Globe, the Graduate Institute Review
19 October 2021

Teaching and the “Theory/Practice” Divide

Associate Professor Fuad Zarbiyev examines the challenges of teaching international law. 

One of the main challenges of graduate-level higher education institutions is the theory/practice divide.

Theory is often derided as a set of armchair considerations, and theory-bashing and practice-fetishism are favourite pastimes for many practitioners.

Theory is typically associated with thinking, and in contrast with acting, thinking is seen as a “resultless enterprise” (Hannah Arendt) or an “out of order” activity (Martin Heidegger). And in an amazing twist of logic, the word “academic” is often taken to be the opposite of “real-life” and has come to stand for “practically irrelevant”.

Having started my academic career at the Graduate Institute after several years in legal practice, I often look at this state of affairs with a sense of bewilderment, since it betrays a deeply misguided view of both theory and practice.

Naturally, theory is often produced in settings removed from practical urgencies and immediate practical needs, but that does not mean that theory is removed from practice. As the famous saying goes, there is nothing more practical than a good theory.

A theory unconnected with practice is unlikely to be a good theory. Similarly, every field of practice is shaped and informed by a set of theoretical assumptions that are so deeply ingrained that they often go unnoticed.

As John Maynard Keynes observed, “practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”.

Most of the students in the International Law Department come to the Graduate Institute to get a set of skills typically associated with graduate education such as critical thinking, analytic reasoning, independence of thought and writing skills. They do not mistake our department for a vocational training site.

International law expands exponentially and its knowledge cannot be frozen in time. But it is important to appreciate what knowing law means in the first place.

One can memorise all known treaty and customary rules, court decisions or arbitral awards (assuming such a thing is possible) and still not know international law.

In my teachings, I explain to my students the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how” and I tell them from my own first-hand experience why “knowing how”, which should be the normal focus of graduate education, is much more valued in practice.

Knowing a set of good legal arguments is certainly helpful, but even more helpful is to know what makes them good arguments and how one goes about making good arguments. The difference between the two is the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to catch a fish.

This article was published in Globe #28.