Graduation Speech: The Value of Theory

Submitted Columbia GSAS MA Convocation Speech:

As Master’s graduates, we have all spent at least some time studying theory. Classicists and sociologists study theories of culture. Economists and political scientists study theories of choice. Biologists and statisticians study theories of randomness and relation.

We may occasionally wonder as to the point. We often hear, especially in the working world, that theory is useless and intellectually indulgent, and that unconscious intuition is what really matters. There is truth there. Not everything that matters can be coolly contemplated by the intellect. There is immediate knowledge, embodied knowledge, that is real and consequential.

But theory matters. It matters more than most appreciate. Theory shapes our world.

I. The power of an idea

In antiquity, calculations were done with Roman numerals. With these numerals, addition and subtraction was easy — this was a tool designed for counting. Multiplication and division, however, were much more difficult; for the people in this era, those were considered “hard” problems, requiring the use of special machines (such as the abacus).

Things changed, however, with the promulgation of Arab-Indian numerals by Fibonacci in the 13th century. With these new numerals, multiplication and division became straightforward: that which was difficult became measurably easier. This new notion of numbers laid the foundation for hundreds of years of mathematical innovation. That is the power of theory.

II. Theory as general foundation

Why do we study theory? In part, we study theory because it gives us a definite professional advantage. One who has studied only applications is limited to repurposing solutions from one context to another. When one studies theory more generally, one gains the ability to take first principles and derive novel solutions more appropriate to the task at hand.

Theory attempts to provide a view and a foundation that is both general and rigorous. The best theory is that which describes the essential relationships pertaining to a field of study. Knowledge of these relationships and of the related analytic methods makes it possible to situation new situations in their larger context, as well as to discern some of their internal dynamics.

Turning inward, we know that the study of theory is a transformative one. As we learn to see with new eyes, the way we see our own lives changes. Further, as we gain new tools, our ability to respond to our opportunities and our obstacles changes as well. We are able to be of more value to others.

It is theory that provides a common language. When we understand theory, we are able to efficiently communicate complex thoughts, and to place them context. This common language helps us access the thoughts of those who came before us, and those living far away.

III. Theory as public service

It is clear that the study of theory benefits the individual. There is another sense, however, in which the study of theory is a public service.

In his groundbreaking work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn traces the common arc of scientific progress. At any given time, a discipline has its dominant theories. Newtonian physics. Laissez-faire economics. Lamarckian evolution. Over time, evidence begins to accumulate which challenges this theory. The luminaries of the field, set in their ways, dismiss this evidence as erroneous. It is usually a young student, seeing old theory with fresh eyes, guided by new data, who is able to make the key creative leap and perceive the heretofore unperceived.

The work of scholarship is never done. No generation of scholars ever attains the whole truth. We can only successively approach it, bit by bit. When we study theory, we become part of this greater process. If students stopped studying theory, if they left serious theory to experts and authorities, our society would stick fast. To grapple with theory, then, is to engage in a high form of public service. We can never know in advance from where the breakthrough will come.

IV. A life of play

A number of years ago, some friends and I took a trip out to the desert. We had bikes, and one day two of us decided to play a game: they would try to think of all the ways to ride a bike. They flipped the bike onto its seat and pedaled with their hands. They stood on the pedals and rode stationary. And so on. After half an hour or so of this game, they concluded: there are seven ways to ride a bike.

This discovery of new ideas requires work, and diligence, and rigor. But more importantly, it requires time for play. When we play we challenge our preconceptions and experiment with new ways of thinking. It is through play that we develop and we learn and we discover.

Wherever you find yourself, leave room for play. It soothes the spirit, and stimulates the mind.

V. Conclusion

Our thoughts matter. The way we think about our challenges affects the solutions we are able to see. Thought merged with action is a powerful force. As you continue your adventures, remember the power of ideas and the value of play.


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