Problems with Postmodern Purpose in Education
The discussion in class that was generated based on the post by Steven Grunewald titled “Vico and the Absence of Truth in the University” really hits at the foundations of modern pedagogical theories and the inherent fallacies informed by postmodernism and the lack of Truth. I see that Steven has posted his final exam on the same issue, and hopefully it will be acceptable for me to use my final exam, in continuation of the from-afar tradition, as a response to his post and also as a clarification of my own views and their foundations. In order to really see the purpose of pedagogy as defined by postmodernism, we must first attempt to define the indefinable and refute the irrefutable.
What exactly is postmodernism? Ihab Hassan (Dale might recognize the name, he was at RPI), who has been writing about postmodernism since the seventies, recently wrote, “What was postmodernism, and what is it still? I believe it is a revenant, the return of the irrepressible; every time we are rid of it, its ghost rises back. And like a ghost, it eludes definition. Certainly, I know less about postmodernism today than I did thirty years ago, when I began to write about it” (Postmodernism). Postmodernism defies definition because it is in its essence infinite: whatever you or I or anyone else believes at this moment or that moment; that is postmodern truth. It is multiculturalism, pluralism, pragmatic idealism, a slippery-slope to nihilism: it is an ill-defined circle with fuzzy edges and an even fuzzier center, where everything is true and by association everything is false: a reality constructed by the human experience and simultaneously deconstructed by human philosophy. Pilate once asked mockingly, “What is truth?” The postmodernist goes one step further and asks, “Is there truth?”
The problem that comes up if the answer to that question is “no”, outside of the obvious self-contradiction of the statement (can “truth does not exist” be true?), is that we have left ourselves with no foundation of ethics outside of socially constructed norms: a point that Seth made several times during class, although not quite in the same fashion as I am presenting it here. And yet, we rail against social norms such as polygamy, cannibalism, human sacrifice, and genocide, but what makes these social norms any less valuable in a pluralistic world than others? Why can we not accept the need and social purpose for concentration camps? What is it that sets these practices up as monstrosities in a world where “truth” is relative? We can answer these questions by saying that these practices hurt others or force social “truths” on others who do not share them, but I would ask, “are we not then trying to force our social truth of tolerance and respect of human life onto cultures that do not believe the same way we do?” What about self-mutilation and suicide? Those are individual acts that are considered wrong. For instance, India recently outlawed the practice of the widow throwing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Is that not her choice based on her personal beliefs? Since, we as a global society are maintaining that there are universal rights and wrongs in our legal systems, then it seems logical that postmodernism’s pluralistic and multiculturalistic “truths” are some how incompatible with real world governance, and if a philosophy does not reflect reality, it must be inherently false.
I do not think that Steven was happy with the way the conversation turned in class, moving from a discussion of the disappearance of Truth in the university to one of tolerance, and yet, that is the direction that particular conversation must go. If there is not one Truth but several equal truths, then no one should be intolerant of another’s beliefs because all beliefs are relevant. A search for Truth in the university, however, will undoubtedly negate several of those individual truths and thus, would be intolerant and not allowed in the postmodern university system. If postmodernism is indeed a flawed philosophical doctrine, as I maintain it is, then Truth can and ought to return to the university, but it will return at the cost of tolerance, which is only a pipe dream at best anyways, since we do not really tolerate everyone’s beliefs—unless, of course, they are willing to set aside certain precepts of their beliefs to be tolerant of others.
So, where does postmodernism and tolerance take us in terms of today’s pedagogy and the writing classroom? The answer can be seen in the current view of rhetoric. In the most recent pedagogical theories dealing with composition, postmodernism is seen as the only means of critical thinking, a sentiment I sorrowfully heard repeated many times in our own classroom. Let me explain. In 2000, Thomas Rickert argued,
For a pedagogy that entails post-odepial forms of subjectivity, deploying “strategies that circumvent, forestall, or resist the replication of authoritarian or proto-violent modes of control.” Such subjectivity, he maintained, is conducive to a “post-pedagogy of the ‘act’,” demanding “the new, the unthought, the un-accomodatable”, decentering the stable subjects and allowing a subject to transgress social norms. This pedagogy, he claimed, is an “exhortation to dare, to invent, to create, to risk”, not a set of codifiable strategies but a valuing of unorthodox work. (Lauer 145).
What exactly do we mean when we throw around the term “critical thinking”? Are we teaching students how to discern Truth as Steven suggests, or are we teaching them the ability to question and “transgress social norms”. How many times in the class did the idea that somehow our students were defunct because they came into the class “buying into” their parents’ ideologies, and then someone would say, “we don’t care what they believe, as long as they can express their belief and give us reasons for it”. My question then becomes, “why are we not teaching them how to defend their beliefs?”
