For 'postmodern' read 'anti-human'

31st March 2006 at 01:00
There is a lot of talk about the "postmodern" university, but what about the "postmodern" FE college? Some academics celebrate postmodernism in sociology, philosophy and cultural studies. But can we imagine the postmodern motor vehicle lecturer, engineer, accountant or hairdresser? Although, I remember a student who worked on my car, and a girl who attacked my hair in the training salon before I was rescued by her tutor, who had almost a playful postmodern approach that rejected the "grand narrative" of training in a craft skill.

Before anyone demands it, here is a clear definition of the postmodern: postmodernism simply takes the values that have defined cultural and academic life since the 18th-century enlightenment, reason, truth, science and progress and says "NOT". Postmodernists reject reason, truth, science and progress, and hence anything goes. You can say and argue what you like if there's no such thing as reason or truth. Any crazy approach must be respected.

Appealing as such intellectual laziness may be to some, what this contrary postmodernism' amounts to is merely a negative and destructive expression of a contemporary mood. This is the nihilistic feeling that at the beginning of the twenty-first century we can't have human progress anymore, we can't trust scientists, and the enlightenment project has resulted in nothing but misery and mass murder.

Of course, it's stuff and nonsense, and no one really believes in it. Would anyone go to a postmodern doctor who might as well smear you with animal blood, or cast spells, or operate in a playful, random way rather than follow the dictates of the grand narrative of scientific medicine? And as for the unthinkable idea of visiting a postmodern dentist - ouch! The prospect is too painful and academic postmodernists are hypocrites lacking even a residual self consciousness of the way in which their behaviour contradicts their beliefs. They don't care, of course.

So why read their works or take them seriously? FE does at times seem like a postmodern world and that may explain a growing interest in postmodernism. Is FE about 14-19 schooling, or adult learning, or training for work?

FE seems to be hard to characterise because it is so heterogeneous and the policy makers lack the vision and moral backbone to sort it out. One minute it's about developing the national skill base, the next it's about improving the nation's emotional intelligence!

Fads and fashions in qualifications, the curriculum and teaching come and go. No wonder that FE teacher trainers in particular show a postmodern drift. When talking to lecturers they may as well be whimsical and playful when there is nothing sensible to say about the directionless world of FE.

I recently sat in a lesson introducing postmodern ideas to a group of students of varying abilities and ages. The lecturer was clear, if sweeping, in his treatment of the subject, but the students clearly couldn't comprehend the litany of ideas pulled from Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and the usual suspects. When they did speak, they seemed to be arguing for truth and progress and against the postmodern mood.

Gradually, however, they got the message which is that they should feel unsure about reason, truth, science and progress. The great postmodern thinkers, they were being told, had made these ideas problematic. A neat summary at the end of the lesson presented some ideas as modern. They included universal rationality, consciousness, the idea of objective truth, and the ability to improve the human condition through reason. These were contrasted with postmodern ideas. Diversity and contingency replaced anything essential to human nature, people were seen as driven by desires, drives, instincts and fear, there was merely a struggle for power instead of a search for truth, there was no universal morality and progress was viewed as oppressive as it ignored the voices of the marginalised.

Rather than continue to label the ideas these students were being fed with as modern and postmodern, I suggest they are labelled as what they really are. Instead of modern we should put human and instead of postmodern we should put anti-human or misanthropic. Then it would be clear that postmodernism is just an incoherent expression of human self-loathing and despair.

As usual, my approach will be deemed too simple by those who talk of the contribution of postmodernism to our thought. I don't think it is. Talking to an eminent sociologist who had been accused of being perfunctory with postmodern thinkers, he gave me the answer that I think is one we should all take to heart before the misanthropic disease of postmodernity gets a stronger hold on thinking about FE:"When you see shit in the road you step over it, not in it."

Dennis Hayes is the head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University.

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