Ideal and Nonideal Theory: Untangling the Debate

By Rodgers, Shannon | International Journal of Education, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Ideal and Nonideal Theory: Untangling the Debate


Rodgers, Shannon, International Journal of Education


Abstract

In reviewing some of the literature, ideal and non-ideal theories are presented as opposing or at least competing theories, in the same manner as are liberal and progressive theories of education. Some scholars suggest that ideal theory ought to precede non-ideal theory, while others suggest just the opposite. This is referred to in the literature as 'the priority objection.' Some suggest we don't need ideal theory at all and should exclusively use non-ideal theory. Others focus on how this scholar misses the point, that scholar leaves something out, or this scholar has it right and here's why. My objective in this paper is to argue that aside from important and scholarly discussions, ideal theory and non-ideal theory are artificially polarized. Further, and more radically, characterizing ideal and non-ideal theories as two separate enterprises and as 'theories' are category mistakes. Not surprisingly, because of the artificial polarization and category mistakes, the debate is rather confused and stuck. This paper attempts to untangle the confusion and open up the dialogue.

Keywords: ideal theory; non-ideal theory; debate; education; category mistake; false polarization; procedural; substantive

1. Introduction

How might John Rawls view the current debate regarding ideal theory and non-ideal theory? Coining the terms, 'ideal theory' and 'non-ideal theory' as Rawls did, Valentini's (2012) paper, Ideal vs. Non-Ideal Theory: A Conceptual Map appropriately defines and gives context to the debate. As she describes, ideal theory refers to a 'utopian or idealistic theory,' whereas non-ideal theory is more of a realistic theory (Valentini, 2012). Further, ideal theory focuses its aim at 'societal perfection' or the ideal, whereas non-ideal theory focuses its aim on improvements 'without necessarily determining what the optimum is' (Valentini, 2012).

Not a Rawlsian scholar, as many who have written on the subject certainly are, my interest in the debate is as an educator and is of a philosophical flavor. The debate is a serious one and I do not intend to trivialize its seriousness in my next remarks, but sometimes a neutral analogy helps one to think more clearly about an issue. At first I thought the debate to be a little like a disagreement over the better flavor of ice cream. Ideal theory is one flavor and non-ideal theory is another. This is superior to that. Pick one. Debates rooted in either/or conflicts rage on in several disciplines. Take the mind-body debate, for example, in Philosophy of Mind. And yes, it is still going on. You're either a dualist or a monist. Or consider the Liberal-Progressive debate in education. You either teach subjects or teach kids (Sheppard, 2010).

In the untangling of ideal and non-ideal theory, three terms used in a similar debate in education are useful. In School Engagement: A Danse Macabre, Sheppard (2010) makes a distinction between the "substantive" and the "procedural" with respect to educational engagement. Drawing on the scholarship of Michael Oakeshott, Sheppard describes the distinction in the context of questions we must pose about education: 'What is it that is worthwhile to know? (the substantive question) and how is what is worthwhile best achieved? (the procedural question)' (Oakeshott, 2001). As will be discussed in detail, the substantive and the procedural distinctions help to clarify the so-called conflict in the ideal/non-ideal theory debate. Sheppard also alludes to another useful term, referencing the work of Richard Peters and Paul Hirst who characterize approaches to education as 'artificially polarized' (Sheppard, 2011). As Sheppard writes,

The liberal view is taken to be...the substance of education...what it is that ought to be taught to students. Progressive education...is concerned with educational pedagogy...how best to teach children. Although both views clearly address...'what ought to be our educational priority?' they have historically been perceived as exclusive alternatives in priority debates. …

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