The “postmodern” is with us, whether we like it or not, and in more ways than one.
The word “postmodern” has been bandied about in recent times and used by Prime Minister Howard as a handy catchall to refer pejoratively to the methodologies used in English literature teaching in some high schools in Australia.
What disturbs particularly in this so-called debate is that nothing is in reality being debated and that “postmodern” is simply used as a term of abuse. Yet postmodernism, in a non-pejorative sense, would seem to be quite a useful term to describe the context in which the high school syllabus is framed, the one in which we live.
The question then becomes whether the high-school syllabus is an appropriate one for educating the youth of today, equipping them with the information and analytical tools to take their places in the (post)modern world.
Some historical contextualisation is in order here: to understand what the postmodern is we need to understand what it is defined against - the modern.
The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard in his book La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, published in 1979, (translated into English in 1985, The Postmodern Condition: A Report of Knowledge,) attempted to come to grips with, and theorise from a philosophical standpoint, a phenomenon which on and off had been licking around the edges of the modern for more than a century: in short the critique of the modernist project.
The “modern”, in the context of the history of ideas, refers to the beginning of the modern era, defined historically in terms of the paradigmatic shift inaugurated in Europe by the Renaissance and the European scientific revolution, and associated in the 17th century with the names of Francis Bacon, with his appeal to experience, and René Descartes, with his emphasis on individual reason as the path to truth.
Modernism, rooted in Renaissance humanism and reacting against the dogmatic authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church is characterised by the understanding that man is the measure of all things and that by reasoning he could come to understand the functioning of the universe, conceived in terms of universally true physical laws.
Thus was born the modernist age, characterised by the liberal humanist approach, the idea of progress and the beginning of capitalism. The cyclical time of the Middle Ages, the eternal return of the same, was replaced by the arrow of time: the idea that everything was developing towards a better future, continually becoming bigger, faster, larger.
The scientific laws discovered were harnessed to develop technology capable of acting on and changing the world, to make men, in Descartes’ terms, the “masters and possessors of nature”. The optimistic thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment explored the new vistas opened up in a world governed by the laws of nature, rather than the unpredictable actions of an impenetrable and inaccessible god, who kept the clockwork world running. Nature was exploited and infinitely exploitable and all that science made possible was good.
Alongside the developing scientific mastery of the world, the vast European project of discovery and colonisation was also taking place.
With Columbus, and probably even earlier, European superiority in the technological area made possible long sea voyages, the visiting of the unknown, non-Christian parts of the world and domination over these countries and peoples through conquest and enslavement, in the name of civilisation, reason and religion.
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