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The tyranny of practice

SAM ROCHA

It is characteristic of Western modernity that in discussions of schooling and business and politics there is a common truism: “theory into practice.” At the very least, the underlying assumption of this truism can readily be found there. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in schools of education, teacher education programs, and the institutional teaching and learning efforts of higher education. This saying yields a soft hammer, a gentle reminder that the theory must always be “grounded in practice” in order to be worthwhile — and profitable.

It seems harmless enough.

But if you work in an academic setting (as I do), then you probably know that this is more than a harmless attitude. It has teeth. I will not try and argue that the saying is harmful. I want to take issue with what the slogan ultimately shows: the way “theory into practice” has evolved into a powerful modern ideology, with devastating and widespread consequences in and out of the academy.

Common sense makes no sense

The common sense of “theory into practice” is a powerful and dogmatic position that distorts both theory and practice. On the one hand, theory is elevated above the practical and becomes an inflated, empty routine of intellectual self-aggrandizement. Conversely, practice becomes the endpoint for all thinking, the anchor grounding the human imagination, on the other. This is not only metaphysically amiss; it is also a disastrous mistake.

In short, the ideology of “theory into practice” draws and quarters life into a binary of thinking and doing. There is certainly something to be said for understanding the difference between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, but even these rich, religious notions have their limits.

Thinking practically, practicing thoughtfully

THINKING, thought, contemplation, creative imagination — all of these words that describe the same reality — are wildly active. That is what having an “active mind” is all about. Thinking is dynamic and deeply practical (if by ‘practical’ we mean the usual sense of the term, related to action).

PRACTICE, praxis, action, and practicality are not thoughtless. Nor are they final. Practice is surely not an end in itself. (Since when did something practical become detached from thinking and anything more than instrumental?) In many ways, practice is a tool for theorizing. Action sometimes stimulates thought just as thought occasionally informs action. Or, to put it normatively: action ought to stimulate thought just as thought ought to inform action. Perhaps more.

At the very least, we should also be asking how practice meets the standards of imagination, vision, dreams, and other beautifully creative ways of thinking. How does practice conform to and ground itself in theory? Are theory and practice real things that we can point to here and over there as we would to bananas and oranges in a fruit bowl? Do they exist in the world as things?

Losing more than our head

The tyranny of practice has infected the groupthink of many places that directly affect our lives in and out of academia. The effects are not just mental or psychological. They are also emotional, cultural, and spiritual.

The ideological commitment to subordinate thinking to practice not only devalues thought; it also affects our valuation of feeling, becoming, and transcendence. In misplacing the head under the authority of the hand, we are also forgetting the heart, the public square, and the soul.

For example, the quiet, ongoing loss of the fine arts is a cultural torture that is not unrelated to the tyranny of practice in our lives. Tell me: how do music, dance, painting, and sculpture submit themselves to practice? When will they buy us groceries, create more miserable jobs, or increase standardized test scores or performance measures? Not anytime soon. At least not in a way that would satisfy the “practitioners.”

But everyone knows — even if they don’t know that they know it — that life without pure art, art for the sake of art, beauty for beauty’s sake, isn’t life at all. Thinking might get us into trouble and dreamers have not all been saints, but that is no reason to put them under the service of that (false) god, Practice. It would be like preventing forest fires by cutting down all the trees.

Oddly enough, the tyranny of practice has inflicted violence upon itself by devaluing practices like work and labor. The only practices to be respected, according to the “theory into practice” paradigm, are the ones that have been infused with high-minded theory. (A sort of theory that is entirely different from the thoughtful and imaginative species we find in the arts and elsewhere.) Without poppycockery and psychobabble, without another groundbreakingly new (and expensive) study, practice has no art of its own. The simple craft of sweeping has no place in this regime; the ordinary thought found in the rigors of laying brick and sanding wood and making a bed have no value in the world of “theory into practice.”

On a personal note

The most intimate reality for me, a philosopher of education, is that the tyranny of practice is a major occupational hazard. Philosophical and other humanistic approaches to education are being rapidly displaced.  In the ascendancy are social-scientific approaches more suited to feeding the “theory into practice” machine. In colleges and universities, we see more and more business students while enrollment in the arts and humanities dwindles.

We surely need theory that is practical and practice that is theoretical. The (not so) funny thing is, when you look at them closely, they already are. The hand, heart, head, and soul are a powerful community, with no need for petty tyrannies of practice.

My personal intuition on the matter is that this whole thing is purely semantic. I suspect that theory and practice are just two words that describe differing aspects of the exact same thing: life.

Sam Rocha is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations and Research at the University of North Dakota, specializing in the philosophy of education. He is the author of Things and Stuff, an edited collection of blog posts, and an unprofessional musician. For more information, see his website: www.samrocha.com

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Chris Haw December 9, 2012, 3:17 am

    Love this! Was just thinking about this when the phrase “practical theology” bumped past my mind (again), and I quite disliked the sound of it (again). I’m as busy as a bee: sanding said wood, cutting it, putting it into place. Rebuilding my city. But when somebody asks me about the trinity, I want to talk about that–not merely what it does for me. I like the mystery of the dogma, as art, not as sheer tool. I love me some well made and beautiful tools–even the old fashioned one’s with embellishments on them. But I cannot find enough ways to say that I dislike the vague and mind destroying request that I put theory into practice. Thanks! Chris