Postmodernism Poisons The Liberal Arts
I am a natural proponent of liberal arts colleges. I was always that kid who got her books confiscated for reading under her desk or asked too many annoying and strange questions. I have always loved learning about` pretty much everything, but have a special affection for literature, history, and philosophy. And I can talk for an obnoxious amount of time about how each is vital to an individual’s life and society because I deeply believe they are. I love the liberal arts and believe they are incredibly important for individual and societal development; that is why their death at the hands of postmodernism bothers me so much.
“Postmodernism” is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot, but rarely gets defined. Basically, it is a philosophy—which arose out of a group of French thinkers, namely Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida—criticizing enlightenment and religious traditions of the West. Its central criticism is that how we understand the world has more to do with power dynamics than truth. This interpretation of the world extends to everything, from literature to hard science. According to postmodernism, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov does not genuinely explore philosophical truths about a world filled with pain and hope. It reinforces the ideas which serve his interests like patriarchal social norms and traditional conceptions of morality. According to postmodernism, scientific theories prevail because they are the best funded, so which scientific theories win out has more to do with what benefits the rich and powerful than what is actually true.
When you look at the world this way, what is true really does not matter. What is important is who has power and who is disenfranchised. If you want to see an example of this view in action, look no further than a letter written by 5C students in defense of the mob that blocked Heather MacDonald’s athenaeum talk last spring, which characterized the idea of objective truth as “a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain.”
When it seizes control of disciplines or departments on college campuses, postmodernism turns them away from interrogating what is true and instead towards categorizing power dynamics. It is like a more convoluted version of the old Marxist idea of the proletariat, bourgeoisie, and aristocracy in constant struggle. There is the oppressor and the oppressed, not only in terms of economic power, but also in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation—all of which can be categorized ad nauseum. And everything gets filtered through this lens.
This practice is most obvious in gender studies and critical race studies courses. You don’t generally see critical gender theorists asking if women really are oppressed. They generally just assume they were. Because it does not matter what the reality is, only who the theory benefits. But it infects all sorts of departments. As we have seen, postmodernist ideas of social justice have even encroached into statistics and physics classes.
I am sure some leftists laud these changes as progressive and necessary. I cannot disagree more fervently.
I believe that there is one objective truth. It’s fair to say that it is really hard to get a proper hold of, but to deny its existence is ridiculous. When I point out a tree, you know what I am talking about. Because that tree objectively exists. And despite our differences, we can walk over, examine it, and understand it. We can even communicate to one another about it to the point that if you write a poem regarding the tree, I can understand it. Just like you can understand this article. Because there is an objective reality to our existence that goes beyond our individual limitations and experiences.
When you ignore that reality, your work ceases to mean anything. Because it ends up just being pure rhetoric, a “word salad,” that’s designed to sound smart and confuse readers. It’s all bluster and no substance. If higher education dedicates itself towards progressive, postmodernist principles over the truth it will also become just as hollow and pointless. After all, what is the point of attending a college that teaches you nothing about truth and reality? What can you possibly gain from it? It teaches you nothing which will make you more employable—as all jobs, believe it or not, exist in reality—and it does not make you any better at uncovering and articulating the truth yourself.
People outside of the leftist religion are already reaching this conclusion. In a survey released last summer, Pew reported that 58% of Republicans and right-leaning independents think higher education has a detrimental effect. This statistic is a significant jump from the 45% who disparaged colleges and universities the year before. You even hear non-leftist proponents of education like Dennis Prager—founder of PragerU—and Jordan Peterson—a Professor of Psychology at University of Toronto who taught at Harvard—discouraging young people from attending universities, unless they have their eye on a specific, technical STEM field.
If those of us who actually treasure the liberal arts want them to survive, we have to push back against the ideology of subjectivity that is poisoning them. We have to assert that the objective truth matters more than who is more ‘privileged.’ Otherwise, why are we even here?
Photo: Flickr / versionz
The opinions in this article reflect the author’s only, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Independent’s editorial board.