The Death of Postmodernism and What It Means for College Preparation: Part 1
Postmodernism is dead. We have killed it.
Actually, postmodernism has been dead for close to a decade in academic circles, but it is now also dead in popular culture, as has been detailed by a number of writers, but most notably (and most impressively) by Dr. Alan Kirby. At a summer externship I underwent in the summer of 2013, Dr. Peter Jones gave a lecture where he essentially made this same point. Christians are far too concerned with postmodernism – it should no longer be much of a concern for us because it is no longer much of a belief system for anyone.
This is easily perceivable by a cursory glance at pop culture. The existence of Huffington Post and Slate-style liberalism is predicated on the existence and knowability of objective truth claims. The Outrage Industry could not survive unless we know, with at least some degree of certainty, what should make us outraged. We can’t very well decry the Rape Culture unless it’s actually wrong, regardless of cultural upbringing or particular social values, to objectify women, and so on and so forth.
This has implications for our cultural engagement; I want to focus on its importance for how to prepare high school students for college. When postmodernism was the nemesis, emphasizing the existence of absolute truth claims and our ability to perceive such truths was the key. We engaged in thought experiments related to petty thefts, and showed the logical incoherence of the “your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth” silliness. Our slogan might as well have been “Why Don’t They Teach Logic in These Schools? WE DO!” But if postmodernism is no longer the nemesis, than we need to re-evaluate our approach. We no longer have to convince very many people that it is permissible, even preferable, to make absolute moral claims. If our overall college interactions were an article on the Internet, we could make like Huffington Post and give it a reductionistic title like “Yes, Some Truth Claims Are Objectively True” and no one would object.
So how should our preparation for cultural engagement in college change? To answer that question, we need to know what sorts of arguments college students will be confronting. In Part 2 of this series, I will address the second category of arguments, namely new age mysticism. Today, I want to address perhaps the larger category: what some, including Dr. Kirby, have coined “pseudo-modernism.”
What is pseudo-modernism? According to one scholar, pseudo-modernism “makes the individual’s action the necessary condition to the cultural product.” It is, in other words, narcissism as epistemology. One could even say it’s the “click-bait” of social theoretical thought. In the compartmentalized culture in which we now live, pseudo-modernism works pretty well. The Outrage Industry does a very good job of providing people who want to be outraged about particular things the excuse to be outraged about those things. The necessary condition is the inclinations of the individual reader – the cultural product will answer that felt need. If you want to be outraged about Barack Obama, the mistreatment of evangelicals, white privilege, or the objectification of women, than someone will provide you with the cultural product you want. The importance won’t always (or usually) be on providing good content, or a cohesive argument, or truth – the importance will be in satisfying the necessary condition, i.e. the individual’s action.
College, of course, is ostensibly about the provision of education, but usually is simply an ad hoc worldview presentation, with the incidental, however substantial, effect of knowledge that could be called education (I understand that certain mathematical fields might not be applicable. Also, keep in mind that I absolutely love college and education and learning and think everyone should get as many degrees as realistically possible.) That cultural product provided is to satiate the collective narcissism of pseudo-modernism. Christian students will be interacting with people who are decidedly not postmodern – they will believe in absolute truth claims, and their pseudo-modern worldview means they will be self-righteously convinced of the value of their belief system.
If uncompromising, logical defense of absolute truth claims was the answer to postmodernism, what is the answer to pseudo-modernism? I believe the answer is humility and winsomeness. Say whatever you want about postmodernists, but its proponents were a pretty chill bunch. A humble epistemology was practically a prerequisite for postmodernity. But pseudo-modernists and the culture it encourages is at its core a self-righteous epistemology, and it is often marked by passion, cynicism and more than a little bit of anger. We have the opportunity to be countercultural in our humility. We have the ability to mark ourselves as something different through our winsomeness. In a pseudo-modern world, how we communicate our beliefs becomes even more important. That doesn’t mean we compromise, and it doesn’t mean we sacrifice boldness on some politically correct altar. But it does mean that we take seriously our mandate to be the aroma of Christ, and to avoid the temptation to answer outrage with outrage and self-righteousness with self-righteousness.
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