I have always enjoyed living in the world of theory. I love thinking about abstract philosophical concepts, speculating about the big ideas, and taking theory-focused classes at Wesleyan has only strengthened my fascination with this world of thought. Until this past week, I had never given much thought to why it is that I love studying theory, beyond the fact that it has always been my natural area of interest. But after stumbling across a debate from this past summer that calls into question the value of theory, I was forced to think more deeply about my own reasoning.
This past August, Elizabeth Segran, a former professor of feminist theory, argued in The New Republic that the emphasis on theory in the women’s studies program at Berkeley has hindered the curriculum from being relevant to students and thereby encouraging student activism. By relating feminist theory back to practical, real life issues, Segran argues, professors can ensure that students apply their knowledge to solving the tangible issues of today’s world. About a month later, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a rebuttal by feminist scholar Julia H. Chang that came to the defense of theory. Chang argues that both the personal and the theoretical are necessary for feminist activism; by studying theory, students can gain context and inspiration for their activism.
What struck me about both sides of this argument is the instinctive unification of theory with practice. Both authors seem to judge the relevance of theory solely by its relation to practical activism. Chang addresses this explicitly, preceding her argument with the phrase, “Theory need not be an end in itself.” After reading these articles, I began to evaluate more carefully why I so enjoy learning theory. But I soon realized that my answer wasn’t hard to find: I enjoy it for its own sake, not in relation to any separate impact that it might have on my life. I started to wonder: Was this the right mindset? Must we view theory solely in relation to how it affects practice, or can there be some sort of intrinsic value to studying abstract concepts? In my experience taking theory-based courses here at Wesleyan, I have found that the study of theory is in fact practically relevant, but this need not be in a way that directly relates to activism. These sorts of courses, more than any others that I have taken thus far, have enhanced my ability to think critically, to articulate my thoughts, and to work through complex arguments. These skills are certainly valuable, both to students hoping to enter the world of activism and to those who do not; the ability to communicate coherently and to think through complicated issues is essential for any life path.
In this way, theory courses are not useless. But why are we always searching for the “usefulness” of theory, whatever this usefulness may be? Thinking about theory solely in terms of its utility seems a slippery slope that can lead to the erosion of the value of theory in and of itself. For many students, learning about feminist theory, for example, can serve as a path toward familiarizing oneself with the history of world issues and tracing the path of ideas that has led us to where we are today. These students might not plan to utilize this knowledge through activism or any other practical form of application, but studying theory has made them more informed and knowledgeable members of the world. This seems just as worthy a goal.
By imbuing the study of theory with opportunities for relevance and practical application, though, as the authors of both articles on feminist theory recommend, we do a disservice to theory itself and to what it represents. By subordinating the study of texts and of theory to discussions of contemporary issues, we lose the opportunity to encounter the difficult argument, or the argument that might be a bit dense or a bit irrelevant to our own time period. It is this encounter with the foreign, the complex, even the boring that provides us with our context for understanding the world. Studying the opinions of others and exploring the thoughts of others on issues that we care about is the foundation that we need for any future engagement with society, be it through activism or through any other means.
This issue of theory versus practice raises the question of why we are really here at college. We all hope that our time here at Wesleyan will lead us to become better members of our society and of the world. But what exactly does this mean? Does this imply becoming an activist? This is certainly one path, but it seems that there are also other ways to establish our place as human beings in the greater world, one of which is the simple act of learning for its own sake, of participating in the age-old quest to find meaning through knowledge and understanding, and to work collaboratively to think about what our society should look like and why it should look this way. Hopefully these theoretical discussions will extend beyond the bounds of the classroom in some way, be it through political activism or a shift in personal character. But neither of these paths is superior to the other. And, most importantly, theory is not devoid of meaning without any of these long-term results. The very act of learning and taking in new knowledge changes us; it is an experience of personal and mental growth, and this experience is immensely valuable no matter where it leads.
The incorporation of more applicable, modern day situations into discussions of theory is certainly a useful tool for making education engaging and relevant. But this shift should not be so far extended that theory classes become solely focused on current activism or issues of daily life. In the ever-changing world of activism and political life, what has stayed constant is the journey towards knowledge for its own sake, learning simply to obtain a well-rounded foundation for understanding the world. Where we plan to take this knowledge is another story, but in all our concern about this next step, let us not forget to value that first step: that of learning itself. Before we know it, college will be behind us, and the real world will be waiting. This might be the only chance we have to spend some time living in the abstract world of our own minds; it’s time for us to appreciate it.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.