Bloland, Harland G.
Postmodernism and higher education.
Journal of Higher Education. 66(5):521-559. 1995 Sep.
The concepts of four poststructuralist/postmodern authors--Jacques
Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard--are
examined in terms of their implications for higher education and the
academy's values of merit, community, and autonomy.
Postmodern perspectives, terms, and assumptions have penetrated the core
of American culture over the past thirty years. Postmodernism's primary
significance is its power to account for and reflect vast changes in our
society, cultures, polity, and economy as we move from a production to a
consumption society, shift from national to local and international
politics, commingle high and low culture, and generate new social
movements. Postmodernism has captured our interest because it involves a
stunning critique of modernism, the foundation upon which our thinking and
our institutions have rested. Today, modernist values and institutions are
increasingly viewed as inadequate, pernicious, and costly. Postmodernists
attack the validity and legitimacy of the most basic assumptions of
modernism. Because higher education is quintessentially a modern
institution, attacks on modernism are attacks on the higher education
system as it is now constituted. The modern/postmodern debate began in the
United States in the 1960s in the humanities, gained momentum in the 1970s
in the arts and social theory, and by the early 1980s became, as Andreas
Huyssen noted, "one of the most contested terrains in the intellectual
life of Western society" [59, p. 357]. Today, having swept through the
humanities and social sciences, the modern/postmodern debate has ebbed,
and in literary studies at least, scholars refer to the current period as
"post-theory" [101, p. A9].
In anthropology and other social sciences, postmodernism has had
transformational effects, but currently many scholars who have been
influenced by it distance themselves from the term, asserting that it
identifies others, but not them [70, p. 563]. In literary studies,
scholars continue to employ postmodern conceptualization extensively,
while they assume that those who use the words also know the theory. No
such assumption can be made in higher education studies concerning
familiarity with modern/postmodern theory. Despite its significance in the
past three decades the modern/postmodern debate has had relatively little
direct impact on the study of higher education. The term "postmodern"
appears with increasing frequency in the titles of presentations on
postsecondary education in American Educational Research Association
presentations, but few of the discussions address directly the background
of the modern/postmodern divide that provides the vocabulary for the
The paucity of literature in higher education on postmodernism is
surprising, because the postmodern debate has been in the foreground for
many education scholars who write about the public schools, particularly
in the fields of curriculum studies, school administration, and
educational theory [3, 37, 68]. Still, we rarely find postmodernism
studies in the ASHE Reader series, in the ASHE/ERIC monographs, the
Journal of Higher Education, the Review of Higher Education, or Change
magazine. Postmodernism does find a place in The Chronicle of Higher
Education articles, but they are not authored by higher education
professors. The meagerness of higher educationists' general engagement
with the postmodern is unfortunate, for despite the fact that the high
tide of debate seems to be waning, the postmodern/modern discussion
continues to have an unsettling but significant impact on the way in which
we now think about society, politics, economics, and education. Thus, the
terms and concepts of this debate are still with us, and the postmodern
critique affects every field of inquiry that deals with human society.
Perhaps nowhere are the issues of the postmodern/modern debate more
sharply drawn, more clearly illuminated, and more difficult to acknowledge
than in higher education in the United States. For higher education is so
deeply immersed in modernist sensibilities and so dependent upon modernist
foundations that erosion of our faith in the modernist project calls into
question higher education's legitimacy, its purpose, its activities, its
very raison detre. In attacking modernism, postmodernism presents a
hostile interpretation of much of what higher education believes it is
doing and what it stands for.
This study examines postmodernism and higher education by presenting four
seminal postmodernist authors' ideas that provide a framework for
discussions for much of the literature on postmodernism: Jacques Derrida,
Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard. Derrida and
Foucault are viewed as representative of poststructuralist thought from
which postmodernism as a perspective is derived, and Lyotard and
Baudrillard are reflective of the view of postmodernism as a historical
period. The postmodern concepts of these authors are discussed in terms of
their implications for merit, community, and autonomy, three crucial
characteristics of modernist higher education as it is situated in
American society. Twelve reactions to the postmodern are introduced, each
of which purports to interpret the consequences and illuminate the uses of
postmodern thought. A summary of postmodernism's legacy for higher
education concludes the discussion.
Postmodernism as a Perspective
The terms "modern" and "postmodern" occupy no fixed positions; their
meanings are imprecise and highly contested. Despite this ambiguity,
however, these concepts are critical reference points for discussions that
try to make sense of what appear to be disparate cultural, economic,
political, and social changes taking place in architecture, art,
philosophy, literary criticism, the social sciences, in every day life, in
popular culture, in industry, business, technology, and education.
Modernism requires faith that there are universals that can be discovered
through reason, that science and the scientific method are superior means
for arriving at truth and reality, and that language describes and can be
used as a credible and reliable means of access to that reality. With its
privileging of reason, modernism has long been considered the basis for
the emancipation of men and women from the bonds of ignorance associated
with stagnant tradition, narrow religions, and meager educations.
Championing democracy, modernism promises freedom, equality, justice, the
good life, and prosperity. Equating merit with high culture, modernism
provides expectations of more rigorous standards for and greater enjoyment
of the arts and architecture. Through science and scientific method,
modernism promises health, the eradication of hunger, crime, and poverty.
Modernist science claims to be progressing toward true knowledge of the
universe and to be delivering ever higher standards of living with
effectiveness and efficiency. Modernism promises stability, peace, and a
graspable sense of the rational unfolding of history. Modernism equates
change with progress, which is defined as increasing control over nature
Perhaps the most important means for understanding and carrying out the
modernist project is education. Higher education is deeply embedded in the
ideals, institutions, and vocabulary of modernism. Higher education trusts
that merit should be rewarded through good jobs, promotions, higher
status, and prestige. Higher education defends the notion that knowledge
and expertise are important for problem solving in the society. Higher
education assumes that science, scientific methods, and the science
sensibility are better means for discovering and creating truth than
tradition. Higher education treats high culture as separate from and
better than popular culture. Higher education values differentiation,
recognizing that there are different discourse communities in the academy
and that there is a difference between the inside and outside of
institutions of higher education. While valuing diversity, colleges and
universities treasure community and institutional autonomy.
Higher education assumes that middle-class values are good for society and
for individuals, that parents and students want middle-class status, and
that the road to upward mobility and the way to prevent downward mobility
or skidding is through education. Higher education assumes that progress
is possible and good, and that the way to move in that direction is
through education. Higher education assumes that community is good, that
some fundamental set of values, some basic accepted rules of conduct, and
some sense of limits are good.
However, over time, modernism has displayed another, quite negative face.
Although modernism has been a spectacularly successful and powerful
orientation, it has also organized and constructed its own serious
failures. For Max Weber (a doubting, skeptical modernist), reason in the
form of instrumental rationality has generated the overorganized modern
economic order which in turn has imprisoned people in an "iron cage" of
work incentives As Weber writes, "This order is now bound to the technical
and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the
lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism . . . with
irresistible force" [97, p. 181]. The highly rationalized world Weber
described as our modern fate is characterized as having lost the sense of
enchantment that tradition provides for societies [41, p. 155]. The
Frankfort school of critical social theory, with such luminaries as
Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer , and Herbert Marcuse  offered
pessimistic interpretations of modernism, seeing in it the rise of
faceless, characterless mass societies. Even Jurgen Habermas, the current
generation's premier Frankfort school intellectual who believes in
Enlightenment values and goals and whose project is to save modernism,
sees rationality as having strayed from its proper direction, resulting in
highly dysfunctional institutions in the world society [51, 52]. Many of
the Frankfort school's ideas have been incorporated into the postmodern
diatribe against modernism. Instrumental rationality in its current
postmodern reading is seen as having forged the consumer society, in which
commodification, the definition of persons and activities solely in terms
of their market value, has become dominant. Science is now associated as
much with death through annihilation, environmental problems, and
uncontrollable technology as it is with progress and benign innovation.
Richard Bernstein reminds us that the terms, "reason" and "rationality"
now "evoke images of domination, oppression, repression, patriarchy,
sterility, violence, totality, totalitarianism, and even terror" [12, p.
32]. Thus, fascism, nazism, and communism, as well as democracy, are
associated with modernism. As Stephen White writes, "The costs of Western
modernization or rationalization are being progressively reestimated
upward" [99, p. 5]. In this negative image of modernism, postmodernists
deeply implicate higher education.
Poststmodernism and Poststructuralism: Derrida and Foucault
Postmodernism may be seen as a perspective [67, p. 14), a means for
understanding the conditions we now live in. It may also be viewed as a
new epoch, or a new historical era. In either case, the major concepts and
ideas of postmodernism provide a devastating attack on modernism. This
assault renders as questionable the major assumptions and assertions of
our modern culture. That is, it makes problematic what is taken for
granted in a wide range of topics. The postmodern problematic zeroes in on
hierarchies of any kind -- and hierarchies are inherent in modern life --
with the view that "there are no natural hierarchies, only those we
construct" [57, p. 13].
