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Another cheer for postmodernism

October 28th, 2002

The postmodernists have been copping it from all directions lately, mostly in relation to their claimed infiltration of the High School English curriculum in New South Wales and elsewhere. In a post a while back, I pointed out three good uses for postmodernism:
“(i) Therapy for recovering Stalinists
(ii) A harmless target on which right-wing pundits can vent their rage
(iii) Some theoretical content for degrees in “communications”

In a marginally more serious vein, I’d like to say that the ‘old’ English literature curriculum displaced by postmodernism is, in my opinion, no loss. The basic task of students in the old curriculum was to learn to write literary criticism, mainly focused on Shakespeare in drama, and on Dickens and other C19 writers in prose. I object to this on the following grounds:
(a) The resulting literary criticism was very bad
(b) The world has more than enough literary criticism
(c) The favored writing style was ornate rather than efficient, and produced bad habits that universities then had to weed out
(d) Arguments about works of art are almost inevitably sloppy and illogical; and most importantly
(e) The subject inculcated a hatred of literature in the majority of students.
On the whole, I think deconstruction of TV ads and sitcoms is far less harmful and might even be beneficial.
Update Not surprisingly, I managed to annoy both traditionalists and postmodernists (a minority in the world of political blogs, but there are some around) with this post. Read the comments thread, which is great as always, but also check out Jason Soon for a statement of the traditionalist position that’s a lot better than you can find in the newspapers and Don Arthur for a reasoned defence of postmodernism. I think Don’s a bit too charitable to the PoMos, but I agree with his basic point. The problem with postmodernism in High School is that it’s too highbrow. To be done at all well, it requires a level of cultural knowledge and epistemological sophistication that is not feasible for a high school student, very rare in high school teachers and not all that common among postmodernist academics. The big weakness of the traditionalist position is the assumption that critical and analytical skills are best learnt through the critical analysis of great works of literature. This seems inherently implausible, and I can’t say that the old curriculum did much for critical skills. It seems much more reasonable to learn by criticising familiar material with a relatively mundane purpose, like ads, newspaper articles and even sitcoms.

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