Postmodernism & Education Research Paper Starter

Postmodernism & Education

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This article provides an introduction to postmodernism. What began in the 1930s as an architectural movement has now influenced nearly every academic discipline in the humanities, from literary analysis to anthropology to education. Despite its far-reaching impact, postmodernism is difficult to define, largely because postmodernists themselves reject the idea that any phenomenon can be understood in just one way. Nonetheless, the following will attempt to introduce some of the core ideas of postmodernism, first by outlining its development in response to modernism, and then by looking at the work of several key postmodernist philosophers, including Lacan, Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida. The impact of postmodernism on education, in terms of student-teacher relationships, research, and curriculum development is discussed. Finally, because postmodernism is one of the most widely contested recent developments in academia, some of its criticism is also presented.

Keywords Deconstruction; Derrida, Jacques; Discourse; Enlightenment; Foucault, Michel; Grand Narratives; Lacan, Jacques; Lyotard, Jean-Francois; Modernism; Performativity; Power; Relativism; Subjectivity


According to Clark (2006), "the reach of postmodernism on human thought has been extremely pervasive" (p. 392). What began in the early 1930s as an architectural movement has now touched nearly every academic discipline in the humanities, from literary analysis to anthropology to educational theory. In addition to its far-reaching impact, however, there are two other characteristics of the postmodern movement that deserve equal attention: its contentiousness and its inability to be clearly defined. Indeed, postmodernism has spawned disagreements within universities and academic departments that have no rivals in modern times. As Bloland (2005) explains, these disagreements often deteriorate into "bitter word warfare" (p. 122). It may seem surprising that a movement so pervasive and so contentious is also one that has yet to be clearly defined, as any attempt to provide a unitary definition would be antithetical to postmodernism itself.

A promising place to begin might be with a brief discussion of what postmodernism is certainly not. Usher & Edwards (1994) write, "In some ways it is easier to discern what it is against than what it is for" (p. 2). And what it is against, as its name suggests, is modernism. Modernity defines a period of time beginning with the Enlightenment in the late eighteenth century; modernism refers, in part, to the central organizing principles of the Enlightenment itself. These principles are typically delineated as: the centrality of reason, the belief in progress, access to truth, individual agency, and faith in the scientific method (Bloland, 2005). And education as we know it, Usher and Edwards (1994) argue, is largely founded on these very same beliefs. "Historically, education can be seen as the vehicle by which...the Enlightenment ideals of critical reason, individual freedom, progress and benevolent change, are substantiated and realized" (p. 2). If postmodernism is against modernity, and education itself is modeled upon modern principles, one might wonder how postmodernism and education can be reconciled? What does education look like in a postmodern world?

Usher & Edwards further explain that, "certainly, [Postmodernism] is not a term that designates a systematic theory or comprehensive philosophy. Neither does it refer to a 'system' of ideas or concepts in the conventional sense, nor is it the name denoting a unified social or cultural movement" (Usher & Edwards, 1994, p. 7). Postmodernism resists universal, all-encompassing, fixed understandings of phenomena and thus attempting to provide a singular or totalizing understanding of postmodernism is necessarily a contradiction. Indeed, the International Encyclopedia of Education (1994) says of postmodernism, "it may be better to see [it] as a complex intellectual map of late twentieth century thought and practice rather than any clear-cut philosophic, political, and/or aesthetic movement" (as cited in Barrow & Woods, 2006, p. 109). But if postmodernism resists definition, it also said to resist seriousness (Usher & Edwards, 1994).

Many individuals have contributed to postmodern thought, but particular names appear in the literature more than others. The central tenets of this 'complex intellectual map' may be reviewed by looking at the contributions of key individuals - Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan - and begin with Lyotard, because in describing postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives" (as cited in Blake, Smeyers, Smith, & Standish, 1998, p. 102), he may shed the most light on the movement's resistance to definition.

