What is the State of Education Today and Where is Theory?

What is the State of Education Today and Where is Theory?

       I recently returned to Sydney after attending a conference in New York City, and visiting family in my hometown of Orlando, Florida. A lot was on my mind returning home again post-Trump, but much of my thinking on this trip was focused on the state of schools in 2018. After the Parkland massacre, my home state feels incredibly divided, not just over guns but over what it means to go to school each day. Following another school shooting in Texas, the Washington Post revealed the state of schools in the United States to be a battlefield. Safety at school is no longer a given, but a hope amidst overwhelming feelings of terror. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of urgency about the way we educate ourselves and students about what it means to go to school. If violence is taking place in the halls of learning, what can we teach to make sense of the violence and hate? Can we prevent it with our pedagogy? Is this even possible?

            As a researcher and lover of literature, this is where I think books can help us. As I traveled to the conference, I felt a new sense of conviction about my research topic. I spend most of my time thinking about empathy – what it means, how it works in the brain, and how we might be able to teach it in classrooms through literary study to encourage better readers and citizens. I also spend a lot of time worrying about the state of education, not only in the U.S. but in Australia too as the gap in educational equality widens. Talking about education and what we can do to make it better seems to be a topic gaining traction in the public space, and thus I figured it would be a key topic of conversation at a conference surrounding theory and critical thinking.

            The conference was fascinating in many ways, and I learned immensely about a variety of topics I would not have encountered elsewhere. For example: take a look at what goes on in a robot’s brain when it looks at an orchid! That being said, I was struck by the lack of conversation surrounding education. After the conference, I thought a lot about the state of education in an academic context, outside of Education departments. How interested are Humanities departments - particularly those invested in theory – in the multiplicity of issues surrounding education today? Is education a concern for critical theory? If it isn’t, should it be? And how can we bridge the gap between innovative work done in theory and the important ‘on the ground’ work of teachers? If theory as Horkheimer conceived, ‘has society itself for its object’ then the contemporary educational climate seems to be an important place to think theoretically.

All of this isn’t to say there isn’t work done in this area. Part of what the Better Strangers/Shakespeare Reloaded project does so well is to attempt to build a bridge between the fresh theoretical work of academics in English and the invaluable work of teachers. I know some brilliant educational researchers who push the envelope with their ties to theory, and there is no doubt that educational theory is a huge and innovative field continuously expanding and adding fresh insight to the conversation. However, I will stick my neck out and say that it does seem to be working in the shadows, at least in the context of English.
            I don’t have any answers at the end of this blog post, but I am hopeful that one day others will, and I might have something to add. My question to you, reader, is what do you think about all this? Do you think education has a place in critical theory, particularly in the Humanities? How do teachers feel about theory, especially the use of it in their English classrooms? If you are a teacher, I would be absolutely thrilled to read any feedback, questions, or comments related to any of the things raised here.

            Perhaps we need to ask, in all disciplines: what is the state of education today? Then we can ultimately ask the big question – how can theory help us help?