Postmodernism interrogates the modern system, which is built on
continuing, persistent efforts to totalize or unify, pointing out that
totalization hides contradictions, ambiguities, and oppositions and is a
means for generating power and control. Institutions of modernity come
under critical postmodern scrutiny, and among the primary institutions
open to questioning are the college and university. To see postmodernism
as a way of understanding the limits of modernism is to view our world in
the midst of profound change and to concentrate on the disillusionment we
are experiencing with some of our deepest assumptions and cherished hopes
relating to our most important institutions. We seek rational solutions in
a world that increasingly distrusts reason as a legitimate approach to
problem solving. We try to move forward in our lives and through our
institutions in a milieu of declining faith in the possibility of
progress. We act on dimly apprehended foundational assumptions, for
example, faith in science and the scientific method, even as we grow
increasingly suspicious of all grand narratives. Postmodernism as a
perspective (often printed "postmodern" rather than "post-modern," defined
as an era) borrows extensively from the definitions and concepts of
poststructuralism. Thus it focuses upon the indeterminacy of language, the
primacy of discourse, the decentering and fragmentation of the concept of
self, the significance of the "other," a recognition of the tight,
unbreakable power/knowledge nexus, the attenuation of a belief in
metanarratives, and the decline of dependence upon rationalism.
Poststructuralist thought developed in France in the 1970s as a reaction
to the French structuralist attempts to build a rigorous, objective,
scientific analysis of social life through the discovery of the
underlying, deep structural linguistic and social rules that organize
language and social systems [13, pp. 18, 20]. Poststructuralist concepts
have been appropriated, broadened, and extended by the international
movement of postmodernism, which has applied the poststructural ideas to a
much larger number of topics in its wide-ranging attacks on modernism.
What do these poststructural/postmodern concepts mean and what is their
significance for society and for higher education? Much of this
orientation is related to poststructuralist views of language and of how
language is used. Two poststructuralists who have transformed our ideas
about language are Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault.
Derrida attacks basic modernist assumptions about languages and reality.
The usual assumption is that there are thoughts and realities prior to
language and that language is the vehicle for communicating ideas and of
describing reality. He asserts, instead, that language comes before
knowledge and that the meaning of words is constantly changing. Language
becomes indeterminate and difficult to control. For Derrida, the meanings
of words are permanently in flux. Word meanings continually escape their
boundaries as these meanings are negotiated and renegotiated in social
settings. The Derridian strategy is to search out and illuminate the
internal contradictions in language and in doing so show how final meaning
is forever withheld or postponed in the concepts we use. The means for
carrying out this project is deconstruction .
Deconstruction involves a close reading of a text,(2) examining and
bringing to the surface concealed hierarchies and hidden oppositions,
inconsistencies, and contradictions in the language . The method of
deconstruction includes "demystifying a text, tearing it apart to reveal
its internal, arbitrary hierarchies and its presuppositions" [86, p. 120].
The central arguments of a text are ignored as deconstruction looks to the
margins and to that which has been omitted, erased, or withheld. The
Derrida position is that "the binary oppositions governing Western
philosophy and culture (subject/object, appearance/reality,
speech/writing, and so on) work to construct a far-from-innocent hierarchy
of values which attempts not only to guarantee truth, but also serves to
exclude and devalue allegedly inferior terms or potions. This binary
metaphysics thus works to positively position reality over appearance,
speech over writing, men over women, or reason over nature, thus
positioning negatively the supposedly inferior term" [13, p. 21].
The purpose of deconstruction is not simply to unmask or illuminate
hierarchies and demonstrate their arbitrariness, to delegitimate them, but
to do so without replacing them with other hierarchies and so create
tensions without resolving them. Thus, as Rosenau points out,
"deconstruction attempts to undo, reverse, displace, and resituate the
hierarchies in polar opposites. . . . But the goal is to do more than
overturn oppositions, for this would permit new hierarchies to be
reappropriated" [86, p. 120].
Deconstruction and higher education. Derrida's powerful attack upon
hierarchies of the modernist world can be used with great effect in
challenging higher education's hierarchies and illuminating its
exclusions. Higher education is composed of hierarchies. The disciplines
are arranged within institutions of higher education in a loose hierarchy
of discourses(3) that give preference to the physical sciences over the
social sciences and humanities and to the arts and sciences over education
and other marginal professions.
Research is above teaching, doctoral studies over masters, and bachelors
over associate degree studies. Private education is over public education,
professors over students, administrators over professors, tenured over
nontenured professors. The list is long. To deconstruct these discourses
is to indicate first that they are social constructions and did not emerge
from some inherent, universalistic rationale or logic. It is to point out
the hidden contradictions, inconsistencies, and ambiguities within
academia, to show just how much hierarchy is based on what look like
arbitrary exclusions, and to illuminate how much they serve to put other
ideas and people on the margin or exclude them entirely. Concepts that
lend credence to faith in reason, science, progress, and the Enlightenment
are privileged in the modernist world, and especially in the university
and college. Once their legitimacy is called into question, all sorts of
hierarchies become suspect in the university -- science over the
humanities, high culture over popular culture, literary canons over wider
definitions of literature, classical over popular music. This erosion of
faith in the legitimacy of the assumptions embedded in the hierarchical
academic order provides a series of cracks in the dominant culture of the
university, encouraging historically marginal groups, such as persons of
color, gay and lesbian groups, and women, to claim space in these
institutions, even as this erosion delegitimates the dominant modernist
culture for its assumptions of superiority.
The deligitimation goes well beyond simply allowing space for those
individuals traditionally thought to be marginal in the universities.
Delegitimation encompasses harsh questioning of universities and colleges
about their reward structures, the purposes and practices inwhich they are
engaged, and the claims of those now in positions of power and
responsibility to their right of office. If the hierarchies of academia
are falsely assembled, are arbitrary, and illegitimate, the question
becomes why are these particular professors and administrators, rather
than others, now sitting in their superior positions benefiting from the
modernist academic hierarchies?
Colleges and universities are particularly susceptible to the postmodern
critique that denigrates hierarchy because institutions of higher
education see themselves as institutions with the responsibility to create
and distribute knowledge, civic values, and meaning to new generations.
They act as sorting mechanisms and as institutions that maintain the
middle class status of students (class being another modernist
hierarchical concept), while also creating the means for upward mobility
of students. Institutions of higher education are the generators of large
numbers of professionals and of the professional sensibility. Expertise,
the primary attribute of professionals, is suspect, for it places clients
and lay people in an inferior position. These concepts, when directed
toward higher education, provide a powerful delegitimating lever that
interrogates the purposes, structure, and activities of higher education
as it now operates in its modernist context.
Deconstruction provides reasons and arguments supporting the accusations
that excluded groups make against institutions of higher education. Some
authors are particularly good at providing the ideas and language that
speak to marginality. No one is clearer in pointing out the exclusionary
character of modern language and institutions than Derrida. A Richard
Bernstein says of Derrida, "Few contemporary writers equal him in his
sensitivity and alertness to the multifarious ways in which the 'history
of the West' -- even in its institutionalization of communicative
practices -- has always tended to silence differences, to exclude
outsiders and exiles, those who live on the margins. . . . This is one of
the many good reasons why Derrida 'speaks' to those who have felt the pain
and suffering of being excluded by the prevailing hierarchies embedded in
the text called 'the history of the West' whether they be women, Blacks,
or others bludgeoned by exclusionary tactics" [12, pp. 51, 52].
However, this deprivileging is dangerous and can easily backfire for
marginal groups. If there are no legitimate bases for rewarding the
privileged in our society, there are also no foundational standards for
rewarding marginal groups. There are no grounded assumptions or moral
grounds from which marginal groups can claim privilege. From this
postmodern perspective there is no compelling reason for controlling
groups to give ground to others.