The Demise of Grand Narratives

Lyotard was interested in language and made a distinction between 'the language games' of scientific knowledge and narrative knowledge; the former declaring itself the only legitimate language, the latter celebrating diversity, or rather "a form of tolerance toward other discourses" (Usher & Edwards, 1994, p. 158). Ironically, Lyotard argued, scientific knowledge relies on narrative knowledge to legitimate itself, even though it claims such narrative knowledge doesn't exist. The narrative knowledge science relies on to legitimate itself, what Lyotard calls grand or meta narratives, are ultimately two myths - that science leads to progress or the betterment of humanity, and that science contributes to uncovering the 'truth.' These grand narratives, however, have lost their ability to confer legitimacy as society has become skeptical, or rather, incredulous. What happens when grand narratives are abandoned? According to Lyotard, in the absence of universals and totalizing theories, small narratives take their place and small narratives - given the mere fact that they are innumerable, yet each legitimate in its own right - create room for multiplicity of meaning (Blake, et al., 1998; Usher & Edwards, 1994).

Lyotard, in addition to coining the term "incredulity toward grand narratives,' is also credited with introducing the notion of performativity. Knowledge, rather than being judged according to its 'truth', he argued, is judged according to its efficiency or inefficiency, or performativity. As Usher (2006) explains, "Performativity is a critical feature of incredulity where the questions asked of knowledge become not just - is it true? - or does it contribute to human progress? - but what use is it? - and how will it enhance the performance of people and organizations?" (p. 281).


If Lyotard is forever linked with the notion of 'incredulity' then Derrida is equally wedded, in the minds of many scholars, with the idea of deconstructing text. The first thing to understand is that 'text' refers to everything - or as Derrida himself once said, "there is nothing outside of text" (as cited in Hagen, 2005, p. 19) - rather than simply words on a page, as is its traditional meaning. Therefore, text might refer to a theory of learning, rules of a game, a conversation, a film or a performance. Deconstruction, in Derrida's sense, is also more than its literal meaning, or the notion of 'taking apart.' As Parker (1997) argues, deconstruction is "a strategy," and one aimed specifically at unearthing contradiction and paradox. Deconstruction aims to turn the logic of a text upon itself, "showing that there is an inherent contradiction concealed at the rational heart of... any text," and that rationality itself is simply an attempt to convince an audience of the truth of a text. Many argue that deconstruction is, as its name implies, destructive - breaking down text and revealing its 'folly' but leaving nothing in its place (Garrison, 2003). Others argue that deconstruction is also affirmative and that Derrida is clear about what he wants to affirm. For Derrida, deconstruction brings into focus what has been excluded from the text, or otherness. "Deconstruction urges recognition and respect for what is different, left out, or queer. It is [the] positive response to the 'other,' to those persons and situations different from the 'norm'" (Garrison, 2003, p. 351).

Multiple Subjectivities

If postmodernism is about bringing multiplicity of meaning into the spotlight, and rejecting universals, then it is also about destabilizing the notion of 'self' and the recognition of multiple subjectivities. Lacan, who spent much of his academic career critiquing Freud's psychoanalysis, helped define the postmodern subject. Like Freud, Lacan agreed that subjectivity is largely determined by the unconscious and human desire. Unlike Freud, however, Lacan rejects the notion that desire can be explained by biology, or reduced to the idea of instincts or drives. Rather, desire is human, relational, constituted through language and unconscious. Because subjectivity is derived from desire, and desire is always social, Lacan's subject can no longer be viewed as a stable, centered, unitary whole. Rather, as Usher and Edwards (1994) explain, "If the self is always constructed through the way others see it, then it cannot be autonomous and coherent...any sense of selfhood is therefore continually shifting" (p. 62). Kilgore (2004) emphasizes the decentered subject in relation to the educational setting when she describes the postmodern learner as "always becoming, always in process, always situated in a context that also is always becoming" (p. 47).


Discussing key ideas of postmodernism in relation to a single scholar is somewhat arbitrary and an obvious oversimplification. Foucault, for example, talked about multiple...

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