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Postmodernism in the University Classroom

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Twenty-seven students sat in desks arranged in a ring around the room. The professor sat with us at the part of the circle closest to the blackboard at the front of the room. His long, spindly legs stuck out from beneath the desk, grasshopper-like. The sheen from his vintage polished burgundy shoes matched the glare of sunlight streaming through the wide windows and reflecting off of his thick glasses. Dr. Karkaroff also sported a trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. His erratic movements and lack of eye contact while talking intimated that his energies were being directed primarily inward to his thought processes.

He seemed a true scholar. And respectable – a good professor for a religious studies class. Earlier in class he had admitted that some of his methods of interpretation were insufficient to understand the Islamic text we were supposed to dissect. He was implementing a postmodern analysis – asking only what the text tells us about those who wrote it as opposed to what the author intended or posited as fact. One student had raised his hand. I waited to see whether he would agree or disagree with the professor.

“In order for us to approach the text this way, wouldn’t we have to assume that all the content has a purpose for being as it is? Intentionally arranged that way for a specific reason?”
Gears whirled in the professor’s head. “Yes. Which you’re saying would be inconsistent if we found particular features that appear a certain way for no apparent reason, which we have, in which case my approach cannot account for everything. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I agree with you.”

I assumed this meant we had decided that religious texts should be interpreted at least partially through a historical-critical lens, asking whether events described in the material actually occurred as the material said they did. I soon found out that I was mistaken.

Students around me began to attack the idea of a historical paradigm by commenting that even our view of history is subjective. “We find what we want to find,” one student proclaimed.

I wasn’t sure of that. Why do ardent atheists do historical research and then convert to Christianity if they are only looking to affirm their presuppositions? Conversely, why do devout churchgoers discover what they believe to be inconsistencies between their faith and facts before falling away? Certainly not everyone who undergoes this kind of metamorphosis subconsciously wished for what they ultimately received. But to an extent this is a reigning ideology in the classroom today, especially the college classroom, and especially in the humanities.

Some scholars and students champion subjectivism as being the true nature of truth and morality. This standard breeds distrust for historical objectivism as a valid criterion in discerning the meaning of works that make assertions about Ultimate Reality. For the larger academic sphere this relativism entails an ongoing search to discover the self in the works of others. For the individuals affected by that sphere it entails the abolition of a need to submit to the truth claims of any religion or worldview. In the microcosm of our classroom, these ramifications of subjectivism became piercingly clear.

Dr. Karkaroff agreed with both of the students who had spoken. The first had argued that the professor’s view was inadequate, the second that it was unavoidable. The student whose comment ushered forth this discussion lifted his hand into the air to bid for a second chance to speak, and the instructor tapped a long, dexterous finger in his direction.

“Well,” said the student, “we were talking about whether or not a text should be interpreted as a historical document or as a story containing meanings not connected to facts, and you said earlier that there is a historical precedent of rabbis and others not really caring about what really happened, but I was wondering how we know that those people really didn’t care. I imagine that we know about that through some kind of text documenting their teachings, but if we aren’t looking at the content of texts in a historical sense, then we don’t know for sure if they actually did that or not – unless you’re saying that religious texts are different from others, but that seems inconsistent.” His eyebrows knit together and he pressed his lips together. He seemed to recognize that his argument was easy to get lost in. The professor listened patiently before replying.

“So you’re saying that there’s no record of ancient teachers doing such a thing?”

“No.” The young man regained his composure at the opportunity to make his statement clearer. “I’m saying that if we can’t draw historical conclusions from religious texts, then we shouldn’t from other texts either, and that removes the historical warrant you gave us about how some rabbis used to do things.”

The professor twiddled a pen in his hands. It was almost as long and thin as his fingers. His mental rotors rolled and locked in position.

“Ohh. You’re saying that if we should be so postmodern as to question what we’re analyzing, then we must also be postmodern enough to question the content by which we analyze it.”

“Yeah.”

“Well. I think I’m okay with that.” Dr. Karkaroff smiled. “You see, for people like me this is kind of a game. We interpret to discover the intentions of a culture, but our own biases influence how we analyze those intentions. Ultimately, we are looking into ourselves when we look into the text. The point is the discussion. I’d be perfectly content if we never reached a conclusion.”

A tall, athletically built sophomore lifted her hand into the air. The instructor nodded his assent and asked her to speak.
“But what foundation do you base that belief on? If it doesn’t have reasons to back it up that are concrete, then why should we read the Qur’an and other scriptures like that? But if does, then aren’t those reasons examples of how things must be grounded in facts?”