Merit and community. Higher education is a modern institution that has the
concept "merit" deeply embedded in its value structure. Derrida's
hostility toward hierarchies is an attack on merit, for merit creates
standards that separate and hierarchicalize those who meet them from those
who do not. Deconstruction can be used to demonstrate that merit or
standards are not only capricious and without foundation, but are
arbitrarily exclusive in their consequences. They instantly create
marginality. Because higher education places high value on scholarly merit
-- attempting to find a way to keep it, but make it fair -- it is
constantly structurally creating and justifying exclusions. Derrida would
not eliminate merit, although in his thought there are no foundational
reasons for claiming that one standard for merit is better than another;
rather, he would keep a continuous tension between what is viewed as merit
and what is not, thus making the merit boundaries more open and presumably
Deconstruction celebrates differences, but refers not to the difference of
heterogeneity, which is intrinsic to modernism, but to the difference of
disruption, tension, and the withholding of closure. The modernist idea of
community also celebrates difference, but emphasizes that which unites
people, smooths over disruption, and places limits on the depth and
intensity of differences. The creation of community generally is a process
of setting boundaries, and this means that communities always have those
excluded and those created as marginals. An extreme anticommunity
perspective is developed by Iris Marion Young, who believes that a
politics of difference should be organized which would have as its chief
characteristics "inexhaustible heterogeneity' and "openness to
unassimilated otherness," a system that would completely eliminate
community with its exclusions of others [102, p. 301].
Higher education promotes the idea of community and is interested in
community on several levels. Disciplines are conceived of as communities
of scholars, and institutions are viewed as communities of scholars,
students, and administrators. The promotion of community is a constant in
higher education, and one of its assumptions is that it fosters a concept
of citizenship that is an idea of community. Higher education teaches and
promotes identification with the larger differentiated community.
Both Derrida and Foucault give discourse theory a central place in their
writings. Foucault deals initially with what he terms an archaeological
approach to discourse. Foucault asks, "What rules permit certain
statements to be made; what rules order these statements; what rules
permit us to identify some statements as true and some false; what rules
allow the construction of a map, model, or classificatory system [78, p.
Archaeology. Archaeology seeks out the rules that designate what will be
true or false in a discourse and create the possibility of organizing a
discipline, a field of knowledge such as physics or psychology. When
academic disciplines, especially the human sciences, are looked at in this
archaeological way, they have histories that do not resemble mainstream,
modernist notions of how history explains things. Instead of smooth
continuities and totalizing explanations, one gets discontinuities and
disruptions. As Gibson Burrell points out, Foucault's "aim is to attack
great systems, grand theories and vital truths, and to give free play to
difference, to local and specific knowledge, and to rupture, contingency,
and discontinuity. In Foucault, there is no unity of history, no unity of
the subject, no sense of progress, no acceptance of the History of
Ideas"[15, pp. 223, 229].
Genealogy. Foucault later expanded his archaeological approach to
concentrate on the power/knowledge relationships that exist in
institutions. For Foucault, knowledge and power are inextricably bound
together. That is, there is no knowledge without a power question arising,
and no power without knowledge. This power/knowledge connection has a
confounding effect on our understanding of knowledge in the academy. If
Foucault is correct about the power/knowledge relationship, there can
never be anything approaching neutral, objective knowledge. That is,
whatever knowledge comes from research in the disciplines is always
implicated in power considerations. This is very different from the
modernist assumption in higher education that each discipline can be a
separate and independent intellectual enterprise that exists above and
outside of politics. Rather, Foucault and the postmodernists view
disciplines as completely involved with politics, economics, culture, and
other external influences. In Foucault's terms, this means there is little
interest in the substance of a discipline or in whether it has legitimate
rules for determining meritorious from mediocre work. The interest is only
in what power relations are permitted and assumed. The power/knowledge
relationship is embedded in discourses, and discourses are the locations
where groups and individuals battle for hegemony and over the production
of meaning. Disciplines become sites for power contests for control of
subject matter through language. As Val Rust writes, "Discourse analysis
and cultural studies are really fundamentally studies of power. They
should reveal who wields power, in whose interest it is wielded, and with
what effects" [89, p. 619].
Power and politics in Foucault's thought. Foucault views power not in
terms of a commodity that someone or some group uses or has over others,
but as a system or network. Power is pervasive, but it is not in the hands
of anyone or any institution, such as the state. Thus one does not ask,
Who has power? but, What are the consequences of applying power? Foucault
is interested in power in terms of its results, or power at the point
where it is wielded. This places his interest at the local level. The
Foucaultian analysis provides a species of politics at the margin,
ineluctably plural, and on the microlevel. "Foucault calls for a plurality
of autonomous struggles throughout the microlevels of society, in the
prisons, asylums, hospitals, and schools"[13, p. 56].
Negatively, the Foucaultian perspective is disinterested in what
politically could build a larger, better society. His micropolitical
perspective favors small communities at the margins of institutions, such
as those formed through identity politics. Modernist notions of politics
are usually couched in terms of what cross-cutting political activism
would add to the larger community. Thus, modernist politics uses such
categories as class, or class struggle, or the state and political party
action, or the unions and union activities, categories that are justified
on the basis of their commitment to an improved macrocommunity and to
As Todd Gitlin argues, in a discussion that employs traditional right/left
political orientations, "A troubling irony: the right, traditionally the
custodian of the privileges of the few, now speaks in the general language
of merit, reason, individual rights, and virtue that transcends politics,
whereas much of the left is so preoccupied with debunking generalizations
and affirming the differences among groups -- real as they often are --
that it has ceded the very language of universality that is its
birthright" [45, pp. 16, 18, 19].
This politics at the microlevel, or the politics of everyday life, is
significant for universities and colleges in terms of the idea of
community. Institutions of higher education recognize and encourage
differences among disciplines in methods, orientations, languages, and
scholarly commitments by individual professors. Colleges and universities
recognize that disciplinary discourses may be incommensurate. But even
incommensurate academic discourses are assumed to identify with a broad,
common set of values that include respect and reward for academic rigor,
intellectual creativity, academic freedom, peer review, and general
respect for the rules of scholarship. Incommensurate social and cultural
discourses are much more difficult to encompass within academia, for
institutions have trouble reconciling academic values as they are
interpreted within the institutions of higher education with the
incommensurate cultural values that are apparent between marginal groups
and mainstream academia. The usual method for trying to create community
in this situation is for colleges and universities to broaden their
interpretations of merit and justice in such a way as to include other
cultural values and thus preserve community through the traditional common
values. But this modernist strategy in colleges and universities is
For marginal groups, such modernist concepts as freedom, equality, and
justice provide the vocabulary for legitimating incommensurate cultural
discourses, but their meanings are so contested that they do not provide
the same sense of having common values that academia assumes it has, and
hence they do not provide the foundations for commitment to a larger
community. The larger community values of academia and the language in
which they are communicated are viewed in the Foucaultian argument as
elements of a hegemonic discourse that places minorities and others at the
margins of the institution and directly benefits those who created and
sustain the discourse of scholarship and community. The knowledge/power
nexus cuts in a different direction that also affects higher education. As
Sarup points out, for Foucault "knowledge ceases to be liberation and
becomes a mode of surveillance, regulation, discipline" [90, p.73]. This
view of knowledge as surveillance and discipline is in contradistinction
to the modernist view that knowledge is emancipating and liberating. And
it flies totally in the face of what colleges and universities are
traditionally about in a modernist world, for they are the master
institutions that preach freedom, liberation, and emancipation through
Postmodernism as a Historical Period
The concepts embedded in the notion of postmodernism as a perspective feed
into and provide a basis for looking at postmodernism as a new historical
era. Viewing postmodernism as a new historical phase is a means for
approaching a number of important questions that higher education is
involved in and must deal with. To see our postmodern condition through
the lens of a new era is to focus on the rapid and unfamiliar changes that
are taking place in the world. Looking at postmodernism as a new era
dovetails with the intense interest we have in societal change generated
by the rapid approach of a new century.
Postmodernism as a new era concentrates our attention on the impact of the
information age, consumer society, commodification, performativity,
multinational corporations, and similacra. Perhaps most disconcerting,
this new age is characterized by increasingly shattered cultural orders
and growing levels of disorganization in such significant institutions as
the state, society, and the economy.
Although Lyotard sees postmodernism as a condition or mood, not an epoch
[67, p. xiii], he can be viewed as a transitional figure because his
analysis takes on characteristics of a historical period. Lyotard picks up
the assault upon modernism, particularly in terms of a denigration of
rationalism, but concentrates on what he calls "metanarratives:' those
large universals that undergird our orientations toward the modern world,
the grand stories that provide the foundation for modern life.
Metanarratives are the foundational stories that legitimate discourses and
are criticized by postmodernists as locking society in a prison of
restrictive, totalizing systems of thought. In Stephen K. White's
description, metanarratives, "focusing on God, nature, progress, and
emancipation, are the anchors of modern life" [99, p. 5]. For Lyotard the
postmodern is defined "as incredulity toward metanarratives" [67, p.
xxiv]. The erosion of belief in metanarratives fits with the Derridian and
Foucaultian notions that language is not a path to truth or
means for describing reality, but simply a series of discourses socially
created in varying contexts, none of which have superior truth claims. The
disbelief in metanarratives again foregrounds a questioning of
hierarchies, including those of higher education.
