From where I sit - Knowledge first, theory later

April 9, 2009

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Actually, I think a total lack of knowledge is dangerous: a little, after all, must be better than none.

Non-vocational arts degrees teach in two areas: knowledge of the subject and theory for research. Most people doing a three-year undergraduate degree will never need to know any theory. They could go through life blissfully unaware of the Frankfurt School, textual analysis, qualitative or quantitative methodology, structuralism or postmodernism.

And they do. Even if it is drilled into them from their first year, theory seems to slip in one ear and out the other. That is because it can.

At the undergraduate level, too much theory is a dangerous thing, because it makes students switch off.

It is necessary to do research, of course, but to do so, you need some knowledge of the subject you want to study.

Undergraduates attend university to gain that knowledge. Media studies students want to learn about the media, not about the various theories that academics have invented to explain it.

You first teach children to know and enjoy stories. Once they know what a story is and why they would want to read it, you teach them the mechanics of reading. Then, much later on, they might want to know about the semiotics useful in analysing stories - but then again, probably not.

In the 1980s when I did my BA in English, we used semiotics to carry out textual analysis, although we didn't use those terms and did not realise that we were doing so.

It was not perfect: as was the trend 25 years ago, we were taught only about the text and its meanings, nothing about the authors and little about the social context.

The reader was all important, and the dead poets whose work we studied were irrelevant - thanks, Roland Barthes.

But if a student is doing an undergraduate degree in literature, for example, let them read and learn about great works and authors. Let them appreciate the breadth of wonderful writing from scribes across the world.

Let them learn some rudimentary literary studies concepts to help them form their opinions, but let's not get too specific about Saussure, semiotics and Marxist theory.

Then, for those who go on to sit higher degrees, let them uncover the joys of theory at the right time, when they have a knowledge base to apply it to.

Eventually, theory provides the tools with which to build an argument. But in order to have something to build, you need the raw materials first.

The trend in the early 21st century seems to be to provide too many analytical tools and not enough material to analyse. It is a bit like having too much cutlery and not enough food on the plate to use it on.

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