The Importance of Theory

“The greatest ideas are the greatest events.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s true, I think. As I get older, and begin to exhaust the understanding that one can get from the practicalities of one’s profession, I start to think more about more that ideas — theories and philosophy — are the water that we swim in.

I think I always knew this . . . somewhat. When I was in college, I was instinctively pulled toward philosophy because I knew there was something important about it.  But I don’t think I completely understood just how important.  I keep coming back to that famous quote by John Maynard Keynes — about how practical people think they are free of theory, but are really the prisoners of it . . .  and about how critical theory sees human beings as the enslaved victims not of material force, but of “oppressive” ideologies.  In other words, our lives are dictated to a wide extent by theory, and by philosophy.

Being in the field of education allows me to see this.  Education is a field that is at once so obviously practical and yet so deeply theoretical.  On the one hand, many people view teaching as the unforgivingly practical life-during-war-time experience that it truly is.  Most young teachers (myself included) are dismissive of theoretical or philosophical questions because we recognize that theoretical knowledge is nice but practical knowledge is what is going to keep us our classrooms from devolving into Lord of the Flies and our getting a stapler chucked at us from across the room.  You might say we’re all pragmatists at first.

Then we hit a stage where we figure out how to avoid Lord of the Flies and we hit the next level of inquiry: how to get reluctant, moody children to willingly read Lord of the Flies.  We recognize that we have to become masters at the art of sophistry, salesmen of the unsellable, psychiatrists who can plumb the depth of the remotest souls and come back with answers — quickly.

Then we have to become survivalists ourselves.  Once you’ve gotten the students off of brawling, and actually read the books you assign (or at least engaging in class), then you start to recognize that it has taken all of your waking time to accomplish even these most basic achievements.  It’s time to start economizing how many papers you assign, how much prep time you undertake.  Planning two hours for a 45 minute lesson is unsustainable.  You’ve become a pragmatist, a psychiatrist, and now you’ve got to become an expert survivalist — otherwise, it’s off to law school.

That was a long digression.  But what I mean to say is that education is so practical and it takes so long to get a hold on the practicalities, which are so daunting and necessary, that it took me seven or eight years and required a dedicated fellowship year out of the classroom before I started to think much about theory and philosophy.  

But when you start to scratch the surface, you start to realize how deep all that stuff really goes.The theoretical underpinnings of even the simplest, most practical teaching routines actually go back many years, to theories that were once ground-shaking and fought over, many of them penetrating straight to the heart of our most profound notions of what it means to be human, to preserve what’s worth preserving, to make new what most needs remaking.  

This is what I wish I had heard a little more of in my own education.  Philosophy, theory — this is where stuff comes from.  This is what shapes our everyday world — even in places so apparently practical as schools.  It’s like architecture — having a big open space where people naturally meet has such a dictate on the interchange of ideas, the feeling of community.  It was a theory, an idea, a whole school of architecture that battled to achieve that.  It’s not just chance.

You see this in education right now.  I can see the descent of philosophy and theory as it flows downhill.  You hear teachers give each other advice about how to conduct student conferences.  You see books from teacher-practitioners like Kelly Gallagher or Penny Kittle that relate how they do things in their classroom — practical models.  These have some defense, some justification about what they believe is vital and what works.  They have thought through their goals.  Then you trace those goals and those methods back to Don Graves and Don Murray, teachers themselves and then researchers at the university level, who did studies of children and studies of the writing process. You realize: that’s where this all comes from.  Even then, you start to see there’s something deeper that even these guys aren’t getting at. I am not just talking about a natural science of learning, though that’s part of it. You look deeper and you see Vygotsky and Piaget. But you also see philosophy — you start to see how Murray and Graves fall into context and realize how their thinking falls into the much broader student-centered movements of the 1960s, which really go back to the ideas of John Dewey . . .  and so on.  

I saw this so clearly over the last two years of my immersion in the Vermont wing of educational reform.  I began to feel as though nearly all of the “original” ideas the best minds in our field were coming up with were all basically ripped from a page or two of John Dewey, and had all been tried in nearly the exact same form, 100 years ago!

