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 By the time I left, a few years later, he'd been forced out by his board and been replaced by a young corporate executive.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:
- 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
- Look very critically at anything that is supported by rich people or would serve to benefit rich people.