Theoretical vs. Practical

In the last week, I’ve run into a couple of articles lamenting the hold that the theoretical has on college programs.  There was an opinion piece by Nicholas Kristoff that addressed the general isolation of academics and then I ran into an article about hackathons as a way to get the “practical experience” CS students needed to land a job.

In intellectual circles, to label something as practical or applied is seen as an insult.  Just look at how Sheldon poo-poos Leonard’s and Howard’s work on The Big Bang Theory.  Sheldon is in Theoretical Physics while Leonard is in Applied Physics and Howard is (gasp) an engineer without a Ph.D. even.  What I do, teaching at the K-12 level, is seen as a practical not a theoretical art.  Granted, many schools of education keep pumping out theories of teaching and learning, but I’m supposed to apply them after I learn about them.  I can’t come up with them myself.   I don’t mean to scoff at their theories.  I like some of them, especially when they’re grounded in some good practical research.  Too often, however, theories, and here, I especially mean those in the humanities, seem to be completely isolated from any practical grounding.  I think anyone who floats a theory ought to be able to suggest a way it might be practical.  It might not be practical for years to come.  It may never become practical, but it ought not be so out there as to seem completely wacko.

Part of why you get wacko theories, is because of the way the Ph.D. and tenure works.  To get a Ph.D. or tenure, one has to do original research.  To do original research, one has to come up with a theory.  The theories that are left in some fields, well, they might not make much sense.  Do we really need another new theory about Shakespeare?  Couldn’t one imagine a dissertation or article that doesn’t put forward an original theory, but perhaps explains clearly an existing one?  Or discusses the differences among different theories?  I’m picking on literature because it’s familiar and because I had to go down this path of finding an idea that was original.  It was not easy.  I’m sure there are similar issues in science, though I’m more sympathetic to going down possibly wacko paths with the idea that it might really be something that cures cancer or helps us understand the universe, but maybe I should be less sympathetic there.

On the other hand, I don’t like it when people dismiss theory and academic pursuit out of hand.  And I think people do this for the reason I mentioned above, but also because, as Kristoff notes, academics tend not to be good at being in the public or communicating with the public about their work and what it might mean to the general public.  Why read Shakespeare is already a tough question to answer for many English faculty to answer.  Why read Marxist interpretations of Shakespeare might be an even harder question to answer.   Can we apply Henry IV to the Bush era presidency? And what would doing so help us understand?

It doesn’t help that some people derogatorily say “it’s just a theory” about settled scientific theories.  It trivializes any theory one might be pursuing in science.

Theory can lead to understanding in a way that means one is not having to memorize a bunch of things.  If you understand why you’re doing something a certain way, then you don’t have to memorize the formula.

In most academic subjects, those who remain in the Ivory Tower often make more money than those who pursue the practical path.  There are, of course exceptions (Law, Business, and Medicine key among them).  Computer Science is one of those exceptions.  Many people can get a great paying job using their “practical” coding skills without knowing any theory.  I would argue, however, that they may not move up very far without the understanding that theory gives them.  I’d say that’s true in many fields.  If you’re just going through the motions, spitting out equations or building widgets, without understanding, then you aren’t going to see patterns or connections or see what’s coming.  I would say, too, that if you’re stuck in your theoretical world without appreciating the practical, then the same is true.  Applying the theory to solve a problem or understand how something (a system, for example) works often makes the world a better place.  If your theory reveals nothing along these lines, then what good is it?

And now I’ll stand back and wait for the critics to weigh in.  I’m sure, as always, that there are opposing views.

5 Replies to “Theoretical vs. Practical”

  1. As an engineering professor, I value both theory and practice. I have seen a tendency for universities to veer toward theory, because it is easier and cheaper to teach.

    Your comparison between humanities and science in novelty of topics seems to miss the point. In the sciences, people can get PhDs for hard work on fairly uninteresting but new problems. Explaining someone else’s work is laudable, even essential, but it is only Chapter 2 of a thesis—the background to explain the novelty of the real thesis work. Humanities should be able to do the same, as there is an unending stream of literature to discuss—there may be nothing new worth saying about Shakespeare, but there are 1000s of newer authors no one has written theses about, and knowledge of Shakespeare may well be useful in analyzing their work.

  2. Many years ago I started on a Ed.D. degree. About a year into it I quit. I had been teaching for about 15 years so I had a pretty good idea of how the actual classroom worked. The professors teaching my Ed.D. courses had not been in the classroom (other than to observe) in many years and most had not taught K-12 for more than three years. They were “experts” on educational theory but could not teach a duck how to float. Theory without a solid foundation in applied is a bit shaky. Applied by itself it just something done by a technician. Theory by itself can be sort of meaningless to the doers of a field. Put the two together and all sorts of cool things happen.

  3. gasstation,

    Yes, there is lots of new literature being created. The problem is that’s not what graduate schools want you to do your dissertation on, usually. I know, my Ph.D. is actually in English. In part, that’s because a book that came out last year hasn’t been around long enough for people to decide whether it’s “literature” or not. I’m not saying one can’t find something novel in a humanities field. I did (I wrote about technology and blogging). But I just feel like the endless stream only has about .0001% of it that’s worth studying. Maybe that’s true for science fields as well. I guess I just feel like there’s a lot about our world scientifically that we don’t know yet which opens up more possibilities.


    I agree with you. And your last sentence is basically my point, said much better and shorter. It’s why I think the folks who go out and code and then show up on SlashDot to poo poo CS programs are not going very far. They’re mechanics/technicians. They have a harder time coming up with the bigger ideas because they only know how a small piece of their universe works.

  4. Garth — there’s a reason why my best teachers growing up and the best ones I know now hold our lack of Ed credits and background as a badge of honor.

    Laura — this is why I tell my kids that I’m teaching them computer science (that is, how to think and problem solve like a computer scientist). A computer scientist can be employed as a programmer (or view themselves as a programmer) but someone who only knows programming has much more limited opportunities.

    Of course, these days, one can make a nice living as a work-a-day programmer without a strong background in the fundamentals, but as you said – it limits what they can do.

    My current fear is that with the “learn to code” rage municipalities are going to rush and create programming teachers not CS teachers.

    This is just another reason why all those online resources will never replace a master teacher that really knows their crafts (both that of teaching and the subject matter).

  5. Mike, agreed. I, too, worry, about all the focus on coding. Thankfully, my school is not interested in “just” coding. But districts with tight funding . . . I worry.

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