I see this importance of theory today — so, so starkly — in the cultural and educational ascendance of critical theory, which is so broad and omnipresent that hardly anyone even knows what it is or even what to call it.  I am struggling to learn what it is myself.  It has become the water we swim in.  Perhaps that’s a good metaphor for theory itself.  I think we’ll have reached an important point once colleges start teaching students courses or units on understanding critical theory dispassionately, as one important tool, rather than having so much of their approach based on it.  Once we can all learn to see the water rather than just swimming along in it.

That’s what I wish I’d learned better when I was in college: that theory has such important consequences for the world.  All through college, I felt such an arrogance that we moderns had figured everything out, and that ancient battles over ideas were little more than old news.  (I recognize that even this assumption in the perfectibility of ideas over time is an interesting, debatable notion!) Now, I realize that — as John Dewey himself would opine — most of us need to start with the practical, with some throbbing, pressing concern that arouses our interest or our passions, before we are going to take any interest in ideas (particularly in ones from the past).  To that extent, I am actually hopeful that the current revival of activism and moralism about the college- and some high school-age students will actually lead to greater engagement with ideas.  My own generation I think was more apathetic.  There was less that seemed pressing when you were entering college in 2000, when our country was running surplus and had had a decade of peace and prosperity.  Yes, the next year changed things, but most of the cultural response that came out of 9-11 was from the right, not the left.  The people being “canceled” back then were the Dixie Chicks.  It definitely wasn’t a crusade — to go and respond to 9-11 — that appealed to the left, which is where the young always live.  Sure, there were some anti-war murmurs, and the neo-cons seemed loathsome, but it wasn’t like there was any really chance of there being a military draft.  None of this was really happening to us or with us.  

All of this was alleviated anyway, seven years later, with the repudiation of the neo-cons not just by some politician, but by the election of a once-a-generation transformational figure who simultaneously repudiated the military adventurism of the Cheney-Rumsfeld years, but who also seemed to promise a broader, social redemption for America’s greatest sin: Barack Obama, the most hopeful politician since 1960.  And he was more than just a left-wing morning in American, post-racial promise — he was a cool customer with a thoughtful demeanor, a reflective thinker whose very life story seemed the culmination of the kind of transformative change that the liberal system itself seemed to promise — America, at the very best it could be, was working.  

So what was there for us to really get angry about?

Today, it’s completely different, of course.  The beyond-magnitude reverberations of the Trump era — as well as the responses of the left, what I’m starting to think of as the battle between liberalism and critical theory, have become plainly clear.  But just the way I’ve started thinking about Trump as a purgative experience for a sick country — an extended look in the mirror, an intervention staged for all those of us who stood on the National Mall back in 2009 and thought, “All good from here on . . .” — I have also begun to wonder if all the critical theory push back, all of this heavy moralism, this with-us-or-against-us urgency, might actually drive more young people to engage with ideas.  You come to college now and you’re upset about the world. Maybe this pushes you to become distracted from your studies. Maybe you don’t think it’s necessarily so important to be reading when you could be out protesting. But maybe you feel inspired to to fight back against Trumps, to end discrimination, to improve American society. Maybe you start to take classes that will help you do that. You dig into critical theory.  But maybe you start to question that stuff a little bit too, to wonder whether the world really is just reducible to a series of oppressive group ideologies.  Maybe you start to meet some people who think differently. Maybe you start to wonder if canceling Barack Obama is going a bit too far.  Or if sometimes a person’s intent actually does matter.  Maybe you do a semester abroad somewhere a little different and start to wonder if a college staffed by a network of Highly Responsive Associate Deans of Student Safety and Wellbeing really is the most oppressive place on Earth.  Maybe you start to wonder if there are other theories that explain the world a little differently than critical theory does, perhaps in a more charitable light.  Maybe you do get this far, or maybe not. I just think that no matter what, this could be a time when students are having to take ideas seriously, when it seems like they definitely have some agency, when the world could bend to new, clear-eyed reformers, when the pressing problems of our society are lending the real urgency to their studies, the kind that should always be there.

Maybe I am wrong. But that’s my hope.

Because the earlier you can get stirred up by a feeling of practical urgency in your heart, the sooner you can start digging into the stuff that really matters.