He chuckled. I think he liked these kinds of discussions.
“Well, that’s the beauty of it. If I did that I would be my own counterexample, so I can’t offer those kinds of facts, and again I’m okay with that. I have a different framework that doesn’t need to be proven, that’s not an issue within it. Kant revolutionized Western thinking in this way when he articulated his perception of the autonomous self.” He paused for a moment of self-reflection. “I suppose that I’ve been conditioned to think this way through my background in religious studies.

“Programs like this one view meaning and truth as something different than fact. My whole training is not to ask whether a certain scripture is true, but why it is told in a particular way. We read texts not for what the text tells us about its content, but for what it tells us about its authors and audience.”

When Dr. Karkaroff talked about Western culture in that way, it seemed almost impossible that the invisible, weighty hand of postmodernism would ever be removed from our culture’s institutions. Some would argue that this is a good thing. After all, there is merit in my professor’s last statement – a religious text can tell you a lot of useful information about the culture it was written in.

That being said, it is not necessary to throw out the concept of objectivism from the realm of academia in order to analyze a text’s cultural context. As I thought about this I scribbled observations about the words of my professor and peers on a yellow legal tablet. There were quotations, arrows, and hastily sketched star bullet points between the blue lines. In my peripheral vision I saw the young man who had already spoken raise his hand for a third time.

“I certainly agree with you that Kant greatly influenced Western culture. He did this by enforcing what Francis Schaeffer called a two-story dichotomy of facts and values, in which you have relativistic values on the top and the rest of life on the bottom. But I have a beef with this framework in that it’s completely inconsistent – we don’t live the rest of our lives as if there was no such thing as objective truth. I don’t understand why we grant amnesty to this particular genre of writing when it is entirely out of sync with how we address the rest of reality.”

Dr. Karkaroff held his pen still between both thumbs and forefingers; it was a bridge between his hands. He nodded slowly as he spoke.

“That’s very perceptive, and the religious studies department is certainly guilty of placing a different sort of framework on values and religion than other parts of life… Yes. I think that’s a very good critique of the religious studies department.”

With that he dismissed our class, and we went about rearranging the desks into the grid pattern in which they were originally set up. I was happy that our instructor was so candid in admitting the shortcomings of his ideologies, and I hoped that the words of my peers would cause him to reconsider some of his thoughts.

I believe that is a definite possibility for him, but I am not so sure in the case of other educators and leaders across America and the world today. This is troublesome to me because postmodern relativism inevitably filters down into moral and religious relativism. The pluralism that results from this is heralded by some as the arrival of a better way of life that promises peace, but for others it seems like an escape from reason and a falling away from objective truths that have eternal significance.

I fall into the latter camp. I recognize that the ideas taught today carry heavy consequences for those who live tomorrow, and I want my posterity to learn not only to think right things but also to learn how to think rightly, which I believe requires an awareness of absolutes. As such, I hope that people will continue to challenge the governing ideologies of most educational institutions like the one I attend. I hope that in doing so they would see that objectivism is neither a right-wing construct nor a ball and chain, but a part of the liberation of both the individual and societal mind.

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About Trevor Clark

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    One of the really damaging aspects of postmodernism was the attitude to science, depicting it as just one narrative amongst many. By undermining the validation of science against the real world, the impression was given that scientific knowledge was nothing more than the opinion of some scientists.

    That has made it very difficult for complex scientific issues to be discussed sensibly in the media. Whenever a scientific issue arises, the media assumes that it consists only of opinions and therefore, in the interests of balance, finds someone who without evidence, holds a different opinion.

    Similarly it encourages the growth of irrationalism such as is manifested in the beliefs in alternative medicine such as Reiki, which postulates the use of an undetectable energy. For those brought up in the postmodernist tradition, such a belief is every bit the equal of science. Already there are healing energy courses appearing in nursing training, utterly without any evidentiary basis. Since evidence is demoted to the rank of opinion, anything goes.

    Science is validated against reality, by using testable hypotheses. Postmodernism cannot understand such a test process, as it fatally distrusts any kind of knowledge. Their intellectual suicide leaves postmodernists talking to each other in dusty corners of academia while the rest of the world moves on.

    But the one thing they did get right is that social values, social morality, ethical judgements, are not static, they are not absolutes. They are socially and historically specific – there are no moral absolutes, simply those values which are socially acceptable and those which are not. This is a relativism which is the result of a social process, a social negotiation. However this discovery wasn’t something original in postmodernism (it hasn’t discovered anything), but a fairly old-fashioned, evidenced, result of studying social history.

    Ironically, postmodernism gave an entire generation of the academic left an excuse to retire from political engagement into empty philosophy. Since all narratives were equivalent, they might as well just talk to themselves. So they do.