Past the Post
Think about the kind of TV ads we used to see (and still sometimes do): A hair shampoo is promoted by a figure in a white coat who sits in a laboratory talking about chemical and acid balances and their technical benefits. A Volvo car is sold with talk of safety features and endurance qualities.
Now think about these current ads: A James Dean look-alike walks along a 1950s street scene with a punch line promoting a 1998 McDonalds burger. A Coke bottle changes shape and dances with people in a 1960s setting. A new-model Volvo is sold through the imagery of stylish design and young people away for a fun weekend. KFC fast food is sold with the line “that’s the way I like it”.
The second group of ads are examples of postmodern communication. Reality is suspended, its boundary with fantasy is collapsed, life is a game not to be taken too seriously and individual choice is king.
Postmodernism has affected our minds and schools for about the past 25 years and is still going strong. It is a swirling, changing rush of ideas that readily confuses and defies easy definition. One of its main features is a strong tendency to the view that things are not externally fixed, real or true. Rather, reality, truth and values are internal, individual and a matter of perspective. Postmodernism allows me to “construct” my own reality, truth and values.
How does this affect Australian schools? The effects of postmodernism on education are visible in three areas.
First, it affects views of reality. Good writers use imagination, although imagination had a tougher time in the modernist world of technology. Historically however, there was a clear and important boundary between external reality and the inner world of imagination.
Postmodernism blurs that boundary by making electronic images and mental concepts seem as authentic as the real world. The term “virtual reality” hints at this and implies a new understanding of reality: “If it’s real to me, it’s real.” Meanwhile the world that we can see and touch may seem unreal to the extent that we personally don’t experience it or engage with it.
As a developmental stage, very young children may have trouble distinguishing between the world of imagination and reality. In a postmodernist culture, some older children and adults may relate better and have more sense of belonging in the world of their computer screen rather than their real families and friendships. How do you teach children who long to flee the classroom or family for their “real” world of cyberspace? How do they learn that actions and relationships matter and should be taken seriously, when “dead” people in cyberspace spring back to life for the next round of the game?
Such a view of reality threatens to separate people from each other, as each inhabits his or her own world. In a recent newspaper interview, the co-founder of the Melbourne band Paradise Motel said of his life: “It’s very insular and you find it hard to interact with other people because you develop your own world. So much of my life is around that now and it sort of vacillates between being in a van and being in my room reading books or plugged into a computer. It’s easy to forget how other people live their lives.”
Second, postmodernism changes our understanding of knowledge. People once generally agreed that truth about an external world existed and was knowable. Opinions differed on the order and extent to which knowledge was gained by revelation, reason, observation or intuition, but there was confidence about knowledge and the ability of language to express it. Further, people believed a unified and consistent worldview was possible, however much they differed in the details.
When people think from a postmodern perspective, their idea of knowledge is changed from truth towards opinion. I construct my interpretation and you construct yours. The effect of this shows in any text-based discipline, such as the study of English literature. A text’s meaning is no longer determined or even initiated by what the author intended. Rather, it is created by each individual reader. The title of a 1993 Christian book on postmodernism, The Culture of Interpretation, captures this well.
Further, knowledge is fragmented. Increasingly people have blocks of knowledge on various matters, but with limited connections or consistency between these blocks. Vast quantities of information exist like the beads for a necklace without the string that connects them and brings order to their arrangement.
Listen again to a member of Paradise Motel: “I’m finding it harder and harder to, like, tell the truth. I don’t know what the truth is any more. It’s so complicated.”
How can there be teaching and learning when our idea of “truth” moves towards one of opinion? Under this view of knowledge, even discovery-based approaches collapse, for there is nothing to discover except opinion, ours or others’.
Third, postmodern thinking undermines traditional understanding of values.
Schools are communities which depend on common values to operate. As educating communities, they have a responsibility to teach and reinforce values that will enable students to take a positive place in family, church and society.
By allowing everyone to think what they like, postmodern thinking has a destructive effect on values. Artistic values are all in “the eye of the beholder” This leads to artworks that are deliberately offensive, such as the recent exhibition of a crucifix in urine. The same holds for ethical values of right and wrong. My “right” may be your “wrong”.
Quite apart from the collapse of school as community, postmodern values leave a hole at the centre of education. What is the inner spring that shapes learning? Where is a sense of the important that deserves prime attention in the classroom?
The following words capture the bleakness of postmodernism and are chilling when applied to schools: “There is no lighthouse keeper. There is no lighthouse. There is no dry land. There are only people living on rafts made from their own imagination. ... We are alone, adrift in a postmodern world.” (John Crossman, quoted in Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be, by Middleton & Walsh.)
Christian responses to postmodernism are similar to any other cultural shift. Some embrace it and compromise the faith. Others attack it. Some deny it and try to live in a nostalgic world of their own construction. Others again engage with it, seeking to know it, sift through its strengths and weaknesses, and try to adapt their teaching in ways which explore and challenge the emerging culture.
The most sensible thing for Christians to do is to engage with postmodernism, because it is there whether we like it or not. Government, Church, Christian and other private schools are all affected by it. So is our general culture, for those born after the late 1950s have been educated and entered adult life in an increasingly postmodern culture.
Further, postmodernism is neither all bad nor all good and Christians need to avoid the trap of moaning about all aspects of postmodernism and longing for the “good old days”. For example, postmodernists recognise spiritual values and it is easier to talk about them now than in the days when many assumed that science and its allies had replaced religion. (Of course, the tendency of postmodernism to treat all religions as equal options chosen according to individual convenience is less welcome.)
Again, postmodernism challenges the view that all human problems can and will be solved by technical and scientific means. That is a welcome humility and creates room for Christian talk of the basic human problem being sin and the principal remedy being God’s grace in Christ. Yet again, postmodernism challenges simplistic views of life by giving attention to the complexity of truth and reality and by seeing shades of grey.
Several matters need attention when Christians engage with postmodernism.
First, information. Christian educators need accurate and substantial information about postmodernism, rather than platitudes and prejudices. This information could be shared through in-service seminars for staff, parents, church and community members.
Second, discernment. Wisdom is needed to separate the good and the bad in postmodernism. It is also needed to avoid presentations of the gospel that appeal to post-modernists, but “go below the line” and surrender vital Christian truths. An example of this would be to commend the faith simply because “it works for you”.
Third, perspective. A child may come to school or home with green hair and nose rings, claiming this as individual self-expression. As a wise mother said, “it is not worth ruining a family for a hair cut”. Educators may need to grit their teeth before some such things and focus on the key issues of reality, truth and values mentioned above.
Parents and teachers can help children in simple ways. In our home, we sometimes play ‘Spotto’, with family members competing to spot postmodernisms in TV advertising or programmes. By this, we are helped to stand outside of our culture, rather than being bathed in it. But be warned: turning off the TV does not make a family immune to postermodernism.
Above all, parents, churches and schools can show and offer real and loving relationships with other people and with God. This will touch the raw nerve of loneliness and the shallowness of relationships that is created by postmodernism. We can commend Christianity as making sense of life and enabling individuals and society to function, because it fits with the way the things are. (This is the same as claiming that Christianity is true, but it minimises language alien to postmodernists).
We can never surrender Christianity as a matter of objective, supernatural, historic facts. However, we can present it in a way that is intelligible to a culture that lives by its feelings and thinks that history is bunk.
Postmodernists claim to liberate education from the tyranny of brainwashing in the modernist classroom. They may have a point there. However, in education as elsewhere, “the truth will set you free” only in discipleship to Jesus (John 8:32).