Australia is not a safe place for postmodernists at the present moment. Over the past months, academics, journalists, and even Prime Minister John Howard have publicly attacked their influence on school curricula around the country.

At a recent seminar at Warrane College, a residential college at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, academics from three universities took the chance to lambaste the postmodern position. In this issue of MercatorNet, we are featuring some of the contributions that they made.

In “Your pocket guide to PoMo’s history” Martin Fitzgerald provides some historical background. His paper traces two philosophical strands that have shaped postmodernism. One is the deconstructionism of thinkers like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. This developed from the structuralist and logical positivist movements of the 20th century, which in turn sprang from the empiricist tradition. The other is the atheistic existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. The convergence of these ideas has led to the “theory” — or more correctly the attitude — that characterises postmodernism.

In “What does this mean for education?” James Franklin argues that postmodern-inspired curricula foster “unteachable suspicion” in students. Great works of literature, historical documents, and even scientific research are “texts” to be analysed rather than appreciated. Power becomes the essence of human communication; truth, goodness and human nature are merely fronts for the giant power play that we call education.

Postmodernism manifests itself in specific ways in the various teaching disciplines. Barry Spurr’s paper, “What is the difference between King Lear and Ginger Meggs?” deals specifically with the disastrous effects of a postmodern approach to English. At its worst, Spurr argues, postmodernism in the study of literature is “a synonym for intellectual chaos and ignorance”.

Defenders of postmodernism will argue that any summary statements are misrepresentative and create a “straw man” of their ideas. But it is a bit rich for postmodernists, with their emphasis on the fluidity of meaning, to ask for a watertight definition of their philosophy. Another contributor, Alan Barcan*, pointed out that postmodernism is “sometimes used as an umbrella term for the vast range of ideological, curricular and pedagogical changes since the cultural revolution of 1967-74.” It encompasses the ideologies of feminism, environmentalism, neo-Marxism, and so on. Despite their differences, these outlooks share the philosophical approaches outlined above and unanimously encourage “unteachable suspicion” towards all knowledge (except, of course, the knowledge they provide).

So what is the big deal? After all, postmodern ideas are now passé at most tertiary institutions in Australia. But as James Franklin points out, there is a strong and more lasting trickle-down effect to schools. For most people, the years at primary and secondary are the most formative, if not the only, part of their education.

There are perhaps four areas of major concern for these students:

  1. Fundamental facts and concepts are being skipped over in a child’s education. In the rush to initiate students in the cult of cultural theory, grammar, great works of literature, and the broad brushstrokes of history are neglected.
  2. The gaps in the wall left by a postmodern approach to education are often filled with substandard works and decontextualised fragments of the classical curriculum. Australian Idol is considered as worthwhile a “text” as Othello. Shakespeare’s works themselves are clapped in feminist or postcolonial shackles. National histories are first and foremost to be considered as shameful tales of oppression and violence. Science is to be considered primarily as social construction.
  3. The attitude of “unteachable suspicion” is presented to students dogmatically, as a moral imperative in learning. While paying lip service to an “anything goes” approach to knowledge and truth “the promoters of the brave new world of so-called postmodernism are authoritative and prescriptive to a fault,.” says Barry Spurr. In fact, the only thing students are not encouraged to be suspicious of is the analyses offered by their teachers. This often comes later, and naturally, when the student completes university. The by-product is usually a crudely pragmatic approach to education, or a sense of disillusion.
  4. A vicious cycle of artistic mediocrity is established. Victims of a postmodern education grow up and become teachers. They are unable to draw upon the essential texts and ideas in the liberal arts. They cannot provide students with the grounding from which true innovation can take place.

I suspect postmodernists want effortless wisdom. There is a sense in which it is thought to be clever to identify the ways in which the comic strip Ginger Meggs and King Lear are similar. But this is a no-brainer. They are similar because they are both expressions of human experience and imagination. The similarities are most properly examined at university, in cultural studies or anthropology, not in high school English.

The really clever thing is to be able to say why Ginger Meggs and King Lear are not similar. What makes one work great and another mediocre? To answer this adequately years of study and experience are required. Competent teachers are indispensable. Find them; poach them; train them — and I’d wager that “unteachable suspicion” will melt into a sense of wonder. And this is the starting point for all knowledge.

Phillip Elias is studying medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. He was the organiser of the seminar on postmodernism and Australian education at Warrane College, University of New South Wales, Sydney, in April  

* For reasons of space, the paper presented by Alan Barcan (Honorary Associate, School of Education, University of Newcastle), “Postmodernism and the Fractured Curriculum”, has not been published on MercatorNet. His analysis of the ideologies competing for control of education is presented in “Ideology and the Curriculum” in Naomi Smith (ed.) Education and the Ideal (New Frontier, 2004).