The Worth of Humanities in a Postmodern World

I have been asked at times to explain my blog’s by-line:

Research and Practice in Postmodern Learning

and have found it as much as a challenge to do so as it is to define postmodernism itself (BTW, I do like Lyotard’s definition in The Postmodern Condition, “incredulity toward metanarratives”). I enjoy researching and living a life of education in ways that challenge the established worldviews.

Case in point, check out the article in yesterday’s NY Times, In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth. The days of believing:

the critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop have a different purpose: They are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice

may be nearing an end, especially as these previously unassailable virtues are now being challenged (such as by the economy, which does not generally pay people for having these virtues). The idea that a humanities background may not be considered particularly valuable any more is a postmodern thought. We have always assumed that this value is beyond doubt (right up there with democracy is always the best form of government, free speech is good, and it is a bad idea to sell wine in supermarkets in New York).

Postmodernism as a philosophy of practice is both critical as well as constructivist (I wonder if any of my students are reading this?), and basically challenges established worldviews as frameworks of power imbalance and limited perspective. I like considering this, researching this, practicing this, and trying to introduce this in my teaching to help my students to see the complexities in the teaching and learning process that are often under the surface of clearly articulated objectives, assessment plans, and nodding heads.

BTW, I also believe it is easier to challenge and knock the humanities after having completed two graduate degrees in the humanities and knowing enough about them to know I really know very little. I suppose this is a little postmodern, too . . .

8 thoughts on “The Worth of Humanities in a Postmodern World

  1. >(I wonder if any of my students are reading this?)

    Well, yes…. But are all challenges to established worldviews always correct? And complexities aqre always under a seemingly placid surface! It is only when all parts of the depths are calm that we can assume that someone is pulling something over on us!

  2. Hi Jeffrey, i see you are on a similar professional and academic jorney to my own. At lancaster University is a centre for actor-network theory in their sociology department with John Law.
    I also note the title of your blog referring to silence and voice and wonder if you have read any of the work by Susan leigh Star. Latour’s actor-network theory challenges ideas of how knowledge is constructed through to how the researcher is positioned. I think you ould enjoy reading about such approaches more, have a look at Law’s after method mess, or Latours reassembling the social. Both these will at least have a taster available through amazon.com Fundamantal premise for actor network theory (ANT) is that human and non human actors have influence, so this might also appeal to your IT interests.
    Nice blog btw 🙂

  3. @Russell Gifford

    I am not sure there are correct or incorrect challenges to establish a worldview. I think these things usually begin organically and without any reflective practice at all. It is only when we become metacognitive about them and then explore our own assumptions that we can start to understand them, especially in relation to those of other people.

    As teachers, I think this is something we need to do to be able to meet our students where they are, not necessarily where we agree or disagree or like or do not like where they are.

  4. @ailsa-

    Thank you for the references, Alisa. I am sure my upcoming orders on Amazon will indeed stimulate the economy.

    I do not know that centre at Lancaster, as I am studying within their educational research department. Since I am traveling there in 3 weeks, perhaps I will have more to look up!

    Appreciate your visit and encouraging words here!

  5. Jeffrey,
    I read the article on the worth of the Humanities in the NYTimes and thought about it a great deal. I think (and yes, my thinking has been greatly influenced by 3 Humanities degrees at 2 of the most Left-leaning institutions in the US–Berkeley and Wisconsin) that our current economic situation forces one to consider the benefit of concrete, practical instruction vs. learning for learning’s sake. When I arrived in NYC ten years ago, I could not find employment in corporate America with my degree though I could read, analyze, and write well. I, too, questioned the benefit of what I studied if I did not pursue a career in academia which, was geographically limiting. Maybe with a few stats courses or computers I’d be more “marketable”. But school was fun and I learning many poems in Portuguese that I can add to blogs and websites.

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