Subjective is the New Objective: Postmodernism in Higher Education | Sarah Kuszynski
Although deconstructing hierarchies and challenging norms can sometimes be beneficial, as it enables inequalities to be examined, much of postmodernism’s theoretical framework is fundamentally harmful to society and to educational growth. Postmodernism in higher education has been rapidly elevated from the backwaters of philosophy to near hegemonic status in the social sciences and humanities. It has also reared its ugly head in some engineering and mathematics departments. But what exactly is postmodernism and why is it so damaging to higher education?
Postmodernism has its origins in the Frankfurt School and theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. It has been further developed by the likes of Judith Butler and Kimberlé Crenshaw. These thinkers argue that reality is a socio-cultural construction comprised of power hierarchies produced through discourse. Crucially, postmodernism sanctifies subjective experiences and attempts (unsuccessfully) to reject all categories – even those with sound biological foundations, such as different medical syndromes. Postmodernism should be of great concern to all those who uphold values such as viewpoint diversity, legal equality and evidenced-based debate, for as Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay express it, “Postmodernism… rejects objective truth as a fantasy dreamed up by naïve and/or arrogantly bigoted Enlightenment thinkers”. This corrupts the notion of genuine critical thinking, which should be the bedrock of university teaching, instead centring ‘critical’ theories which continually seek out hidden biases through the compulsive problematisation of language. Postmodernism is not only of limited use but has led to the rise of an authoritarian and anti-scientific ideology with a quasi-religious following in higher education.
The epistemological stance taken by postmodernists entails the deconstruction of metanarratives through the lens of power. This owes much to Foucauldian thought. As Kathleen LeBesco explains “Foucault has shown us that placing bodies under the microscope of science, in the name of liberal projects of self-improvement… increases their oppression”. Consequently, rational thought is construed as imposing racist, imperialist and patriarchal western values on the world. This makes the deconstruction of objective facts, as if they are purely social constructs, inevitable.
Similarly, Foucault’s concept of ‘Biopower’ heightens postmodernism’s suspicion of medical science. Biopower surmises that biological categories are merely vessels for the forces of oppression to flow through rather than potential starting points for knowledge production. Science is thus framed as the unjust arbiter of what is considered ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ in society and is accused of reducing life to medical discourses. This not only risks diminishing science but, as demonstrated by disability theorists, there is a collective who favour self-diagnosis over that of trained diagnosticians. Self-diagnosis may be empowering for some, but equally it may result in the devaluation of those who wish to use scientific knowledge to engage with their condition.
Postmodernism also negatively impacts the quality of discussion on university campuses. During a Pinsker Centre webinar from Douglas Murray, he asked: “What do you do in an era where the great sins of which you can be accused, cannot be disproven?”. His query hits upon the idea that postmodernism cannot be subjected to reasoned scepticism. He goes on to observe that: “the left ends up being almost entirely autobiographical… it can be tricky to argue with people on the basis of memoir”. Placing this in the classroom – literally – means statements that students make in seminars or lectures are no longer assessed for their logical coherence, but are analysed on the basis of each student’s position in society and how it could perpetuate social inequalities. Truth becomes a question of who not what, which enshrines a ‘with us or against us’ mentality into academic conversations. This makes compromise near impossible and helps to explain the postmodern-left’s view that “[b]eing on the right makes your views irrelevant, your character discredited and your presence… a mistake”. Bigotry is thus wrongly equated to conservatism. This gives power and popularity to academics who intentionally shutdown student debate where conservative and even centrist, perspectives are expressed. The disciple of postmodernism Barbara Applebaum states that expressing “disagreement and spending time trying to challenge… beliefs… comes at a cost to marginalized students whose experiences are… dismissed”. Although no one wishes an individual’s views to be neglected, a stance such as Applebaum’s being applied unrelentingly and without consideration for nuance produces a worrying form of doublespeak where engagement becomes agreement and debate becomes denial. The intended meaning of speech is therefore sacrificed on the altar of (mis)interpretation.
As more academics follow in Applebaum’s footsteps, postmodernism has become institutionalised. This is having – and will continue to have – a chilling effect on free speech on campuses, as self-censorship becomes the norm. A poll by ADF International (UK) highlights that 44 per cent of student’s self-censor in front of lecturers for fear that they would be ‘treated differently’ if they expressed their real opinions. We have arrived at this point because postmodernism possesses many theodicic qualities – sacred texts, figures (philosophers and theorists such as Derrida and Butler) and confessionals. Therefore, those who question this orthodoxy (even in academic spaces) may be viewed as somewhat heretical and their status, in extreme cases, becomes comparable to those committing a sin. Such phenomena led Sir Roger Scruton in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands to characterise the postmodern world as one where “there is no such thing as adverse judgement” and to highlight that this is what “makes the postmodern curriculum so censorious” as “[w]hen everything is permitted it is vital to forbid the forbidder”. Hence, disagreement exposes oneself to ‘cancellation’, a form of social excommunication, and risks one being accused of worshipping the ‘false idols’ of evidence and reason.
Furthermore, adherence to postmodernism in a quasi-religious fashion has the effect of enforcing a new, non-negotiable hierarchy which gives privilege to different, often marginalised groups, whilst chastising others. Charles Mills typifies this view in The Routledge Handbook of Epistemic Injustice, when he says: “[w]hites are imprisoned… in a cognitive state which both protects them from dealing with the realities of social oppression and… disables them epistemically”. The only ‘righteous’ course of action for someone who is not viewed as systemically oppressed is thus to continually apologise for one’s circumstances and one’s status, and to deferentially agree with all that those categorised as marginalised have to say. This is not only patronising but is highly dismissive of people’s ability to empathise with others and is wholly devoid of the hope that social progress can occur without identity-based submission.
Despite all this, postmodernism does make valid observations; power structures and discourse do contribute, somewhat, to knowledge production and inequalities. Yet, its exaltation of stories of oppression and tendency to silence its critics undermine the kernel of validity contained within it. If left unchecked, postmodernism is far more damaging than beneficial, and since universities are often responsible for moulding the worldviews of their students, we should be particularly worried that they have become hotbeds for postmodernist attitudes.
To summarise, postmodernism is a dangerous social philosophy. It may have developed in the ‘sandbox’ of higher education and yielded some theories of academic worth, but it could now cause irrevocable harm to individuals, organisations and societal cohesion. There is more need than ever to expose postmodernism for what is – an illiberal set of ideas often cloaked in the language of tolerance, that take a highly uncharitable view of the world, generate profound distrust in science, and imbibe subjective viewpoints with far too much power.
Sarah Kuszynski is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.