RPN 21 published April 1996

1.The 'It's too theoretical' syndrome by Eftihia Voutira

Most people involved in imparting knowledge encounter the response, 'This is too theoretical'. It is easy for academics to dismiss such remarks as expressing resistance to studying or learning, as outright laziness of thought, or as demonstrating defensiveness in the face of new ideas or moral challenges. Since this response is a significant bar to learning, however, it is worth some analysis. This article aims to examine its underlying causes, as well as the multiple educational contexts that give rise to the syndrome. Finally, it suggests how the gap between academics and humanitarian aid workers can be bridged without resorting to a rejection of theory.

The challenge is fundamentally an educational one, involving teaching rather than training. The former is understood as the activity of imparting knowledge through reason giving and explanation; the latter is an activity that aims at imparting a skill presumed to be of some value and use. The educational challenge, it will be argued here, arises in the context of redressing the balance between the intellectualist bias and intelligent practice.

One assumption underlying this syndrome is that 'theory' is fundamentally irrelevant to issues faced by people in the field of practice. A number of factors contribute to this view, which tends to be inculcated among practitioners in ways which further reinforce the ostensible gap between themselves and academics. It is the contention of this article that any attempt to transform existing practices without attempting to transform attitudes towards education as a whole and vice versa is doomed to failure.

How theory should not be taught

In many educational institutions it is common practice to transmit knowledge by methods which are little more than rote learning. This approach has been aptly described by Gilbert Ryle as the 'hydraulic injection' model of education. At higher levels of education where theories are involved, students are exposed to what 'x' authority has said and are then supposed to reproduce what 'x' said, with no evidence of either comprehension or critical assessment of its value. In this model, the ability to produce information is viewed as the major criterion for effective teaching.

Two difficulties arise from this approach. The first is that if students grow up in an educational system in which excellence is judged by the ability to memorise and faithfully reproduce, and are never taught to think in an abstract way, they will naturally be averse, or even hostile, to such unaccustomed exercise. The second is that they are likely to see 'book learning' as occupying a closed world of its own, quite cut off from the real world in which they live; they will thus reject it as irrelevant.

At the higher education level, students are often exposed to theory through selective reference to the 'greats' in different subjects; they are expected to appreciate the relevance of particular theories in the development of the discipline which they are studying. This appreciation, however, does not necessarily entail a corresponding appreciation of the relevance of theory in making sense of everyday life or in problem solving. Quite often, the boundaries of the theoretical relevance become coextensive with the boundaries of the disciplinary relevance, so that accepting or 'seeing' the relevance of Durkheim or Weber, Wittgenstein or Malinowski is often tantamount to using a sociological, philosophical, or anthropological approach.

What is needed, therefore, is a radical departure from teaching in order to impart information, to teaching in order to enable thought.

The way theory can be taught: the Socratic method

In philosophy, students commonly approach the problem of ethics through the Socratic dialogues, in which the method of teaching is to ask questions in order to scrutinise and challenge the interlocutors' preexisting assumptions. Socrates' friends (who are essentially his pupils) come up with various answers, which are then tested with further questions. Only when a proposition has stood up to questioning from all points of view can it be accepted. The types of questions asked are not incidental; normally they involve trying to understand concepts that guide action. Thus in most dialogues the cardinal virtues that formed part of the ancient system of values, courage, temperance, wisdom, and prudence are examined.

Although a reading of these dialogues will reveal 'the answer', it is obvious that their value lies in the method employed, which teaches students to scrutinise common assumptions and question their own beliefs. In fact, the reader may learn a lot from a particular dialogue without necessarily agreeing with the 'answer' at the end. Socrates often asks those who profess to be teachers or students whether virtue can be taught and, if so, then why it is not taught as a branch of knowledge like grammar or mathematics; why it is that we have no courses in generosity, temperance, patience or compassion. His dialogue with Meno ends with the answer that virtue is not taught because it comes to the individual by chance. However, this answer is far from definitive, and merely serves as a foretaste to the discussion of moral education which takes place in the Republic, which addresses the role of education in an ideal state.

As far as is known, the Socratic dialogues have never been dismissed as 'too theoretical'. With their simple language, they do not appear to be at all theoretical, in the sense of being loaded with abstract jargon. Furthermore, the questions which they discuss have obvious relevance to everyday life. The question whether 'virtue can be taught' and how it can be transmitted are questions asked by every parent around the world; whether morals can be taught in school is still being debated within the British education system. Though simple in form, the dialogues are, however, an intellectual challenge to any student and a brilliant course in the skill of reasoning and learning to think theoretically.