The questioning of metanarratives is important for higher education,
because metanarratives are the foundation of modern university and college
life, especially as they undergird the scientific-technological aspects of
higher education, but also higher education's assumptions about progress,
knowledge, and socialization. Unlike Derrida and Foucault, who avoid the
term postmodern in describing their works, Lyotard writes specifically
about postmodernism, and his most influential book is called The
Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge .
Lyotard is interested in the changing circumstances of contemporary
science and technology in what he sees as a postmodern society. This
concern allows him to look at a number of questions about society, many of
which are related to university and college organization and
circumstances. He specifically discusses the changing university and the
future status of the professor. Lyotard predicts a dim future for higher
education as it is now constituted. His notion that performativity is the
only viable criterion in a postmodern world means that higher education's
sole reason for existence is its ability to contribute directly to the
performativity of the economic system. For Lyotard, the task of
universities and colleges is to "create skills, and no longer ideals. . .
. The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite
capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation, but to supply the
players capable of acceptably fulfilling their roles at the pragmatic
posts required by its institutions" [67, p. 48].
Teaching by professors is still necessary, but it is reduced to
instructing students in the use of the terminals [67, p.50]. If you do not
have legitimate grand narratives, you do not need professors to teach
them, but you can rely upon machines to teach students what they need to
know in a performatively driven society. Lyotard is quite explicit about
the death of the professorship. In the cases of both the production and
transmission of knowledge, he asserts that "the process of delegitimation
and the predominance of the performance criteria are sounding the knell of
the Professor" [67, p. 53].
Like Foucault, Lyotard is concerned with questions of power and language.
Lyotard has an interest in legitimacy and how it is created. He sees
discourses as language games in which players' speech is viewed as "moves"
directed at legitimating their language game and proving its superiority
over other language games. As Keane describes Lyotard's perspective,
"players within language games are always embedded in relations of power
-- power here understood as the capacity of actors wilfully to block or to
effect changes in speech activities of others within the already existing
framework of a language game which itself always prestructures the speech
activities of individuals and groups" [62, p. 86].
The discourse of science and higher education. Modernism is associated
with science and the scientific mode of thinking and doing, and science is
tightly connected to higher education. For one hundred fifty years, higher
education has promoted the concept that science and its forms, science
research, scientific methods, and the progress that results from science,
are the principal guarantors of the legitimacy of higher education. The
belief in science and its assumptions and methods has provided the basis
for creating and justifying the prestige hierarchies among and within
colleges and universities and the reward structures among academics. Much
of higher education's argument for autonomy is premised on scientific
values relating to creativity, objectivity, and neutrality. The social
sciences strive for legitimacy through claiming that what they do is
scientifically grounded. Even where science and the scientific method are
not dominant, as in the humanities, there are constant debates concerning
whether the humanist disciplines ought to be more scientific, and if they
decide that they are not, they are still consumed by notions of discovery,
of objectivity, and of cumulative knowledge, notions that are derived from
perceptions of how science proceeds in its work. Higher education as it is
currently organized, constituted, and structured is committed to a search
for truth, is dependent for its legitimacy on a belief in the scientific
method and science as a way of obtaining this goal. Such a search has the
assumption that as the search becomes more sophisticated and knowledge
information accumulates, progress will result. Problems will be solved.
Life will become better. Science has operated as an independent sphere
with its own rules,much of its own structure, and though not unaffected by
the market, government, and the institutions in which it has been housed,
it has, nevertheless, been viewed as clearly differentiated from them. It
has had a superior position in the academy, has lived by its own standards
of excellence and good work, and has been able to impose its perspectives
on large areas within the academy.
In the postmodern world this position is jeopardized. Lyotard, who writes
extensively on science and technology in The Postmodern Condition,
denigrates this view of science on two grounds. First, science is just one
more metanarrative and has no more legitimacy than any other
metanarratives. Second, science in the postmodern world becomes judged by
efficiency and effectiveness and turns into technology. Postmodernism thus
makes science and the scientific method problematic, less a basis for
legitimacy or for determining good work. Science is viewed, not as a
value-free, disassociated form of knowledge, above and outside of social
and political values, but as a discourse like any other discourse, a
political terrain where power struggles take place for the control of
meaning. If science is a discourse equal to any other discourse, then
there is no meritocratic basis for privileging science over creationism,
astrology, or any number of noxious theories about race and gender. It
means there is no rational argument for keeping any discourse from finding
a place in the curricula of colleges and universities. What is left is a
series of power positions and contested viewpoints vying for a place in
academe with no real set of standards by which to judge their relative
merits and no rules to follow that allow anyone to say yes or no to
questions of inclusion and exclusion in the curriculum. This is the
extreme consequence of relativism that is involved in extreme readings of
the postmodern critique.
Performativity. In the postmodern world described by Lyotard,
performativity is viewed as the: most powerful criterion for judging
worth, taking the place of agreed upon, rational, modernist criteria for
merit. Crook, Pakulski, and Waters describe performativity as "the
capacity to deliver outputs at the lowest cost, replaces truth as the
yardstick of knowledge" [24, p. 31]. That is, efficiency and effectiveness
become the exclusive criteria for judging knowledge and its worth in the
college and university. Knowledge becomes "technically useful knowledge.
The criterion of technically useful knowledge is its efficiency and its
translatability into information (computer) knowledge. Therefore, the
questions, "'Is it true?', 'Is it just?, 'Is it morally important?' become
reduced to 'Is it efficient?', 'Is it marketable?', 'Is it sellable?', 'Is
it translatable into information quantities?" [62, p. 108].
Baudrillard also identifies himself as a postmodern thinker. His
significance lies in what he has to say about the consumerism, fashion,
and the media/information society. His ideas about simulation, implosion
of boundaries, hyperreality, and simulacra destabilize our sense of the
boundaries within institutions of higher education and between them and
the external world 
His political stance is similar to that of Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard.
That is, he is interested in micropolitics, politics at the margin, with
emphasis upon differences. In Baudrillard's case, it is a micropolitics
that emphasizes lifestyle and communication changes that would free
individuals from a repressive modernist society. For Baudrillard, the
postmodern society is a world in which the images or simulations, which
are an intrinsic aspect of computerization, media, and information
processing generally, replace modern production as the basis for
organizing our lives [13, p. 118].
Perhaps the most significant of his concepts is that of implosion. This
involves a process that leads to boundary collapses in a wide variety of
circumstances. Implosion simply means that the boundary between
simulation and reality is erased, that is, implodes, and the basis for
determining the teal is gone. A telling example of postmodern implosion is
the collapse of the boundary between the political and the image, in which
the image of the politician in our society replaces the reality of the
political. One of his most startling concepts is "hyperreality,"
postmodernist state in which models become the basis far determining the
real, thereby replacing the real. According to Linda Hutcheon, Baudrillard
"has argued that mass media has neutralized reality for us and it has done
so in stages: first reflecting, then masking reality, and then masking the
absence of reality, and finally, bearing no relation to reality at all.
This is a simulacrum, the final destruction of meaning" [57, p. 223].
Higher education implosions in the postmodern era. If we accept
Baudrillard's concept of implosion, we see in education that the
collapsing of boundaries may be drastically changing the organization,
purposes, and activities of higher education. As the metanarratives of
progress, rationality, and science are undermined and deprivileged, the
boundaries and hierarchies they sustain are weakened and move toward
collapse. Thus, academic disciplines based on these metanarratives find
their borders dissolving and the bases for their hierarchical structures
attenuated. Also threatened are those boundaries that define the
difference between the inside and outside of organizations, institutions,
groups, and individuals. In the postmodern era, there is danger of the
collapse of the distinction between knowledge inside the academy and
outside of it, with the result that certain kinds of knowledge that used
to be the monopoly of the academy are now shared with institutions outside
of the academy. As Geyer writes, "Students no longer get their knowledge
about the world from the universities, which are losing their 'paternal
authority'. . . . TV entertainment, news and documentary spectacles, radio
talk shows, and for that matter, the religious revival and the instruction
that comes with it have developed a power commensurate with university
education. They are our competition, replacing rapidly the remnants of
civic and transcivic education that have survived the past decade" [42, p.
With the collapse of boundaries between the inside and outside of the
academy, there is pressure for the inclusion of new subjects waiting to be
taught, brought in by groups who believe they should be a part of the
curriculum without the impediment of the usual modernist criteria as a
restraint. This means that the boundaries between modern differentiating
curricula based on rationality, the discipline's standards, and the model
that science offers are breaking down. These boundaries have always been
contested and in flux. But now, curricular boundaries are contested by
religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and new cultural perspectives that seek
to establish their own potentially incommensurable criteria for inclusion
in higher education curricula. The idea of the canon is a concept from
literary studies concerning what the boundaries of a discipline should be.
