A cure for theoryphobia: evaluation and the case for thinking
Dr Rhyall Gordon, Praxis Officer at CEEHE
At CEEHE, we place a lot of emphasis on the idea of praxis as an important means to self and societal transformation. Although the basic idea of praxis is to put ideas into practice, thinkers over many epochs have developed different understandings of the purpose and potential of praxis. Hannah Arendt’s work on a particular understanding of praxis offers a compelling argument as to why we should think about what we do!!
It may seem a little redundant to point out the need to think about what we do, however, it is an interesting exercise to explore the moments where we deny ourselves and/or are denied opportunities to do this thinking – something we all experience. Arendt’s work, in the context of being a Jewish German that fled Nazi Germany, was motivated by an attempt to understand totalitarianism, authority, democracy and power. Her context gives a gravity and urgency to the need to understand moments of oppression. However, she also coined the term the “banality of evil” where she exposed the mundane, everyday practices that can add up to horrendous human harm. It is this latter focus that I feel has the potential to create a productive discomfort and disruption in the work of evaluation.
Arendt’s notion of praxis (or as she describes it – “to think what we are doing”) was particularly focused on its relationship to values and ethics. Thinking and reflecting on action taken, or to be taken, is really the main part of constructing a theory. Arendt questioned the belief that to come up with a theory you must lock yourself away – whether it is in the ivory tower, university or in a hut by a pond in a forest – because of a concern that talking to people (the public as she describes it or everyday thinking/thinkers), might somehow be a contaminating influence. She described this approach as the contemplative life; a belief in how to produce knowledge that is certainly as prevalent today as it was when Arendt was writing.
Such an approach to knowledge production is why theory is often “parked outside” the focus of all sorts of work whether it be policymakers, practitioners, evaluation experts and even researchers(!!). It is seen to be something arcane with little real-life application. Also, it implies a prescribed valuing of knowledge in certain domains and de-valuing in others. In contrast, Arendt described another approach to thinking (or theory making) where you directly engage with others (everyday thinkers) to explore your thinking. She described this as the active life. Through highlighting these different approaches to thinking, she developed her concept of praxis and argued for the importance of the interplay or conversation between theory and practice, between reflection and action – each without the other is much reduced.
A significant part of Arendt’s work was dedicated to overcoming this western split of thinking and practice being separate stand-alone endeavours. It is this split that creates the conditions for a theoryphobia to proliferate. When we take up practices (for example widening participation practitioners) we can often carry an identity of it not being our role to think, theorise and reflect on our work. It will be someone else’s job to come in and do that. In the same way Arendt highlighted the danger of thinking without others or the public, she also highlighted the danger of practice that happens without thinking or action that happens without reflection. As a consequence, Arendt rejected the title of philosopher to emphasize how her work was embedded in practice.
Instead, she sought to bring together thinking and practice in this simple description of “to think what we are doing”. It is a deceptively simply statement, however, often, and probably increasingly so, widening participation projects are undertaken without the opportunity to think about what we do. At times, this lack of opportunity comes from ourselves and how we place limits. At other times, this lack of opportunity comes from elsewhere as limitations are placed on us. The corporatized, marketized and neoliberalised university structure typically does not encourage a profound reflection on projects of social justice. And this lack of opportunity is particularly true in the world of evaluation and no less so in the world of evaluating widening participation initiatives.
Arendt described this idea of action without reflection or practice without theory as a type of thoughtlessness and she devoted much of her work to discussing the many dangers that come from such thoughtlessness. She argued that there is a particular kind of evil rooted in thoughtlessness. In her work on the banality of evil, the banal referred to how non-thinking had become ordinary and common place. Arendt believed this non-thinking was pivotal to the horrendous acts of Germany’s national socialism.
A question Arendt wanted us to consider is how spaces are created by ourselves and by others through power and authority that remove the opportunity for thinking and reflection. Her work, by way of response, was to foreground the importance and defend the opportunity to think reflectively about our actions.
In terms of thinking about evaluation, how does Arendt’s work assist us and what does it enable? It allows widening participation practitioners to understand evaluation as a space of praxis where discussion, reflection, contestation needs to happen. This space has the potential to do many things, but one very important aspect is that it allows for a testing, a trying out, an exploration and development of values, ethics and commitments that inform an evaluation. How often do such spaces get created in widening participation work? And what is involved in creating such spaces?
Also, it brings in a sociality to our work. Arendt’s praxis, this “think what we are doing”, is not an individual pursuit. Arendt emphasizes that rather than a solitary project this has to be a shared, relational experience that reflects our interdependency. We support each other with the different skills, knowledge and experiences we have to engage in this reflective thinking. In the context of equity interventions where there are many people involved, the praxis process needs to be a cooperative endeavour where people participate in different ways with the different skills and knowledges they have in an evaluation process. This is one way of fully engaging the politics of knowledge and challenging knowledge hierarchies that serve to reproduce exclusions and undermine widening participation work.
Furthermore, praxis disrupts deficit narratives and locked in visions of the future, something that haunts so much of widening participation work. An unchallenged consideration of the past and future (how we remember things and anticipate things) creates a linearity that limits opportunity for other futures. Arendt described praxis as a temporal interval. Reflective thinking allows this gap to emerge, opening up an undetermined future with new possibilities. This is both important for how we approach evaluation but equally it is also important for how we undertake widening participation practice more broadly.
Finally, Arendt’s work might help us to see how widening participation work and evaluation practice need to co-exist in the same space. Evaluation is a key component of any widening participation project that needs to be embedded in the project and driven by similar equity goals. This is the shift from evaluation on equity to evaluation for equity.
Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958.
We acknowledge and respect the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, traditional custodians of the land on which we work.