Education and postmodernism – a toolkit of plenty – or how i learned to stop worrying and love the postmodern

I once hated postmodernism… at a real, visceral level. I didn’t like the word, I didn’t like the smug looks on the faces of people who used it, I didn’t like the way they used the word ‘text’. “Well, this painting makes a very interesting text blah blah la la (insert snooty tone).” That was ten years ago. In the interim, I’ve studied a little, and thought a little, and become alot less confrontational and have found myself quite liking this new thing (it’s at least over 40 years old) that I’ve discovered. The problem is, by the very nature of what it is, you can’t say ‘postmodernism is this’. It isn’t one thing. Not everyone even agrees on what it isn’t. It’s very different in architecture, for instance, than for educational theory. A more useful way of thinking about it, I’ve found, is not asking “what is it?” but rather “what can it do for me?” Over the next few months I’ll be delving occasionally into this uncertain word to talk about my understanding of this ‘toolkit’ that is postmodernity, no doubt incurring the boredom of some readers, and the scorn of others. But it does make sense to me somehow, and that’s what I’ll try to work out here. First some quick thoughts and then a layout of the plan for the short term.

My concern, and indeed my fear, of postmodernism is that it does away with any clear, definable truth. Truths are dependant on context, and power structures and hierarchies PoMo tells us, the Truth that you believe in (sometimes ‘common sense’) is usually one of a group of dominant narratives of a society at a given time and therefore not really True in the sense that there aren’t other ways to do it, but more true from a certain point of view. Take the idea that ‘history is written by the victors’ and expand it to society as a whole, so “The truths in society, is what is true for the people with the most power.(that is not necessarily a single group, but the more powerful for a given situation)” Trickle down economics is a great example of this. According to wikipedia Trickle-down or Reaganomics are “is the view that to benefit the wealthy is to benefit the middle classes and even the poor. These benefits then trickle down.” The benefit to the wealthy is easily measured, the rest, well, is more a matter of opinion. But there are many people who still consider this to be ‘True’ even though “Reagan’s Economic Advisor later characterized supply side economics and trickle down economics as rhetoric.” (both quotes from here. Why, you might ask would people continue to believe in it? It is a dominant discourse. It is a narrative that is equated with power. To agree with it, is to agree with ‘common sense,’ a common sense that one of the people who created it calls ‘rhetoric’.

In the past fifty years we done away with many of these dominant narratives in the classrooms. They are things, for good or bad, that aren’t true for us anymore.

  • corporal punishment
  • the military classroom model (desk rows)
  • transmission style teaching
  • The Three Rs (although this little nugget seems to have staying power)

all once thought true and right, and now things of the past. We can all recognize them now, we can see them for what they are. Some of the changes of the dominant way things are done (often dominant ways, the powerful do not always agree, nor is there only one layer of hierarchies) we may not agree with, but, like it or not, they aren’t ‘the way things are done.’

The next question then is, “how can we judge the things we are doing now?” How can we look at our practice and decide which things we do are good, and which are not good. RESEARCH is the most obvious answer. Get some experts to test it. Problem is, we don’t really believe in experts anymore. When a doctor says “take this medicine”, we now say “what is it?” If someone tells us 300 students were tested and we found that those who scored high in Math scored low on the ‘english aptitude test’. We ask “what was on the test?” There are always variables, and always contexts that can affect a given study (not to metnion out and out bias) that affects the ‘truth-value’ of any research.

Enter the toolkit version 0.1
Jacques Derrida is solely responsible for some of the best sleeps I’ve ever had. There’s nothing like an incredibly dense bit of material writing in response to something that you haven’t read. He was deconstructing ‘modern’ narratives. This idea of deconstructing a ‘text’. I wont do Derrida the disservice of trying to shorten the tool to a short description…

Jean Beaudrillard is still alive and kicking. His take on the term simulacrum gives us another tool to interpret our world. A simulacrum is a copy of a copy etc… of something until the copy no longer represents the original, but represents something entirely new. Think of the ‘mainstreet’ in Disneyland where everyone is happy, there is no crime or poverty. This is meant to resemble the ‘good old days,’ which, if you talk to someone who grew up in the depression, weren’t really all that good. These similacra own central places in many dominant narratives.

action research
In reality, that’s not how we do most of our adaptation anyway. If the person at the workshop says “wow, i tried this new trick on my students and it really worked.” we listen, we ask questions, we tune in. Action research is designed like this. A researcher, usually a classroom practitioner, follows their way through a project, using their PoMo toolkit, and talks about how things go. Are they making truth… no. Nor do they need to.

oh… even in writing them, i feel like I’m on shaky ground. But I feel like there is an honesty to writing this way. cheers for making it this far!

Author: dave

I run this site… among other things.

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