The Postmodern Academy

The Postmodern Academy

via Papa Familias, an interesting article (pdf format) on one professor’s attempt to teach history through film.

It’s an interesting article, as Papa Lu comments, as much because of what it reveals about the state of higher education, as for the story it tells.  The forces driving the decision making processes not only of individual professors, but of departments and of college administrators as well are not always what even many critics of postmodern academia assume.

The writer is both highly aware of the dilemmas of postmodern academia; but also unable to really step back and critique its assumptions. He senses the decay of culture and the futility of the educational enterprise in such an anti-intellectual swamp, and yet I don’t see him connecting any of that failure of popular culture to the very institution which should be acting as a counter-cultural corrective.

The problem is that my students don�t carry these myths with them.  They don�t carry very much at all�especially not in advanced history courses that have no prerequisites, a feature of the cafeteria-feel of postmodern education. My students, though, aren�t suckers. They�re way too cynical to be that. But they don�t have enough of a sense of reality in their minds to allow something to stand out as a myth. And you certainly can�t measure Hollywood�s unreality against the reality of the historical record, because they know so little about the historical record.

Thus, the term �myth� seems out- dated to me. It assumes a bygone era when something called �enlightenment� could work�when education was that force for truth that exposed lies and portrayed reality. But this isn�t what was happening with my course. No, what was happening was something different. It was an attempt to use the seduction of entertainment to ensnare students, and then to elevate that opening seductive move into something higher:  a blind and hubristic faith that celluloid could give way to substance.  The invitation was made: Here�s something sexy and you�ll learn something without even knowing it! The problem with this premise is that it ignores how entertainment works. It ignores just how much the line between entertainment and historical knowledge blurs in today�s culture�

After two years in grad school and four years teaching at the college level, I don’t think I can be any more disillusioned about the state of higher education. However, I can sometimes be more or less disheartened by what I read.

The consolation I offer myself is that the attitude he describes, entertainment driving education,  is much more prevalent at the big schools and less true at smaller, private colleges. It certainly was not an attitude I perceived widely at the University of Dallas, for example. (But is it creeping into even the smaller schools, my more cynical self asks.)

Additionally, for me this article also touches on a phenomenon that is more personally worrisome: the attitudes of the students and their inability to think critically, their willingness to suspend judgment and be lulled, be entertained instead. I saw this again and again when I was teaching college and it was the greatest source of daily frustration for me.

And here’s an excerpt for the conclusion:

But this simple question prompts a larger one about my relation to the postmodern academy. I recognize the absurdity of what I�m expected to do in engaging entertainment as historical knowledge on the part of my students. But then again I realize the absurdity of pursuing self-knowledge and education in a culture of celebrity and entertainment�especially as the university bends to the whims of the larger culture. Still, I�m hardly the only professor who must engage students in this world of wall-to-wall entertainment, and who must help them recognize that there�s something more. As a historian, I� ll be pointing out those forces that often influence what we at first take to be entertainment, merely flickering images that grab our attention. In other words, it�s imperative to get students to see there�s something serious behind Chaplin�s comic pratfalls or Rick�s decision to leave Ilsa for a political cause.

The sad truth about teaching college is that you are very little in control. By and large by the time you get the kids in your hands, they have been so shaped, or should I say deformed, by their prior educational experiences and there is just not enough time in one semester to begin to repair the damage, to make positive progress. (Probably this is why I’m now much more interested in implementing my educational theories through homeschooling than in going back to teaching college; but that’s another post.)

Teaching an introductory composition class at a state college that accepts pretty much everyone, you have to decide what deficits to address. You have students who don’t know basic grammar, who are functionally illiterate. How can you possibly get these kids writing at a college level in one semester when they don’t come in writing at a high-school level? When they don’t read except for school assignments and maybe celebrity gossip magazines, it’s hard to introduce them to thinking of themselves as part of an intellectual community. And that’s not what the majority of them are there for any way. They just want a piece of paper so that they can get a job. For the majority of my students my class, college itself, was just one more senseless hoop they had to jump through so that they could get to the goal of employment.

I always think of the one girl I taught whose dad was a contractor, her brothers each owned their own construction businesses. The one decent piece of writing I got from her was about how much she loved working with her hands, building stuff. It was the only piece of writing from her that had any passion in it. I could tell that she hated being in school and I wanted to tell her that if she’d be happier working construction, maybe that’s what she should do. I think the assumption that everyone should go to college has led to the phenomenon of colleges trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator, turning a blind eye to a student’s true aptitudes and interests. And the value of a college degree becomes less and less the more watered down the criteria are.

But what’s worse is this sense that colleges themselves have lost sight of their mission. The postmodern academy’s biggest failure is that it no longer believes in the very educational enterprise it is purportedly engaged in. Oh the outward appearance is there, but the foundations have rotted away and for the most part the rest is an illusion. The odd out-of-step professor here or there still believes in the eternal verities, in the pursuit of knowledge, but even their confidence has been eroded gradually and their voices often lost in the cacophony.

Ok, I know I’m perhaps being overly pessimistic. Maybe it’s just the nausea, the exhaustion. But I do worry about the future of the academy, the future of education, even the future of our civilization. And essays like this seem like canaries gasping in the coal mine.

I apologize if I’ve lost my train of thought and don’t make any sense. I think I haven’t quite said what I set out to say. And yet I’m not sure I can recover it without some sort of dialog, external input.

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  • I was sorry to hear about the sleepless night, my huband and I used to alternate getting up: first by day and as she was older by “event.”  I do second the use of Motrin over tylenol, by the way, I think it’s alos easier to overdose on the tylenol (for adults, too!) and it just doesn’t work that well.

  • Melanie,

    Sorry your night was so tiring. Our pediatrician told us that Motrin works better, faster and longer than Tylenol so, while we do like Tylenol and used it while she was younger, we now use Motrin if she really is teething and even if she wakes up during the night she is pretty easy to put back to sleep. Even those nights when she simply will not go back to sleep in her crib, we bring her to our bed and after tossing and turning a bit she is out. I’m not saying it is a miracle cure, but if her doctor agreed with our daughter’s, maybe it would help?