The postmodern conception of critical thinking does not lend itself to apologetics; rather, it is the process of “decentering” and “transgressing” social norms, which is why composition teachers in the university assign books like Fargo Rock City or Sex, Drugs, and Coco Puffs to farmers’ kids that have been raised conservatively. We are trying to break them out of their social norms. And all in the name of what? Creating questioning, thinking individuals, capable of addressing and maybe even solving the world’s problems through educated tolerance? Maybe ideally, but realistically, we are creating individuals who distrust their families, their government, their friends, all forms of religion, all cultures, all ideas, and even themselves, which probably explains the $10 billion in anti-depressant sales last year.
Why do we feel the need to break our students in this fashion? In 2002, Debra Jacobs said that “dismissing process theories and pedagogies by conflating all of them with expressivism or by pointing out limitations of other strands of process . . . can limit instructional practices aimed at intervening in students’ ethical development” (664). She is clearly maintaining a position similar to classical pedagogies that “ethics” is a factor in the teaching of rhetoric; however, she continues by defining what “In(ter)ventional acts” of critical inquiry ought to do: “[they should] foster affective engagement, challenge existing doxa, and contribute to new understanding” (670). So, Truth is not found in tradition, and truths can be created in the classroom relative to student invention, creating a self-defined doctrine of life, and ethics are defined and created by the individual rather than an over-arching standard. If this is the case, then “might” makes “right” because intellectual approaches to ethics are individualized and worthless. Is it any wonder, after decades of teaching this stuff, that the U.S. has the most cultural influence on the planet all the way from media saturation to defining what human rights are, but they also have the most advanced military?
And then once we have stripped our students of all hope in the tradition of their parents and the world they knew, we trap them--perhaps unknowingly, perhaps purposively, but always helplessly--in the spider webs of linguistic theory, particularly the writings of Saussure, who says, “psychologically, what are our ideas, apart from our language? They probably do not exist. Or in a form that may be described as amorphous. We should probably be unable according to philosophers and linguists to distinguish two ideas clearly without the help of a language (internal language naturally)” (Saussure). As if somehow, we construct the idea of things solely by language: a theory that has become a cornerstone in postmodern pedagogy. Hassan says,
Language is an army of metaphors become rigid like those terracotta soldiers at Xian . . . the insight remains valid as far as it goes—and it goes far. These loose, slippery sounds—arbitrary signifiers, as every graduate student of literature has learned to say—sometimes seem, to the sophisticated or sophistical mind, a mirage, sand dunes drifting with every wind. How can you pitch in them a tent? Through these drifting, blowing sands, we stagger blindly, arms flailing—it's that desert again, and the desert grows. (Hassan)
But even in this beautifully written prose the problem of Saussure’s theory becomes evident. If the world is constructed solely on metaphor, it is lost to us and pointless; it would be better to exchange glances with the abyss as Nietzsche says, then to go on floundering in a world of shadow. Language is far from a perfect means of exchanging ideas, but its very imperfection suggests that there is something above it that cannot be expressed perfectly; the world of forms, the ideal, the spiritual, Truth; call it what you will; it is not turtles all the way down.
Language only becomes “arbitrary signifiers” if the sign itself is arbitrary, which is a precept of postmodernism. C.S. Lewis takes issue with this very subject in The Abolition of Man with the famous example of Gaius and Titius (his pseudonymed text book writers) and their remarks on Coleridge’s waterfall:
You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it “sublime” and the other “pretty”; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgment and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: “When the man said, This is sublime, he appeared to making a remark about the waterfall . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.” (2)
Lewis continues by ridiculing the notion that somehow all language is based on individual feelings and not inspired by the world around us. The example I used in class was a table; in the U.S., we call a table “table” and in Mexico they call it a “mesa”, does that change the nature of the thing? Does our language somehow change the substance of the thing itself? Do our words create truths through social interaction? If we were to agree that it was not a table but a “ball”, would I not be able to set my drink on it?
If we were to shift focus in the classroom and begin to discuss the power of language, not as a social construction, but as an ability to defend and discover Truth in the universe, then I believe student papers would consequentially improve. What is the point in writing, when everything else, especially language is pointless? The issue here is not just wrapped up in pedagogical differences; it is wrapped up in differences in worldviews. We are not just teaching our students skills, although the skills they learn will be invaluable, we are indoctrinating them with a philosophy of life, and if that philosophy is postmodernism, we cannot expect an improvement in their papers or in society in general. And yet, I wonder if the infinite nature of postmodernism makes it impossible to kill. I can rave all I want about the ludicrousness and the insanity of postmodern thought, and my audience can just brush it all aside with a simple, “that’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it”, without giving any thought or credence to my argument: without even once having considered that life is not arbitrary: there is more than proximate meaning, but such are the pitfalls of modern academia. I could also go on and offer an alternative to postmodernism, but I am guessing the Truth slant gives my leanings away.
Stephen P Porter S.D.G.