Friday, June 19, 2009

Our Circular Ruins

"He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality."

Jorge Luis Borges
"The Circular Ruins"

Thomas Presskorn asks how I propose to avoid circularity when I suggest that researchers can teach their students what they cannot teach their objects*. If practitioners cannot be made to "know" the new theory, how can the theorist be said to "know" the new practice? On the face it, that seems like a reasonable question, but a few moments of reflection will break us out of the conundrum.

First, the student learns a theory, or set of theories, of a practice, or set of practices, in school. The student does not learn the practice itself. The student cannot expect to enter the world of business (if the student be in a business school) upon graduation "fully formed", ready to do what needs to be done, and do it properly. The student is armed (if the school be a good school) with a "realistic" understanding of what goes on in the world (the "real" world) but by no means with a practical, working knowledge of how to get things done. This knowledge will come, well, yes, with practice. There is no other way.

The researcher, meanwhile, comes to the practice as an observer (and a participant only to the end of getting "closer" to the practice to be observed) with a headful of theory. He is mindful of the expectations his peers have of the practice. His peers are teaching those expectations to their students, i.e., his students' future colleagues and competitors. (This is where Steve's "creative destruction" gets it exactly right.) He looks at the practice with a great deal "on his mind", but nothing in his hands to encumber him. He has a theoretical perspective but not much practical advantage.

What the researcher "knows" cannot be passed on to a busy executive who has a great many other things to worry about. This is not because the researcher is smarter or the theory is too hard. When the executive was a student she was perfectly capable of grasping the subtleties and nuances of the books she read. The executive is simply not in a "theoretical" situation. The researcher should leave her alone, for if the executive pays too much attention to the researcher, she will bring her firm to wreck and ruin.

But the academy, too, will be in ruins if the researcher chases too eagerly after the attention of executives, whom the researcher will never really impress anyway. Let the researcher capture the minds of students for a few years and then release them. Let the universities conserve what we already know about social practice, not make up practices that no one, least of all academics themselves, has any desire to live with. Research and teaching produce, in the body of the student, a subject of enunciation, a point of practical agency, that will, subsequently, be "imposed on reality", or, less totally, let loose upon it. The researcher's pride is to see his students on graduation day knowing that they are full of ideas that have been tested in theory but not, in an important sense, tried in practice. He has his mind open, ready to register the results of their imposition. He pulls his canoe up upon the muddy shore to dream.

*Another way of putting this question: "How can scholars teach their subjects when they cannot teach their objects?" A pun, yes, but quite nice.


Nick said...

Thanks for today's blog, Thomas - very inspiring!

Presskorn said...

Your answer is exactly along the lines I imagned... Only more eloquent... I concur with Nick.