As the canons are contested, the boundaries of various disciplinary
discourses become more vulnerable to disintegration. However, this
collapsing, like other aspects of the postmodern changes, is occurring
slowly and sporadically. For example, in the teaching of literature, where
some of the most divisive and rancorous arguments over the canon have been
occurring, the 1990 MLA biennial survey of English departments indicates
that some changes have taken place, such as the introduction of feminist
perspectives and heightened interest in the relationship of race, class,
and gender to literature generation and interpretation. The authors go on
to say, "These innovations, however, have not displaced traditional
classroom goals or approaches to literary study" [39, p. 42].
Implosion of cultures and other boundary collapses. An implosion often
noted in postmodern discussion is the collapse of the distinction between
high culture and popular culture. What is its significance for higher
education? The postmodernist collapse of boundaries entails a mixing
together of high and low culture. Intellectuals, including academic
intellectuals, enter the world of popular culture and interpret it. As
intellectuals become associated with popular culture and identified with
it, they begin to lose their hierarchical station as experts [95, p. 4].
Another example of the collapse of the boundary between the college or
university and its city environment is that campuses are now viewed as the
scenes of crimes that are simply a part of the same density and pattern of
crime that any urban center generates. The campus is rapidly losing its
identity as an enclave. None of the racial, poverty, health, and
environmental problems of the city or the surroundings of the campus can
be avoided by institutions of higher education. The boundaries between
city and campus continue to weaken.
Postmodernism, Economic Life, and Higher Education
Some of the most striking postmodern changes are associated with economic
life viewed in terms of performativity, and these changes profoundly
affect the place of higher education in the society. The changes affect
what kind of education may be offered by higher education, the methods of
delivery, the autonomy of the colleges and universities, and the
competitive position of institutions of higher education. The postmodern
society is a postindustrial society. The changes taking place are
striking. The workforce is moving out of industrial production to service
jobs. A primary change for United States citizens is from the centrality
of work to the centrality of consumption. We now emphasize the production
of information over the manufacturing of goods. Corporations are less
constrained by national and state boundaries and areentering a world of
multinational manufacturing and trade, relying on telecommunications
networks and using foreign local work forces for producing goods and
services. Large, industrial conglomerates are giving way to small, highly
specialized businesses confined to single sites and run by a relatively
small cadre of highly entrepreneurial owners.
Service jobs. When postmodernism is viewed as a new historical era, it
illuminates the potentiality for higher education to play a much different
and potentially attenuated role in the postmodern society of the future.
The changes put considerable strain on the conventional purposes and
activities of institutions of higher education. However, institutions of
higher education respond by introducing conventional changes in
curriculum, under the increasingly questionable assumption that the
changes will allow institutions of higher education to continue to educate
middle-class managers and professionals in hierarchically arranged, large
scale, now global bureaucracies. Thus the optimistic assumption is that
educating for service jobs means preparing people for professional
careers, and that the information society requires large numbers of
professionals at many levels to operate it. In fact, service jobs may turn
out to be low-paying, noncareer-producing positions that require
vocational and technical education. Although the impact of the information
society is very much in a muddle at this point, there may be only a small
number of opportunities for autonomous, highly skilled information
professionals, what Jencks has called a "cognitariat" .
Multinational corporations. There is an assumption that multinational,
globally oriented corporations will need many persons fluent in foreign
languages, able to understand diverse cultures, willing to move easily to
foreign sites which will act as way stations in the corporate ladder. Many
higher education institutions are initiating programs of global studies
with this scenario in mind. However, it has become more apparent with
time, that multinational corporations find local work forces to have great
advantages over imported American experts. Local workers are knowing about
the local culture and language, will often work for lower wages and
salaries, and have less desire to globe trot in order to move up the
The aggressive activities of multinational corporations, the great
fluidity of capital, and the increasing cross-national mobility of labor
mean that multinational corporations with their Eurocentric cultures must
incorporate great chunks of the cultural assumptions and, indeed, of the
cultural orientations of the Third world. The global system itself may be
drastically changing the culture of business. In doing so, Eurocentric
culture becomes diffused and the Eurocentric cultures of multinational
corporations may be watered down.
Dirlik has a fascinating interpretation of the complex interplay of
incentives, actions, and consequences that arise from what are usually
perceived to be the contradictory perspectives on the multiculturalism of
the academy and business. "Focusing on liberal arts institutions, some
conservative intellectuals overlook how much headway multiculturalism has
made with business school administrators and the managers of transnational
corporations. . . . While in an earlier day it might have been Marxist and
feminist radicals, with the aid of a few ethnics, who spearheaded
multiculturalism, by now the initiative has passed into the hands of
'enlightened' administrators and trustees who are quite aware of the
'manpower needs of the new economic situation. . . . Among the foremost
and earliest of United States advocates of transnationalism and
multiculturalism is the Harvard Business Review" [32, 354-55].
Consumer culture. Perhaps most foreign of all, and potentially most
disruptive to the higher education curricula, is the notion that the
United States is now a consumer culture. The conventional interpretation
of this in higher education is that a consumer culture education prepares
persons to supply consumer goods and services to a population that is
awash in conspicuous displays of television and other electronic devices,
a population that seeks an ever greater supply and variety of consumer
goods. But the postmodern interpretation is that consumer activity is now
"the cognitive and moral focus of life, the integrative bond of the
society, and the focus of systemic management" [93, p. 63]. In
Baudrillard's perception of postmodern society, commodities through
advertising in the media, become "codes, shared systems of meaning . . .
without material foundation [24, p. 132].
Such an orientation, if it is an accurate description, would call for
higher education to prepare students, not simply to be producers and
sellers of consumer goods, but to be intellectually and philosophically
skillful and knowing consumers. But higher education has such formidable
competition for attention from the mass media that it is almost
unthinkable that it would be viewed as the legitimate institution which
teaches consumerism. Learning what a consumer society should or wants to
consume comes not from the teachings of professors in a university or
college, but from television, the information highway, or another mass
Much of what students want to consume that higher education has supplied
in the past is either in the process of erosion, for example, high
culture, or can be supplied by other sources (science education, education
for the professions). To say that students are extremely
consumption-oriented at this time is to say that they have choices, can do
comparative shopping, and can find much of what they want outside the
walls of the traditional colleges or university. Institutions of higher
education, over much of our history, have defined to a large extent the
nature and shape of an education and have confidently and accurately
assumed that the legitimacy that education conferred was not only a
societal but a private good. Students as consumers are rapidly reaching a
point where they are asking for a different education, and they are
willing to look for this education in a variety of locations. As Robert
Zemsky writes, "Students today want technical knowledge, useful knowledge,
labor related knowledge in convenient, digestible packages [103, p. 17].
At present, institutions of higher education are still able to offer
legitimacy and credentials that promise to give graduates a jump start on
middle-class careers. But the changes in the economy and culture make this
promise highly problematic for the future. A consumer culture calls into
question the assumption that the academy has a monopoly of knowledge. This
delegitimates belief in professors as experts, particularly as ultimate
authorities on the subjects they teach.
The Loss of State Authority in the Postmodern Era
The changes taking place that increase the power and reach of
multinational organizations and the reality of a truly global world mean a
potential reduction of the strength and legitimacy of the state,
historically the chief financial supplier for higher education. It also
means the continuation and expansion of research, but for competitive,
consumer, and international interests.
In this postmodern era, institutions rely increasingly on their own
efforts to acquire funding in the face of weakened state and federal
agencies to grant needed resources. There is more dependence on
multinational organizations for funding. A consequence is that research is
judged on its ability to aid in the competitive position of the
multinational organizations. A totally utilitarian view of research is a
logical consequence. Science as a totally commodified enterprise becomes
The loss of authority of governments is paradoxical. Centralization, which
includes increased regulatory demands by government upon institutions and
more means of control, is occurring simultaneously with loss of control by
government. Persons within institutions of higher education feel
increasingly burdened by the addition of more rules and stringent
regulations from the state. This seems to demonstrate that the state is
becoming stronger as the institutions of higher education become weaker
and lose more of their autonomy. Paradoxically, the increase in
regulations can be seen as a loss of authority by the state. The state,
through government, has great difficulty in maintaining a taxing capacity
that will allow it to do its business. Governments find it harder to make
necessary but unpopular decisions. Governments are hampered by the
explosion of interest groups with incompatible interests, whose collective
weight easily vetoes government decisions. The state finds it more
difficult to permit institutions of higher education the autonomy they
need to fulfill their purposes.
Changes related to postmodernism must be viewed in a long time frame, such
as the time it has taken tradition to give way to modernism. We can expect
to see changes occur in fits and starts, discontinuously, with some
aspects of the world in accelerated change, and some changing slowly,
while in some areas of life there is no change at all. Thus, as we see
that both the traditional and the modern are very much alive in today's
society, we also become increasingly aware of postmodernism in our world.
