2nd June 1995 at 01:00
POSTMODERNISM AND EDUCATION. By Robin Usher and Richard Edwards. Routledge #163;40. - #163;14.99. - 0 414 10281 2. FOR EDUCATION, TOWARDS CRITICAL EDUCATION INQUIRY. By Wilfred Carr. University Press #163;37.50. - O 335 19187 8 #163;12.99. - O 335 19186 X.

Patrick Ainley on post-modernism in education. What is post-modernism and why should you read a book about it and education?

Post-modernism is symptomatic of higher education in the l990s but its introduction to this country goes back to a big hoo-ha at Cambridqe University in the 1970s when a lecturer was refused a teaching appointment because he indulged in the then current French intellectual fashion for "deconstruction". This was regarded as dangerously subversive because one of its leading lights, Jacques Derrida, whose honouring by the University still caused a fuss only a couple of years ago, had once declared that from the point of view of finding out about society you might as well study the telephone directory as Shakespeare.

Such relativism would, it was recognised, undermine the elaborate hierarchies of literary taste that are so carefully cultivated by elite academic institutions like Cambridge. For if all cats are black in the dark, there are no standards and values. Judgment becomes purely subjective and anything goes.

Funnily enough though what went was not so much the canon of Eng Lit as the ideology which justified what passed for socialism in Russia and elsewhere. For, with the fall of communism, not only the Marxist vision of history but the idea of progress associated with it was called into question. Indeed, one of President Reagan's aides wrote a book announcing the end of history. Such is, supposedly, the post-modern condition.

Of course, there is nothing new in all this. The German philosopher Hegel also declared history ended with the triumph of Napoleon and as early as 1802, he spoke of the death of God as the basic religious awareness of modern times. That "God is dead" became his successor Nietzsche's most famous sound bite, implying for today's post modernists that since all values can now be seen as culturally relative no judgment is possible.

Thus, in the new mass higher education students are taught a litany of post-modern correctness. This includes "decentring" every "text" or "discourse" into its contending parts, including even the illusion of a unitary self. "Totality" is as bad as such "essentialism" for nothing must be put together again to present an artificial coherence, especially not the "myth" of scientific explanation or - worse - the "metanarrative" of history. "Binarism" is bad too, phallocentrically (sic!) dividing unknowable reality into mutually exclusive opposites. As can be seen, this "discourse" has its own vocabulary.

Now Usher and Edwards apply it to education. The enlightenment project of mass education is duly thrown up in the air as the impossibility of communicating or understanding anything puts in question the whole notion of teaching. Actually, the authors are so effective at drawing out the self-contradictory implications of their own argument that Wilf Carr's critique is superfluous.

Carr is "For Education" beyond educating people in how education is impossible, which is Usher and Edwards' post-modern position. However, his defence is inadequate, not only because this is a lazy book. Topped and tailed with a fresh introduction and epilogue, it assembles papers previously published in academic journals.

Like the post-modern patois, this is also symptomatic of higher education today. For, in the desperate competition between individuals and institutions that the market has unleashed, publications in books or journals earn academics Browniepoints in absurd funding exercises. Thus, Carr's previously unpublished epilogue to this book has already resurfaced in the latest issue of yet another journal.

More importantly though, Carr's attempt at "Confronting the Postmodern Challenge" in this epilogue can be easily deconstructed by post modernists to represent an author whom even the adulatory prologue by his colleague Stephen Kemmis admits may be seen as an "anachronistic" "dinosaur" of the "ancien regime", "only commanding respect in learned journals and from senior administrators in education systems".

For the well-meaning burden of these papers is to create a real "science of education" in which theory should be combined with everyday practice. But what does this amount to other than the "reflective practitioner" about whom we have heard so much even as teachers are reduced to unreflective technicians?

Carr gives no sense of a new paradigm for education research taking teachers, students and others beyond the classroom to understand learning in its broader social context and aiming to establish pedagogy as the central and integrative discipline of a new type of education. But this is what is needed to go beyond post-modernism without retreating into unthinking traditionalism.

Patrick Ainley's latest book is Degrees of Difference (Lawrence and Wishart).

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