Postmodernism and Higher Education

Article excerpt

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 issues addressed.(1)

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 d'etre. …