What is the impact of the ideas of our four representative authors on the
whole field of higher education? How can higher education retain three
modern metanarratives, the ideas of merit, community, and autonomy, all
three of which are extremely questionable in the poststructuralist,
postmodern modes of thought? These essentialist characteristics,
community, merit, and autonomy, are sorely tested by the deconstructive
and postmodern descriptions of boundary collapse, the celebration of
differences, the close connection of power to knowledge, the strength of
micropolitics that take the form of identity politics, the rising
disbelief in metanarratives, and the destruction of reality that is a part
of the similacrum.
The postmodern world is a place of contradictions. It is rife with
uncertainty, ambiguity, and contradiction. In reaction to the devastating
critique of modernism, a number of voices, positive and negative, have
been raised that tell us how we might react to the postmodern assault
and/or the postmodern world. Some see in postmodernism a return to a kind
of right-wing barbarism that seeks to undo all of the progress associated
with the Enlightenment. Others see postmodernism as a basis for the
organization of a new, freer, more open society, capable of allowing the
individual to create his/her own life in ways that have not been conceived
of previously, picking and choosing parts of lifestyles that appear
Presented next are some voices from among the many who have taken
seriously and commented on the consequences of the postmodern sensibility.
It is not meant to be exhaustive but to give some perspectives on
postmodernism and what its meaning might be for our society.
The Social Conservative Position
This response to a postmodern society is to pull back to an ideal time, a
period when the country's values were homogeneous, where hierarchy reined,
distinctions between high and low culture were ironclad and backed by
money, government, tradition, and a belief in experts. The politics of
nostalgia can be used to promote elements of both a premodern tradition
and a modern sensibility. The argument is that we should return to a time
that seems in retrospect enchanted, more stable, more predictable, and
safer. One modernist source of such enchantment is the romance of
technology when viewed optimistically. Attempts to capture the enchantment
of a traditional world often emanate from religious fundamentalism and
There is also in this social conservatism, a good deal of talk about how a
particular institution previously had been characterized by community, but
is now rife with fractiousness and depersonalization. But, as most
marginalized persons and groups are aware, such a community was
hegemonically white, male, Western European, and exclusive. Such
communities marginalized minorities and women in ways that are
unacceptable in a postmodern world.
At the other extreme is what Rosenau calls "skeptical postmodernism"[86,
p. 15]. Its adherents use postmodernism to attack and delegitimate
modernism, but essentially offer no real way to organize a society or a
university. They see a collection of autonomous discourse groups operating
in a university, responding entirely to their own vocabularies and sets of
values, which are assumed not to be commensurable with other discourses,
groups of discourses without any hierarchical principles and eschewing the
values of merit and the larger college or university community. It is not
clear how this apparently anarchic organization would work, because it
seems clear that some discourses are going to be more equal than others,
and some are going to have more power, more resources, richer
vocabularies, and definitions of merit that work better than others. The
result will again be hierarchy, but without the values of merit,
neutrality, or objectivity. It will be based strictly on power.
Although power seems to be at the center of much of the discussion about
postmodernism, in its most extreme form, postmodernism so assaults as
foundational any standards for justifying the assertion of power that
actual political intervention to change things has only weak reasons to
motivate action by anyone. This is one of the reasons why
post-postmodernists, new historicists, and students of cultural studies
find themselves in such an ambiguous relationship to postmodernism. They
want to act, to change the modernist world, and in order to do so they
need strong reasons to do so, foundational reasons.
The Project of Unfulfilled Modernism
Habermas, the defender of modernism, agrees with much of the critique by
postmodernists, but sees postmodernism as a retrogressive conservative
force pushing modernism toward a premodern unenlightened stage. In
contrast, he seeks to develop a renewed modernism, a rationality based on
communication; open, free, and engaged in by all, as a means for
preserving and improving democracy, freedom, equality, and progress.
Habermas has strongly asserted that "we can never escape the demand to
warrant our validity claims, to defend them y the best possible arguments
and reasons which are available to us. This is the 'truth' in the
Enlightenment tradition that needs to be preserved and defended" [12, p.
Yet Habermas has been strongly criticized for depending too much upon the
possibility of building institutions that could and would sustain what
sounds like perfect communication. So much dependence upon the
communication process seems extremely precarious in a postmodern moment,
when we are discovering the extent to which meanings shift and slide and
disappear across cultures and time contexts.
Feminist Perspectives on Postmodernism
Feminists have conflicting views on postmodernism. For those who have
viewed themselves as marginal and excluded because of gender, postmodern
criticism is helpful. Postmodernism is used to attack many of the major
philosophical perspectives of modernism, such as essentialism,
foundationalism, and the assumption of universals, which have been used to
create hierarchies that place women in positions inferior to men and then
legitimate that subordination. Best and Kellner assert that modernist
discourses since the time of Plato and Aristotle have generated
"antithetical sets of characteristics that position men as superior and
women as inferior. This scheme includes dichotomies between
rational/emotional, assertive/passive, strong/weak, or public/private"
[13, p. 207]. Feminists are sympathetic to attacks on modernist academic
assumptions about neutrality and objectivity, for these assumptions are
associated with the maintenance of the binary oppositions that subordinate
women. Feminists find that the postmodern notions of difference, plurality
-- including plural selves, transience, marginality, otherness, and
disjointedness -- are compatible with many feminist perspectives [16, p.
108; 39, pp. 34-35]. However, feminists are concerned that the elimination
of essentialist assumptions, that is, metanarratives, weakens the
possibility of doing theory and of having a strong philosophical basis for
political change and change in gender relations [16, pp. 107-8].
Feminists are bothered by postmodernism's potential for a relativist
reading of feminist agendas and goals that severely attenuates the basis
for political and social action to change the male-dominated status quo in
and out of universities. As Best and Kellner point out, "Modern categories
such as human rights, equality, and democratic freedoms and power are used
by feminists to criticize and fight against gender domination, and
categories of the Enlightenment have been effectively mobilized by women
in political struggles and consciousness-raising groups; indeed, the very
discourse of emancipation is a modern discourse" [13, p. 208]. Also,
empiricist and standpoint theories that maintain as legitimate the
modernist scientific and academic standards are negated by postmodernist
Marxist Responses to Postmodernism
Many Marxists are critical of postmodern thought , but others see
postmodernism as a new, higher stage of capitalism . Frederick
Jameson, in particular, has written extensively about postmodernism, which
he sees as a historical period in which culture has penetrated all forms
of social life, including economics. The postmodern era is characterized
for Jameson By a global capitalism far more extensive than ever before,
with considerable cultural fragmentation and differences in how a person
experiences time and space . His perspective takes into consideration
the impact of media and information and their relationship to an almost
total commodification of social and political life.
Jameson's critics see him as one who tries to introduce postmodernist
concepts into a traditional foundational Marxist emphasis upon class and
economic determinism. Because the concept of a Marxist metanarrative would
seem to be incompatible with the anti-metanarrative orientation of
postmodernism, he is accused of inconsistency in his position [13, pp.
187-88]. As Cohen writes, "The fundamental charge is that Jameson cannot
have it both ways" [21, p. 3391. Nevertheless, he has greatly
reinvigorated the Marxist position.
The Post-Marxist Reaction
As post-Marxists, Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe embrace postmodernism
but are interested in political action as well . They attempt to find
a path to change the order of things in the university and in society.
This means that they accept the idea of discourse theory and assert that
it implies "the commitment to show the world for what it is: an entirely
social construction of human beings which is not grounded on any
metaphysical 'necessity' external to it -- neither God, nor 'essential
forms' nor the 'necessary laws of history'" [65, p. 198].
These theorists differ from Marxists in their views on class struggle. As
post-Marxists they are no longer convinced that the analysis of classes is
relevant in the struggle against capitalism. They emphasize, instead, the
need for a variety of forms of resistance.
Cultural studies is one of several movements -- this one highly
interdisciplinary -- that attempt to reflect the diversity, the plurality,
the diffuseness, and the blurring of boundaries of academic disciplines
and between disciplines and the external world. Its orientation is to what
has been called the "new politics of difference -- racial, sexual,
cultural, transnational" [69, p. 393]. It overlaps with postcolonial
studies and uses concepts and vocabulary from postmodernism and
poststructuralism. It seems to be in a fluid state by choice, and has not
gelled into a discipline with its own methodology. It draws from
anthropology and tends to be humanistic in its orientation. There is a
strong predilection to think in terms of political action in relation to
marginal groups .
