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creating postmodern people

postmodernismThe English curriculum is a clear instance of the approach under-girding the new New Zealand Curriculum: “In English, there are two strands: ‘making meaning’ and ‘creating meaning’.”

Did you notice there is no strand “discovering meaning… understanding meaning…”?

You can hear echoes of “The Death of the Author” approach. In “The Death of the Author” a text and its author are unrelated. This approach abandons traditional literary criticism’s practice which included (or may have attempted to uncover) the author’s intentions and context. My reaction to, and interpretation of, this text is as valid as yours; and as valid as that of the author.

I understand that this postmodern perspective has been the approach at NZ university for at least a couple of decades, and is becoming normative in our schools during the last half-dozen or so years.

Many will see the connection with Jacques Derrida, deconstruction, and, from there, the nonrealism/antirepresentationalism of Don Cupitt:

Realists think that mathematical truth is discovered, whereas non-realists about maths think that maths is a complex collection of useful games invented by us. Realists think that scientists discover ‘the laws of Nature’, readymade and out there, whereas non-realists think that scientists invent theories that help us to tell stories about why things go the way they do, and to predict outcomes successfully.

Postmodernism does not have a canon of truth. That relates to critique of power. Who am I to determine what should and what should not be studied? Who am I to claim that Shakespeare has a place in the canon of the curriculum but [name of latest airport pulp author] does not?

This is also a critique of authority. My truth is as valid as your truth.

Is not the absurdity of the quest for religious truth, the quest for ultimate truth [already so neglected in New Zealand (religion is generally not taught academically here)] underscored by a daily encounter with a perspective that sees education as an interconnection between ‘making meaning’ and ‘creating meaning’? Is there any possibility of (“objective”) ethical truth in such a worldview? Or is ethics, too, a vote on whatever can claim the most people assenting to a particular “my truth is…”?

[Even if there is an “Author” of it All, in “The Death of the Author” approach the intention of the Author is irrelevant… In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes…]

There is obviously much of value in postmodernism. I have much appreciation for the reminder within postmodernism that where we stand determines what we see; of postmodernism’s including ourselves into the map we make of reality.

I also value the comparative approach in religious study. But it too can give the impression, overlaid on a postmodernist/nonrealist/antirepresentationalist educational premise, that all religious claims are equally valid (or equally absurd). Whilst I obviously want to take care with definitions of “God” (see my concern at the Western neglect of the apophatic) are all religious assertions without any correspondence to a reality that is being discovered (let alone revealed)? To give another religious illustration, when we die:

  • the end,
  • we reincarnate,
  • we continue in God’s presence in some mysterious way,

appears to me to be a “pick one”; they cannot all be equally true.

I would be interested to know if the education system in other countries has a canon (I know UK and the Netherlands has); as well as other countries, like New Zealand, which do not have a canon. To illustrate further: for the subject of History, just to give one example, in New Zealand it is not possible to make a list of what students study that is true throughout the country. One could not make a list that looked like:

  • the Treaty of Waitangi in Year A,
  • the European Middle Ages in Year B,
  • the Second World War in Year C,
  • and so forth.

If a student moves schools between, say, Years 9 and 10, there is no assurance that s/he will have studied the same content as fellow students in the new school. It is even possible that s/he will repeat in Year 10, at the new school, the content s/he studied in Year 9 at the last school.

There is, hence as another example, no heat to the teaching creationism-evolution “debate” in New Zealand, because there is no requirement to teach or examine evolution. Integrated (State-financed) Christian (or other) schools philosophically opposed to evolution can follow a pathway that bypasses this topic.

[In thinking about postmodernism, let’s not get distracted by the claim that “there is no objective truth” is self-contradictory because that statement gives the appearance of being intended to be taken as “objectively” true.]

I have, on occasion, had (sometimes heated) discussion with another priest who claimed (vigorously) that postmodernism was passé. In some learned corridors that may very well be the case – I cannot comment. What is clear is that in any mission and ministry with young people, at least in this country, taking account of postmodernism is not a decreasing, but an increasing necessity.

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source of quote on non-realism

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3 thoughts on “creating postmodern people”

  1. When I lived in Ottawa, I had some contact with Augustine College, which runs a one-year liberal arts programme, inspired by the medieval curriculum of the Trivium and Quadrivium, designed to supplement or take the place of a student’s first year at university. (They organized the John Behr lecture that you posted on a few months ago.)

    This kind of post-secondary institution (and the “classical academies” that are also popping up for primary and secondary education) represents one strand of reaction against some of the less wholesome implications of postmodern thought.

    One of Augustine College’s slogans is the following:

    Questions as if there were ANSWERS.
    Thinking as if there were PURPOSE.
    Learning as if there were WISDOM.
    Knowledge as if there were TRUTH.

    In my theological studies, we did a lot of Bernard Lonergan. His epistemological approach seems to me increasingly like a good way forward. There is such a thing as the truth, but the only way to know it is through an ever growing body of experience and reflection (our own, and that of past generations who have passed their wisdom down to us).

    The postmodernist rejects all experience but his own (or that of his group). The traditionalist rejects her own experience (and that of all others). The best approach is also the “catholic” one, i.e. the one that tries to hold both truths together.

    (I suppose a “modernist” is only willing to give give credence to experience that he/she can duplicate empirically, an approach that, as we’re coming to find, limits one’s effective range of thought and action considerably!)

    On the subject of “canons,” oddly enough just today I was drafted to help put together a canon of readings for a doctoral student preparing for comprehensives. But even there the emphasis is on knowing how knowledge in her field has changed and developed, so that she can account for the influence of certain books and how other scholars have built on or contradicted their insights.

    I was not taught evolution at my rather conservative Christian boarding school. But neither was I taught creationism/intelligent design. In biology we studied cell organelles and dissected fetal pigs. And in geography we learned about different kinds of rock. I took a course on evolution in university, and by then I was able to hear about the subject without filtering it through religio-political lenses. It must be hard for kids when a high school teacher is set up as an authority equal to, and contradicting, their parents…

  2. Oh and by the way, “making meaning” is a very “Lonergan” concept (he had neat categories like how we make meaning out of experience as “cognitive”, “constitutive”, “communicative”, and “effective” meaning: a truth to be known; an identity that it gives me; a community that it creates; and an agenda for action that it demands).

    But, as we liturgists engaged in the work of symbols know too well, this depends on the Ricoeurian philosophical concept of “superabundance of meaning”: a symbol is a symbol because it can be read to mean many things; but it cannot mean *all* things, or it would cease to be a symbol.

    We can only “make meaning” by “discovering meaning” that already exists, somehow, for us to discover.

  3. I wonder how “the death of author” and supposed irrelevance of intention and context plays within systems thinking (as in the family therapy approach developed by Murray Bowen). That is a relative new, and perhaps post-modern theory.

    There, as one example, he advocates for the non-anxious presence because the reaction of others say a whole lot more about themselves then about you. Context is quiet important for getting why folks respond the way they do.

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