The limits of theory: teaching virtue as a 'pain in the neck'

Unlike the cardinal virtues in the ancient world, the Enlightenment introduced its own 'Christianised' version of ethics which transformed these ideals into a view of morality as a 'pain in the neck'. Virtues in the postKantian universe are not values, they are 'categorical imperatives': a set of duties and principles for action meant to apply to all and only rational human beings. Kant's solution to the problem of ethics is thus a highly theoretical and formalistic one as it assumes that the ultimate principles or axioms of a system of ethics, as in Euclidean geometry, can never lead to a conflict of duties sanctioning and prohibiting the same action at the same time. In this rational system a contradictory moral law is not possible because it would be irrational to accept it, or even think of it, let alone act in accordance with it.

For instance, if observing the duty to tell the truth and not to lie is absolute, there can be no exceptions. Applying the Kantian view literally would entail a counterintuitive situation where one would first 'betray' one's friend before being 'true to them'. Imagine, for instance, as Kant asks us to do, a situation where your friend is hiding in your house from the police who are pursuing him. Rather than lying to the police to save your friend, which would appear to be the most reasonable course of action, the rational (Kantian) point of view would to be act only in accordance with your 'duty' which, in this case, would require you to tell the truth to the policeman first, and then try to save your friend.

It is evident that such a theory of morality will produce the response, 'It's too theoretical'. This is a valid response since one way of establishing a theory's relevance is by determining its capacity to account for real life situations and accommodate empirical facts. Every day, each individual is likely to be faced with moral dilemmas which involve a continuous juggling of priorities: for example, choosing between telling the truth or saving a friend. The Kantian solution of breaking down one's actions so that they fall under the obedience of a single maxim is a luxury that real life does not afford. Furthermore, the urgency of saving one's friend often takes precedence over the duty to tell the truth.

The educational challenge to the teacher is to tease out of Kant the relevance of entertaining a rational system of thought even if the world in which we live is not, in fact, rational.

Interlude: What is theory?

Teaching theory as a progressive development from the more simple and specific to the more abstract and inclusive, is one way of addressing the challenge of the relevance of theory. In the examples given above, it is easy to see how the issue confronted in a specific situation (how to educate the young) can lead on to an abstract question (What is virtue?, Is it rational to be virtuous?) and numerous responses to these questions. The use of the scientific method includes collecting empirical data and forming a hypothesis. The hypothesis is then tested against other data in different situations, and considered acceptable so long as no data are found to contradict it.

An example of this is the theory of evolution which is based on the study of variation in individual species, in order to provide an explanation of life forms in general. Furthermore, according to most contemporary research, learning from others and through teaching constitutes an evolutionary mechanism of the utmost importance. Thus a theory is considered valid when it is based on evidence and reasoned arguments, and when there is no evidence to contradict it.

In many cases, however, what is called a theory is in fact no more than a hypothesis. For instance, the theory of racial superiority articulated at the beginning of this century postulated a spurious correlation between physical characteristics and mental abilities. There is no valid inference that can be drawn between the colour of a person's skin and the degree of their intelligence or emotional constitution. Although proponents of the 'theory' may cite examples which they claim prove it, their opponents will find an infinite number of examples to prove them wrong. Furthermore, the fact that people still believe in racial inferiority is not evidence in support of the theory.

Another example of spurious theory which can have dangerous results is the traditional explanation of disease: for example, the belief that malaria is caused by evil spirits. Where such a belief exists, the fact that traditional 'treatment' (by exorcising the spirits) has very limited success may be explained in all sorts of ways which do not conflict with the theory. Even where a doctor appears with medicines which can both prevent and cure malaria, the villagers will 'believe' the doctor's cure, not because it has been explained to them and they now 'know' what causes malaria, but because the doctor's cure is more effective. For all practical purposes, they may still believe that malaria is caused by evil spirits and have simply replaced one medicine with another. If, however, the doctor endeavours to explain the causes of malaria, the 'It's too theoretical' syndrome may arise!