In the aftermath of the powerful impact of poststructuralism and
postmodernism upon English departments in the nineteen-seventies, literary
studies in the United States began to focus on the historical, political,
and cultural contexts in which literary texts are written and read [72, p.
392]. The major figure leading this movement was Stephan Greenblatt, who
coined the term "new historicism" to describe this form of literary
criticism [9, p. 32]. Retaining many of the concepts from postmodernism,
such as Foucault's ideas about power, disbelief in the metanarratives
related to objectivity or neutrality, new historicist scholars are
particularly concerned about the boundaries that result from the continual
struggle for control over meaning in literary studies. New historicists
penetrate the borders that separate literary studies from history,
anthropology, art, economics, science, cultural studies, and other
disciplines. "The boundaries to be reckoned with in literary studies range
from national, linguistic, historical, generational, and geographical to
racial, ethnic, social, sexual, political, ethical, and religious" [47, p.
New historicists are accused by some feminists of speaking in a "neutral,
authoritative, putatively interest-free voice" [10, p. 93]. Conservative
critics deplore the new historicist's politicization of literary studies
and are hostile to the boundary collapse that seems to eliminate "the
distinction between good art, bad art, and non-art" [9, p. 32].
The postcolonial perspective has developed from the efforts of third world
intellectuals. They want to dismantle Eurocentrism, which has in the past
dominated not only the territories of the third world, but also their
histories, their perceptions of self, and their political lives. Their aim
is to "abolish all distinctions between center and periphery as well as
other 'binarisms' that are allegedly a legacy of colonial(ist) ways of
thinking and to reveal societies in their complex heterogeneity and
contingency" [32, p. 329].
Postcolonialism is related to postmodernism in that metanarratives are
repudiated, which means that the premises and concepts of European
enlightenment, and therefore of modernism, are deeply criticized.
Postcolonialists have a strong affinity for local politics, local
histories, and fragmentation of the national into the local. A strong
criticism of the postcolonial approach is that "within the institutional
site of the First World academy, fragmentation of earlier metanarratives
appears benign (except to hidebound conservatives) for its promise of more
democratic, multicultural, and cosmopolitan epistemologies. In the world
outside the academy, however, it shows in murderous ethnic conflict,
continued inequalities among societies, classes, and genders, and absence
of oppositional possibilities that, always lacking in coherence, are
rendered even more impotent than earlier by the fetishization of
difference, fragmentation, and so on" [32, p. 347].
Postmodernism and Chaos Theory
An optimistic perspective on postmodernism links it with chaos theory.
Both postmodern and chaos theory give center stage to ideas about
disorder, indeterminacy, undecidability, and fragmentation in their
emphasis upon complexity. But in its two most frequently argued versions,
that is, order hidden in chaos and order rising out of chaotic systems
[54, p. 12], chaos theory gives a structure and hope for controlling
complexity that is not found in several of the reactions to postmodernism
discussed above -- for example, hardcore postmodernism, social
conservatism, and new historicism.
In an optimistic reading of postmodernism, the affinity with chaos theory
is striking. What could be more optimistic for the postmodern emphasis
upon the marginal and the local than the concept of nonlinearity, in which
small causes result in large consequences (the butterfly effect -- that
is, the butterfly flapping its wings in China through a long, complex
chain of causes and effects results in a hurricane in Guatemala). It would
seem to give hope to a number of politically conscious groups whose focus
is the micropolitical stage, but who seek large changes in the society,
such as postcolonialists, those interested in cultural studies, and
post-Marxists. At the same time, however, the idea of the butterfly effect
from chaos theory should lead to pessimism for those with specific
political agendas, because it emphasizes that those who initiate local
actions will have no power to predict or control the consequences that
follow on the macrolevel.
But the most important convergence, or relationship, between chaos theory
and postmodernism lies in the area where one branch of chaos theory
emphasizes the possibility of the creation of order from disorder. This
concept when transferred to postmodernist conceptions of society, or of
narratives and texts, provides strong reason for using deconstruction to
attack seemingly settled metanarratives, to generate discontinuities, and
to point to the void that lies beneath language. Chaos theory seems to
promise that out of the nothingness that results from deconstructing the
language, will arise a new, albeit tenuous, and constantly shifting order
that will provide space for new voices and new perspectives to be heard
and granted legitimacy.
Border Crossing and Border Pedagogy
Henry A. Giroux combines postmodernism, feminism, postcolonialism, and
culture studies to promote a social, cultural, political, educational
agenda that invites teachers, students, and cultural workers to critique,
then challenge and oppose the institutions, the knowledge claims of
disciplines, and the social relationships that now dominate our society.
This process he calls "border crossing The means for helping and effecting
this crossing is "border pedagogy," and the purpose of border crossing is
to create "borderlands" or "alternative public spaces" [44, p. 22], where
the partial, shifting nature of negotiated and constructed realities
allows students, among others, "to rewrite their own histories,
identities, and learning possibilities" [44, p. 30]. These constructed
borderlands are realms where democratic political and ethical
revolutionary battles are to be waged, and the values of this crusade are
to be firmly grounded in what appear to be modernist readings of such
values as freedom, equality, liberty, and justice [44, p. 32].
Postmodern language is invoked when the author discusses how educators
might understand marginality, the life world of the Other, and the
positive qualities of difference and radical pluralism. While border
pedagogy speaks of revolutionary change in society, it takes a long and
benign road to that end by focusing first on the transformation of
individuals; only later, when radical changes in individuals have
occurred, will quick changes in society and its institutions happen.
The Liberal, Pragmatist Approach
Liberal thinking continues to dominate higher education today, and
liberalism is quintessentially modernist in its orientation and in its
effects. It is clear that this approach does not dismantle the ideas of
merit, democracy, progress, science, and rationality, but expands and
modifies them so that new ideas and orientations will be accommodated. The
strategy in current higher education thinking, in an era of greatly
increasing multicultural consciousness, is to redouble efforts to bring
marginal persons and ideologies into an expanded modernist college and
university. Mainstream educators assume that given educational
opportunities and access, ethnic, minority, and religious groups and
individuals will be socialized into liberal modernist culture.
Administrators and faculty hope that this strategy will change the
structure and life of the college and university, but not the
This solution is attractive in that it preserves merit, autonomy, and
community, but it does require considerable modification to have
credibility with the marginal and excluded groups to whom it is directed.
Richard Rorty's distinction between public and private life provides a
possible justification for the use of a liberal, pragmatic approach that
is postmodern in orientation, strong, but flexible, yet retains room for
merit, community, and autonomy. In the Rorty perspective, such modernist
Enlightenment concepts should be fostered, not on the basis of any
objective or foundational superiority, but because they are historically,
traditionally, and habitually shared by enough people in academe to make
it worthwhile to preserve them, albeit not in as rigid a basis as before.
Rorty takes his justification from Jefferson's view of politics and
religion: "Jefferson maintained that religion is essentially 'irrelevant
to social order but relevant to, and possibly essential to individual
perfection.' The gist of this insight, formulated as the 'Jefferson
compromise,' is that any ideas used to shape public policy, which are
bound to some larger commitments -- whether religious, philosophical, or
ideological -- must be capable of defense in terms of views and traditions
widely shared by a given polity. If such ideas cannot be defended on these
grounds, then they must be rebuffed and the individual must sacrifice her
conscience on the 'altar of public expediency.' Politics is about
common-sensical argument that appeals to the values and traditions shared
by a given 'public' and commitment which falls outside this grouping, or
cannot be translated to appeal to citizens must be relegated to the
private realm. . . . This direction reflects his deep misgivings about
philosophy as well as his sense that people could agree about a wide range
of problems and share common practices while maintaining vastly different
cultural and ethnic backgrounds as well as religious and philosophical
convictions" [100, p. 553].
However, the feminist scholar Nancy Frazer is strongly critical of Rorty's
separation of the public and private spheres. Feminists argue that the
private is the public. From this perspective, practical politics have
always emanated from what modernists have thought of as nonpolitical, that
is, "the domestic and the personal" [100, p. 555]. Thus, if the private
and the public are separated, the result is the retention of the modernist
status quo with its built-in superior/inferior oppositions.
Nevertheless, Rorty does address this problem through his version of
pragmatism and irony. As Wicks points out, the ironist "acts to negotiate
the boundaries of the private and the public" [100, p. 554]. Ironists are
especially sensitive to and capable of showing us where we do not
understand our biases. "We may expand the logical space of reasons to
include, and socially embrace, alternative understanding of practices that
do not oppress. It is this capacity for empathetic understanding,
vocabulary switching, and metaphor construction which makes the role of
the ironist . . . so vital to oppressed groups" [100, p. 557].
This perspective does two things for the maintenance of the college and
university and their values of merit, community, and autonomy. It expands
the space for having multiple definitions for the three terms, while
perhaps indicating limits to what those definitions might contain.
