Thursday, June 08, 2006

No Mo Po-Mo

Via Rob Vischer, I find that Florida has officially declared post-modernism a theory non grata. My initial reaction, inspired by Sandy Levinson, is that the average member of the Florida legislature could not even give a coherent definition of what post-modernism means. But perish the thought that they reflect on that for a moment before using it as a stand-in for all that is evil and wrong with academia.

Post-modernism actually defies easy definition even among its adherents, which makes it nearly impossible to discern what the average Florida legislator thought she was doing when she voted for this law (my definition is that post-modernism represents a critique of meta-narratives). But the supreme irony is that Florida's account of what American history "is", is in fact quite relativist in its own right:
The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.

I think it is rather fanciful to say that the new nation was based even "largely" on the principles of the declaration of independence. The truth-value of that statement is relatively high from the perspective of landed White male, and relatively low from the perspective of nearly anybody else. Ask any woman, Black person, Native American, or even landless White male what they think of that statement. I pretty confident that we've hit well over 50% of the population with those groups. Manifest Destiny? Trail of Tears? Slavery? Jim Crow? Japanese Internment? America was and remains a work in progress, and the universalist principles undergirding the declaration have not been achieved even today, let alone at the founding.

I can't get Richard Rorty out of my head: "Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there" (Contingency, Irony, Solidarity at 5). The way we describe the world is a construction, so how can we pretend like we are uncritically reflecting a world that is out there? I remember learning about both the Battle at Wounded Knee, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee. Which is it? To say that these constructions are just academic playthings is just naive.

Of course, as Levinson notes, we could just bar David Hume and Thomas Kuhn and nearly every development in modern philosophy from Mill on out. That would significantly disadvantage the academic progress of Florida students. But I've gotten the distinct feeling that Republicans are actually hostile to academic achievement--since they think that higher education itself is biased against them. Well, maybe it is--colleges and universities have pretty well bought into the principles of equal humanity and dignity that the GOP (with their lovely FMA) continues to war against. But they really can't pretend to be pro-education at the same time as they try and sabotage it.


pacatrue said...

It's absurd most of all that a legislature thinks they can define what history is. But of course there is no need to do any research on historical methodology before you create a rule about it. Since you mention Rorty and relativism and such, you might be interested in the books by Michael P. Lynch. He's an old prof of mine actually, and was at UConn for a while. I think he just moved though. Anyway, he tries to take many of the Rorty-like insights and integrate them with a belief in Truth, properly understood. He has both purely technical philosophical books on the topic as well as one popular-focused book. They both argue for the concept of truth writing from a socially liberal perspective.

Randomscrub said...

I think you're severely overstating your case here. There's a big difference between banning postmodernism in its entirety (as if that were possible) and the banning of teaching history from a postmodernist perspective.

Also, I'd like to attempt to point out (again) that this country was largely founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Those principles haven't changed significantly. What has changed is the popular conception of what constitutes a moral person, and thus who is entitled to the rights enumerated therein. Changing a definition that affects the applications of a principle is not the same as changing a principle.

Also, just a minor pet-peeve, but all Republicans (not even a sizable chunk of them, to my knowledge) are "hostile to academic achievement." Or against "equal humanity and dignity." I respect you because you are usually fair minded and non-inflammatory, which is something to be lauded. Please keep in mind that while your political opponents may hold positions that you believe undermine important moral principles, that does not mean that they are opposed to those moral principles per se.

Anonymous said...

I am going to assume that if you asked the Florida legislators about the term "historiography" they wouldn't know much about that one either. History is a process not an event (or series of events) and the way it is taught changes over time. Do we teach medicine or law or engineering the same way today as in 1800 or 1900? As more information is discovered or new perspectives shed more light on the process of history, why shouldn't that information or those perspectives be discussed? The reason for limiting discourse is as old as the rise of state societies. Republicans have become the modern name for an old group; the autocrats and totalitarians that always seek to limit and control the free dissemination of information because it threatens their position of absolute control. These people are unwilling to allow ideas to be freely debated but instead seek to impose Taliban-like control where only the single, approved view of history, religion, morality, etc. is permissible. James Madison spoke about the never ending conflict between liberty and despotism. In this day and age Republicans have come out four square on the side of despotism.