Does postmodernism impede learning?
I grew up with the phrase ‘keep it real’ as the codified mantra of my youth. New York City in the ‘80s and ‘90s was known for many features, but authenticity was the quality that I appreciated most about the city that raised me. This is why, upon returning to Brooklyn after college, ready to forge a career for myself in the world of education, I was very confused when introduced to hipsters.
Remember hipsters? They had radical facial hair, didn’t like adulting, and used laptops while riding the subway. An appreciation for coffee and bicycles was fine, but their overwhelming affinity for irony and exaggeration took me a while to get used to. Embellishment can, of course, be useful when emphasizing a point, and sarcasm as a form of humor is obviously normal. But such exaggerated irony, as a default, felt new.
As the aughts turned to the 2010s, and hipsters’ Generation Z offspring became my students, I noticed a distinct shift in the way many of them spoke. My Gen Z students didn’t just “like” something; they were “obsessed” with it. Doing something bad wasn’t just bad, it was “an epic fail.” If something was curious or abnormal, it was referred to as being “not a thing,” and inversely, if something was pleasant or enjoyable, it could be described as being “everything.”
At first I mostly viewed this as benign teen slang, until I started noticing that my students applied these ironic exaggerations to their conceptions of themselves as learners. Common statements such as, “I’m a little confused,” “I don’t really get it,” or “This one part is kind of hard for me,” all devolved into absolute statements: “I’m totally lost” or “It’s literally impossible.” Previously, maybe three out of four students would push past that initial discomfort that we all feel when learning something new. Suddenly, that ratio had completely flipped. What was this new attitude that so many of my students had simultaneously acquired? Had I just been getting old, and perhaps aged out of the playground known as modernity? In fact, I think it was actually postmodernity that I was struggling to make sense of.
Postmodernism, as it would come to be known, began in 1960s France as a philosophical and artistic reaction to liberal humanism. Since then, it has gradually spread from the French Academy to now holding influence over the broader contemporary culture in the United States. Michel Foucalt, the French philosopher who is widely considered to be the father of postmodernism, gave a series of lectures in the U.S. on “Truth and Subjectivity” that were immensely popular. Time magazine’s 1981 profile on Foucault, which described his following as “a growing cult,” was prominently featured in the magazine’s Education section. As of 2019, he was the most highly cited scholar in all of academia, according to Google Scholar.
Postmodernism is a complicated field of philosophy, but its defining feature is its questioning of the existence of objective truth. It is useful, of course, for us to question faulty beliefs that we may have prematurely accepted as objective truth. Trusting the merits of scientific discoveries only makes sense if the scientific method is applied to itself. But many postmodernists feel that there is no such thing as knowledge at all. Opinions exist, and nothing else. Whereas in modernity we generally aimed to discover a singular truth (what “is”) based on empiricism and objectivity, the postmodernist aims to discover multiple truths (what “can be”) based on lived experience and subjectivity. This might be an interesting way to consider reality on occasion, but when subjectivity is viewed as what reality is, it immediately stalls the mechanisms of learning.
I began to notice a form of this extreme subjectivity in my Gen Z students, who were misinterpreting feelings of momentary helplessness as permanent conditions. Unless they felt a sense of mastery—completely and immediately—all was lost. It seemed they would give up at the first sensation of confusion (a sensation which is part of any learning process), because if something didn’t feel easy then it was deemed impossible. “I’m struggling with writing,” an observation on a temporary state, had become, “I am bad at writing,” almost as if it were a part of their identity. My students were viewing any fleeting feeling as their truth—fact and opinion had apparently become one singular entity. And the inevitable conclusion for many students was, “why bother trying?”
The act of learning requires an appreciation for nuance. We don’t fly immediately from ignorance to expertise, but instead slowly climb a gradient of understanding as we attempt to make contact with the truth. To define a multifaceted topic in simple black-or-white terms is not a means for teaching children how to think critically or discover truth. Children raised to say the opposite of what they mean as a tool for feeling secure will likely struggle to not only express themselves, but to understand themselves as well. They’ll end up saying, “Sure,” when what they mean is, “I don’t know.” They’ll end up believing that learning is impossible when it’s actually just difficult. They’ll end up quitting instead of trying. And trying is the lifeblood of learning.
I remember hearing the slogan knowledge is power as a kid, and assumed that it meant that the more we know about the world, the more capable we can be in navigating its challenges. In order to survive, knowing stuff is clearly helpful. Postmodernism, on the other hand, teaches that those in power wield socially-constructed knowledge as a means of subjugation. If claiming to know something marks you as an oppressor, then seeking knowledge is the act of an oppressor in training. To say, “I know” is to say, “I win”—and more importantly, “You lose.”
Learning is predicated on the belief that progress is possible. To learn is not to escape one’s doom, nor to defeat an enemy, but to improve towards one’s potential through achieving understanding and acquiring knowledge. But if teachers were to abide by all of the dominant tenets of postmodernism and cultural relativism, in which all is subjective, there is no way for a student to make progress, because, like society as a whole, there is nothing for them to progress towards.
From what I’ve observed, children raised with bumper sticker slogans—“If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem; Believe women; Resist”—as a substitute for engaging with real people and real ideas are likely to struggle to reach their academic, intellectual, and personal potential. The combination of social media, news as entertainment, and postmodernist rhetoric has put many of today’s learners in a place where it’s hard for them to understand anything more intricate than a slogan. But with the right educational philosophy, we can give them the tools they need to break free from this stultifying norm. It’s not up to us to tell students whether something is or is not true: It is our responsibility to provide them with the foundational skills to analyze questions using nuance and balance and ultimately to discover the truth for themselves.
I can concede that subjectivity can feel just as real as objectivity. We are finite beings living in an infinite universe, communicating amorphous ideas using limited language. As we try our best to survive and thrive, grow and share, learn and teach, it would be useful to consider some concepts that we can lean on, so that we might avoid feeling “totally lost.”
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