At the same time, as with Jefferson's desire to keep religion out of
politics, we can justify severely limiting the inclusion as truth in the
curriculum, assumptions inherent in fundamentalist religions, for example,
or contained in extreme ideological positions.
But for those who have been heavily influenced by the postmodern critique,
the foundational premises of liberalism do not have the legitimacy they
used to have. This is why Rorty is significant. He believes in the
postmodern critique but asks of us that we embrace a liberal stance,
knowing full well that it does not provide the foundations that modern
notions of liberalism assume but only that its practical consequences are
better than other ideologies. But others, particularly Richard Bernstein,
add an especially significant caveat: the necessity for dialogue. In fact,
Rorty, Bernstein, Derrida, Habermas, all place a heavy burden on listening
The Legacy of Postmodern Thought for Higher Education
An important consequence of postmodern thought is that almost no
responsible scholar today is unaffected by the arguments that displace
essentialism, or metanarratives. Postmodernism makes us aware of the
destabilization and uncertainty that we confront not only in society, but
in higher education. We are in a crisis in which the standard categories
of modernism fail to account for -- that is, to explain and make
predictable -- the conditions we face in the world today. The specter of
relativism hangs over all our institutions. Higher education is not an
exception. It cannot act as though it spoke truths; it can argue only that
what it does is useful, but not that it is true.
The modernist orientation is to resolve problems; the postmodern
perspective not only points to the contradictions in discourses, but makes
a virtue of preserving that essential tension. It may be that opposing
perspectives need to be kept alive and in tension with the dominant model.
This would mean that institutions of higher education must be able to
sustain and cope permanently with considerable unresolved conflict and
If there is a transformation in higher education, what should it be? Is
there a need for a set of values that transcend group values, for a
vocabulary that will speak to all groups within the academy? Or should
there be a wide open conglomeration of presumably incommensurate values,
ethics, standards? Some poststructuralist thought seems to indicate that
we already have this incommensurability among discourses. The destruction
of the belief in eternal verities and the attenuation of the drive to
search for truth mean that higher education's task may be to pay much more
attention to values, what they mean, where they come from, what their
function is, and how to forge new values that fit the higher education
world and its mission.
Because the borders of colleges and universities are becoming more
permeable in the postmodern world and the great sustainers of the
independence of higher education, the state and governments, are becoming
weaker, institutions need to find ways of maintaining autonomy in the face
of multinational corporate resources and power, the debilitating effects
of the increased proliferation of active interest groups, and the
encroachment of extreme local power.
In the world of simulacra and the power that comes from creating images,
the universities' task may be to seek and sustain a kind of authenticity
of information and knowledge. In this it needs to create a consistent and
useful concept of merit; it cannot rely as heavily upon the strictures of
science or the rules of a broken canon. But it needs to sustain the value
of merit and find with all the contradictions, the plural voices, the lack
of a sense of progress, and the continual tension an interest in and
pursuit of means for measuring, judging, and rewarding merit. As the
boundary between higher education and the market collapses, some means for
organizing and sustaining autonomous sanctuaries, oases, or enclaves in
universities should be found that do not simply respond to the drive for
performativity and the standards of the market. Institutions of higher
education need ways to construct and sustain community, and community at
several levels: community on the campus and community in the larger
society, a commitment to citizenship.
The emphasis upon the other, the marginal, the outsider, in postmodern
thought needs to be kept in the foreground in higher education. Colleges
and universities need to find ways of encompassing the other, of taking in
marginal people and ideas. However, it should not be done in the usual
liberal strategy of simply adding courses on multinationalism, women's
studies, and cultural studies. These need to be included in academia more
on the basis of their own standards. But the argument here is that this
inclusion does not mean that the search for and creation of standards of
merit is compromised. An important means for ensuring this is to follow
the advice that a number of postmodern writers have offered, namely, to
listen very hard and openly. As Cornell West has written, "I hope that we
can overcome the virtual de facto segregation in the life of the mind in
this country, for we have yet actually to create contexts in which black
intellectuals, brown intellectuals, red intellectuals, white
intellectuals, feminist intellectuals, genuinely struggle with each other"
[98, p. 696].
At the same time, we need to pay attention to Richard Bernstein's caution,
"There can be no dialogue, no communication unless beliefs, values,
commitments, and even emotions and passions are shared in common. . . .
Dialogical communication presupposes moral virtues -- a certain 'good
will' at least in the willingness to really listen, to seek to understand
what is genuinely other, different, alien, and the courage to risk one's
more cherished prejudgments. But too frequently this commonality is not
really shared, it is violently opposed" [12, p. 51].
Just how difficult the process of authentic listening to "others" and
creating and sustaining meaningful dialogue is, may be illustrated by U.S.
business as it becomes globalized. We must face the fact that moral
boundaries may blur as we face a world in which the center, the
Eurocentric center, is in transition, perhaps moving to the periphery,
while the marginal is becoming central. Thus, a business overseas may
encounter the moral dilemma of responding to the situation in Saudi
Arabia, in which "it is illegal to hire female managers for most jobs"
[33, p. 11]. The lines of morality become very fuzzy indeed. A kind of
in-between moral relativism may result. Thus, "If Thai tolerates the
bribery of public officials, then Thai tolerance is no worse than Japanese
or German intolerance If Switzerland fails to find insider trading morally
repugnant, then Swiss liberality is no worse than American
restrictiveness" [33, p. 11].
Although no other institution in our society is as capable of listening
and of dialogue as the colleges and universities, institutions of higher
education find themselves confronting similar problems as they seek to
relate to other cultures, internationalize the curriculum, and enter also
into the globalized world. It is not just a matter of responding with open
arms to different dress and celebrations of new holidays, or of taking in
new languages and literatures; it is dealing fairly but firmly with
customs and values that have been morally repugnant to higher education.
The term postmodern is disappearing from the vocabularies of excluded
groups, social scientists, humanist intellectuals, scholars of all kinds.
But postmodern terms and concepts remain very much alive and in constant
use. Postmodernism is disappearing because of its relativistic
connotations and because, by accepting the corpus of the postmodern
perspective, a group with a political agenda places its own position in
jeopardy. For those drawn to the postmodern critique, who have political,
cultural, social, and/or economic agendas, including feminists and ethnic
and cultural groups, postmodern concepts are an extremely effective weapon
to discredit and delegitimate modernism, the status quo, and colleges and
universities as they are now constituted. However, if the metanarratives
of modernism and higher education have no philosophical foundation, the
metanarratives of marginal and excluded groups do not have essentialist
foundations either. This is what engenders the profound ambivalence toward
postmodernism of those who are most critical of the current modernist
world. By avoiding the term "postmodernism" and by declining to identify
oneself as a postmodernist, critics may and do continue to use the
terminology of postmodernism, while retaining their own necessary
metanarratives to justify their political, cultural agendas.
If we accept the implications of postmodernism and see it as a critique
that applies both to modernists and to those critical of modernism, we can
reach a point where the postmodern stricture to listen and listen very
hard and long to the "other" has strong credibility. If neither side has
any foundational credentials, there is space for real and continuing
dialogue. The result of such listening and the pursuit of dialogue under
such conditions could mean the retention in universities and colleges of
the values of merit, community, and autonomy, and their justification in
Rorty's terms, on the basis of agreement that these are, in some form,
even as the particulars are contested, an integral part of our higher
education heritage. For the excluded "others" this kind of dialogue could
well provide the basis for changing the meaning and terms of merit,
community, and autonomy in ways that are satisfactorily inclusive and
representative of the plurality of "others'" cultures and politics.
Currently, we are precariously poised between a modern/postmodern
incommensurable hostility and the conditions for tough authentic dialogue.
In higher education our course is clear. We need to increase and sustain
the dialogue, even as we acknowledge that the tension will not, and
perhaps should not, be resolved.
1 One set of notable exceptions published in the Journal of Higher
Education involved an article by Gary Rhoades which used both Derrida and
Foucault . This stimulated a lively and provocative exchange (two
critiques and a rebuttal) in a subsequent issue [19, 66, 82].
2 In addition to referring to the words of a speech or piece of writing,
texts should be understood as events and relationships. Almost anything
can be a text. This means that events and relationships as well as words
can be deconstructed to indicate contradictions, tensions, oppositions,
hierarchies, hidden meanings, withheld meanings, and multiple
interpretations [82, pp. 34-41].
3 "Discourses are about what can be said and thought, but also about who
can speak, when and with what authority. . . . Meanings . . . arise not
from language but from institutional practices, from power relations.
Words and concepts change their meaning and their effects as they are
deployed within different discourses" [5, p. 2].
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Harland G. Bloland is professor emeritus at the University of Miami.