preferential option for the poor"; in the current era, maybe we should have a preferential option for theory and against the rich and powerful. That is, maybe we should:

  1. Look very critically at the evidence, and remember (recalling the Foucault we read lo those many years ago) that when we claim our approach is based on evidence it is probably based on assumptions that have nothing to do with evidence, and 
  2. Look very critically at anything that is supported by rich people or would serve to benefit rich people.
Other ideas?


  1. 1. Doubt anything that's framed as "natural." As in, "This is how kids naturally learn," or, "we need to do away with this new approach because it goes against the way kids naturally learn." The 80's and 90's critique of the idea of the "natural" is still a useful one for me.

    2. Avoid thinking of "theory" is a limited set of texts that were translated from French in the 1970s and 1980s. Remember that even that collection of "theory" did important political work for us. As a grad student in the 80s, I felt that the French theory (only some of which I understood) was incredibly liberating in that it helped me to see the political nature of interpretation, text choice, pedagogy, and education as a whole. Marxist education theory (for example) still provides a darn good explanation of the current regime's fixation on tests that do little more than prove that public efforts to help those in poverty are not working.

    3. As you imply this apparent movement away from theory is actually a movement towards a theory (that of apparent empiricism, which many, many of your posts have shown is hardly empirical, when it comes to education). As my grad school hero, Frederick Jameson, pointed out, the fact that we are not able to recognize our own ideology AS an ideology merely demonstrates the very way that ideology works.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. I agree with all three of your points. As for #2, I certainly didn't mean to think of "theory" as just a bunch of french texts that were in vogue in the 70s and 80s. But in literary studies in this country in my lifetime, those seem to have been important (I think; I'm certainly no expert) in moving us from the supposdly more empirical criticism of the fifties to the kind of critique of our own assumptiopns that you fgound liberating in grad school. The period before the 70s and 80s, like the period after it that we are still sort of in, was a period of pretending or assuming that we didn't need theory. So in that sense this recent movement away from theory IS a movement away from theory, or at least from talking about it explicitly. Just because you have unspoken assumptions doesn't mean that you have a theory, or that your theory is going to be interrogated. That's why we need the Marxists, as you say, and why we should remember our Foucault, and our Horace Mann, and our John Dewey, and our Rousseau, and whatever other writers and thinkers we can come up with whose work goes against the prevailing currents.

      As for your #1, YES! As I always say, natural learning is probably really great. Natural teaching, however, should always be questioned.

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