The Plague of 'Theory' in Educational Discourse

There is an old pedagogical joke that has been making the rounds for years: those who can do.  Those who can't teach.  The joke has been supplemented by a tailgater: those who can't teach teach teachers.  One might add: those who can't teach teachers write theory.

What we may pejoratively call "theory" in today's educational discourse bills itself as a critical resistance movement serving the presumably dispossessed and the marginalized.  Particularly in the humanities, the social sciences, and the post-colonial disciplines, the arena is now monopolized by the paladins of resentment in pursuit of an ideological revolution – that is, the subversion of established power fields and the destabilizing of traditional values.  Departments of education are at the forefront of the cultural subversion movement, focusing their efforts on preparing a cohort of teachers to carry out the mandate of social reconstruction.

Thus, "critical" educators like Peter McLaren (Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: Oppositional Politics in a Postmodern Era), Henry Giroux (On Critical Pedagogy), Lawrence Grossberg (Cultural Studies in the Future Tense), Gloria Jean Watkins (Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom), et al. argue that "theory," as "decanonical" speculation, will have "liberating practical effects" in the social and educational disciplines, which will in turn impact the culture.  In McLaren's words, critical theory counters the force of "paracriminal subcultures of sardonic nihilism" supposedly typical of our age of "recombinant subjectivity," whatever that means.  Moreover, he continues, "the nonidentity constitutive of a genuine experience of liberation" would in time help us "to avoid becoming trapped within a totalizing negativity."

In a certain sense, he may be correct, if by "a genuine experience of liberation" we are to understand the reality of well paying jobs, frequent sabbaticals, much conference gallivanting to exotic places, and the freedom to write incomprehensible guff in the name of the disempowered and oppressed.  Most ordinary people, even if reasonably well educated, could scarcely be expected to make sense of the obscurantist rant the criticasters habitually churn out.  The disempowered in whose name they write wouldn't have a clue.  Only the masters of these sphinx-like oracles know.

It seems that representing the "alienated" generates a condition of indecipherable election benefiting the purveyors of elitist bafflegab.  To frame my point by using the standard jargon I am attacking, the following is the kind of drivel that would pass for intellectual sublimity among our postmodern educators:

There are students and nonstudents who remain inserted into the frontier of the existing structures of pedagogical power which are both imbricated in and mediated by the non-canonical text construed as articulating a new liberating apparatus – an aporia which decisively foregrounds the fact that it is only via the anti-theoretical struggle that the phallic projectory of dominant inscriptions into the telos of anti-historical destinies can be resisted in order to expose the complexities of non-emancipatory relations between break and closure.

Obviously, critical pedagogists would never mean any such thing, since, properly parsed, the passage expresses the opposite of their intent.  In plain English, it says people have been duped into believing they have been redeemed by their abusers.  But the above is precisely the sort of indigestible prose our "idiot specialists" – to quote Václav Havel in Summer Meditations – would inflict upon their readers were they ever to switch sides.

That will never happen.  As Giroux contends in On Critical Pedagogy, "critique as a mode of analysis ... interrogates texts, institutions, social relations, and ideologies as part of the script of official power," illuminating "the role that pedagogy plays as part of a struggle over assigned meanings, modes of expression, and directions of desire, particularly as these bear on the formation of the multiple and ever-contradictory versions of the 'self.'"

For Giroux, critique develops the "language of hope and possibility," which challenges what he calls "neoliberal pedagogy" – as if it still existed in a left-dominated culture – and opposes "the current regime of market fundamentalism."  Critical theory addresses "subaltern histories, class struggles, and racial and gender inequalities and injustices."  The language of "hope and possibility," where it is not entirely theoretical balderdash, is plainly sheer Marxist bombast.

Similarly, McLaren insists in Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture, "we need a critical pedagogy ... that can problematize schooling as a site for the construction of moral, cultural and national identity, and emphasize the creation of the schooled citizen as a form of emplacement, as a geopolitical construction, as a process in the formation of the geography of cultural desire."

The point of this gibberish is to foster another in a series of useless and damaging reforms – this one called the "opening up of the curriculum" – each as destitute of real purpose and substance as the one it has replaced.  Education is always being "reformed" – currently in the direction of "social justice" advocacy rather than the dissemination of knowledge and the training of the mind.

In the end, the curriculum these pseudo-scholars imagine and advance is so open that it is virtually empty, containing few objects of useful study and no principles of epistemological clarity.  Indeed, it is not a curriculum at all, but a revisionary project for social change.  Thus, we have courses in deconstruction; gender studies; counter-history (e.g., Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States); New Civics ("progressive political activism"); "Rhetoric, Race and Identity"; and other products of cultural Marxism. 

When language becomes code, its function has nothing to do with liberation and empowerment and everything to do with the entrenchment of prerogative and the congealment of collective identity.  The perks and exemptions provided by programmed opacity and by the repulsion of the perceived cultural "other" – that is, the purging of those who uphold conservative standards and traditionally workable models of pedagogy, defenders of John Milton's civilizing vision in The Reason of Church Government of "[b]eholding the bright countenance of Truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies" – is the name of the game.

Impenetrable theory is the last nail in the coffin of pedagogical excellence.

What we are dealing with here is an exclusionary discourse, wonderfully exemplified in the description of Lawrence Grossman's aforementioned book, which I suspect he wrote himself: "He elaborates an ontology of the modern as the potentialities of multiple configurations of temporalities and spatialities, differences, territorialities, and powers."

The formulations in which these educationists trade, then, serve two purposes: they constitute a rhetorical instrument for a closed professional fellowship and a manual for promoting social convulsion.  They are encrypted and conveyed in a peculiar species of idiomatic writ and utterance intelligible only to the elect.  They do have "practical effects," but such effects are not "liberating."  

How these people ever managed to Occupy Main Street in the world of educational theory and practice is one of the most puzzling events in the cultural upheavals of our time.  They have obviously found a way of jamming the radar of domestic good sense and evading semantic detection until too late.

If you experience technical problems, please write to