The challenge that faces the teacher here is not only to inculcate true beliefs but also to persuade students to entertain and accept evidence that undermines their beliefs. To paraphrase Max Weber, the teacher's main task is to teach students to recognise those 'inconvenient facts' which challenge accepted opinions, and compel the students to accustom themselves to the existence of counterevidence to their more cherished assumptions. In fact, progress in human knowledge depends on refuting theories previously held to be true on the basis of new evidence and thus on continual willingness to acknowledge such 'inconvenient' facts.

The relevance of theory for humanitarian workers

The academic world takes for granted the value of engaging in theoretical thinking. Others, however, may be sceptical about the value of theory in general, as well as of the work of academics.

One such situation arises in the context of interactions between academics and humanitarian workers. The challenge to the relevance of theory in this context arises from the different priorities and assumptions each party brings to the interaction. A frequent additional obstacle is a fundamental and mutual mistrust, largely based on ignorance and preconceived ideas about each other's activities. It is in this climate of mistrust that 'It's too theoretical' is most likely to be heard. On the psychological level, such an utterance may be understood to reflect the underlying fear that many people isolated from academia may have concerning 'intellectuals' and the potential threat that intellectual activity represents.

One common assumption among humanitarian workers is that theory is a luxury afforded only by academics who have the necessary time to read and think. The humanitarian world, on the other hand, defines itself by the urgency of putting out fires and saving lives. On the side of the academics, there is the widespread view that knowledge is itself a type of intervention, that thought is a precondition for action, and that improved thought leads to improved action. How is this barrier to communication between academics and practitioners to be bridged in an educational context where the academic is the educator and the humanitarian worker, the educated?

If the education process here is understood as one in which a knowledgeable teacher transmits information to ignorant students (as in the system described at the beginning of this article), then both sides are bound to be dissatisfied with the results. Humanitarian workers are not children. They come to the educational experience as adults with a set of experiences in the field which have shaped their perceptions and responses. Since academic institutions have only recently entered the field of study of humanitarian work, the educator is new to the specifics, and the students already presume to know what they are supposed to learn. The situation is paradoxical because, as educational psychologists would say, no learning can take place where there is a presumption of knowledge. The challenge for the academics is to find ways to relate theory to the workers' experiences in the field, without assuming an appreciation of the value of the theoretical approach.

Interpreting the 'syndrome' in the context of humanitarian assistance

What are people objecting to when they say, 'It's too theoretical'? This could be an objection to too much theory rather than to theory as such. Another possibility is that the instructor is too vague, and there is no reference to students' personal experience. Finally, 'it's too theoretical' may mean 'too complex'. Complexity is a feature of the phenomena most theories aim to explain. The objection that a theory is too complex is a serious one, as a key criterion of a successful theory is that it explains complexity in simpler terms.

Consider for example, the complex phenomenon of humanitarian assistance itself. The usual explanation for why aid is given to the destitute is reference to the virtues of generosity and compassion. There are two problems with this kind of explanation. First, it does not explain why these virtues are not manifested in all cases of destitution, but only in some. Secondly, it tries to explain an obscure phenomenon through something even more obscure; in other words, it uses 'virtue', a term fraught with ambiguity, to explain an 'industry' which has grown to over US$8,000 million per annum. It would be more appropriate to introduce the relevant concepts that can accommodate the multiple dimensions of international humanitarian assistance. One strategy for analysing complexity is to identify the common denominator shared by multiple manifestations. In this sense, although a complex bureaucracy determines how goods will be distributed, at the core of all humanitarian activity remains the simple act of giving and receiving.

The most simple form of exchange is that of giving a gift. As anyone who celebrates Christmas knows, gifts entail obligations to reciprocate. The exchange of gifts defines the status and power relationships between the giver and the recipient. Receiving places the recipient in an inferior position visàvis the giver until the gift is reciprocated. This simple insight into the structure of human relations is not 'too theoretical' because it provides a way of understanding all the complex levels of power involved in any transfer of commodities and interactions between human beings which are at the heart of humanitarian assistance.

In fact, what this example illustrates is that the explanation of giving and receiving as the core of all aid cannot be accounted for by the sheer and oft repeated reference to individual motivations such as compassion, generosity or altruism. What is needed is reference to something as fundamental to all social relations as the power and control structures, including those relevant to the transfer of knowledge and what counts as 'knowledge', which academics, practitioners and recipients of aid learn to manipulate in order to survive.

Dr Eftihia Voutira is a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Programme

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October 1996