Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Sketching the Multiple Relevance of Postmodernism to Educational Theory

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_488


Philosophically, the last decades of the twentieth century have been marked by debates concerning postmodernism. At times denoting an artistic trend; at other times signifying a whole era and its self-understanding; or designating a new line of thought (Hutcheon 1989), the postmodern has attracted much theoretical attention and exerted a strong influence on contemporary worldviews and academic disciplines. Educational philosophy has been especially receptive of postmodern thought. The present entry maps this influence through a brief reference to major postmodern ideas and thinkers and to the transfer of postmodern insights to educational-theoretical discourses.

It has not been easy to define the term “postmodern” (and the related -ism) or to determine the advent of the corresponding era. The notion has proven too elastic to cover overspecified, exclusive, and narrow semantic contents. Likewise, the passage from modernity to postmodernity cannot be treated as an accomplished reality, let alone as a rigidly demarcated event with a clear chronology leading up to its stabilization. But the very effort strictly to define postmodernism and to demarcate postmodernity would be a rather “un-postmodern” thing to do because part of what counts as postmodern is the resistance to pinning down meanings and to simplifying complex phenomena. Therefore, this entry will employ only minimal approximations of the term and will let the rich and diverse semantics of postmodernism be figured out through the exposition of postmodern ideas and of their basic educational bearing.

Postmodern Ideas

For the purposes of this overview, postmodernism is minimally taken to denote a set of philosophical orientations that share incredulity towards master, grand, or meta-narratives (Lyotard 1984). The term “meta-narratives” signifies modern, ambitious, theoretical systems that aspire to answer comprehensive and totalizing questions about the self and the world. Meta-narrative answers to such questions draw their hegemony and social currency from the legitimizing power of rationality and/or science. Postmodern thought examines the modern construction of the self and the world through its rich variety of implications (ontological, ethical, aesthetic, epistemic, and political) and discloses modern distributions of power.

This can be illustrated with reference to epistemic and political implications. Epistemic implications of meta-narratives that attract postmodern attacks comprise: the tailoring of reality to the purposes and confines of purportedly all-encompassing, overarching theories; the assumption of a uniform reality on which humanity supposedly has full representational control; and the subject–object relation of the self and the world that (re)produces binary oppositions (e.g., “the mind vs. the body”) and misses more complex and ambiguous intersections. Against the modern, metaphysical connection of the human and the world as a relation of a “subject (hypokeimenon) versus an object (antikeimenon),” postmodernism posits the text (keimenon) and our textual relationality as the binding force of thought and existence. Textual operations construct the world for us and construct us as effects of language and enculturation. Political implications of meta-narratives that postmodernism combats comprise: the assumption of a privileged relation of the West to reason, knowledge, and truth; the emphasis on western technological and scientific achievements of “universal” value that rationalizes Eurocentric expansionism and discrimination against (cultural) otherness; the glorification of identity as a rigid determinant of who we are; and the anthropocentric (re)presentation of nature as an object to be observed, studied, possessed, and exploited by the “modernizer” and “developer” to the “benefit” of humanity. Against the modern politics of anthropocentrism, Eurocentrism, and self-centeredness, many postmodern thinkers have defended: a view of nature as a coplayer in the game of life rather than as an object on which we act; a respect for otherness and cultural diversity; a fluidity of identity along with a multiplicity of identities and corresponding citizenships; and an acknowledgement of the otherness within us (within our own geographical spaces and within our own selves).

With Friedrich Nietzsche, Mikhail Bakhtin, Georges Bataille, and Roland Barthes as some of its diverse precursors who prefigured part of what later became the general trend of (especially French) continental thought, postmodernism shifts philosophical attention toward neglected themes. Some such are the will to power, the erotic, the “carnivalesque,” desire and drives, sacrifice, mythology, metaphor, affect, excess, and polysemy. Postmodernism engages with these themes in ways that single out how and why such socially and theoretically repressed topics return to haunt thought and action, certainties and hopes, and priorities, institutions, and systems. In so doing, postmodern scholarship ultimately exposes the repressive effects of means-ends rationality and the didacticism, sterility, and facile cognitivism of modern pedagogies and educational systems. It also condemns the obsession with order that turns teaching and learning into appropriation and transmission of digestible, deliverable, and marketable “products.” Indicatively, modern metaphysics, politics, and didactics stand accused of favoring thought over language, reality over relationality, unity over plurality, community and commonality over difference and diversity, foundationalism over contingency, rigorism over playfulness, consensus over dissent, dialogue over agonistics, transcendence over immanence, authenticity or purity over hybridity, measurability over the new and the unknown, securitization over risk, and regulative disciplinarity over resistance.

The set of philosophies that are typically termed “postmodern” involves multiple (and often ambivalent) reactions to modernist reflection, values, and self-conceptions. Despite deconstructive reservations concerning the -ism of the postmodern trend (Derrida 1994), philosophers who have typically been described thus (even those whose reaction to such a label has been reticent or even negative – e.g., Foucault, Lacan, Lyotard, Derrida (Blake et al. 1998, p. 5) have profoundly shaped academic discourses of the turn of the millennium. They have made academics more suspicious of claims to scientific innocence and of uncritical praise on knowledge, more cautious about the dangers and paradoxes of identity, and more vigilant regarding hierarchies that research consolidates. Thinkers as diverse as Richard Rorty and Gilles Deleuze increase awareness of the room that scholars should be prepared to make for noncanonical thought and encourage openness to what Rorty names “abnormal” discourse. Post-Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysts detect a controlling, scopic drive operating underneath the supposedly disinterested scientific curiosity, the cultivation of which education has so unreservedly declared its major aim. Julia Kristeva has given a feminist twist to the Lacanian preoccupation with the symbolic as law-bound, articulated order through her theorization of the semiotic as a counteracting, material level of language of great educational implications for our analyses of the mother–child relationship. The postmodern feminist use of the concept of chora as a nonpatriarchal, undifferentiated space resisting articulation and being potentially subversive of political hierarchies has, from Kristeva down to Luce Irigaray, contributed to philosophical-educational innovative discussions of childhood, care, and the teacher–pupil relationship. Foucault’s and Judith Butler’s philosophies had set the premises for what later formed a solid literature of attacks on heteronormative naturalizations of gender. Such attacks have made educationists more sensitive to the demands of social movements and marginalized or excluded groups but also more self-reflective regarding the paradoxical effects of education on identity formation.

Transferred to educational theory, the postmodern influence means that we can no longer maintain an “innocent” eye as concerns unquestioned pedagogical emphases on the desire for knowledge and on the dialogical classroom grounded in Rationality or in the Scientific Method or in Community. Educational philosophers who endorse the postmodern framework describe modernist educational practice as operating “within an overarching norm of consonance, notions of sameness and agreement that permeate schools and classroom life” (Stone 1994: 49). Against it, they promote the kind of postmodern educational theory and practice that favors dissonance rather than consonance. Even educators such as Barbara Thayer-Bacon and Charles Bacon (1998, p. 2) who wish to preserve and employ a notion of community, epistemic relationality, and dialogue for the sake of a caring, democratic classroom feel obliged first to take into account the challenges that a postmodern context presents to such notions. They ask: “is it possible for a form (or forms) of community to emerge that does justice to particularity and universality?” They explain that this question is topical because “we live in a time when our situation, a postmodern situation as Habermas describes it, is one in which ‘both revolutionary self-confidence and theoretical self-certainty are gone.’” Hence, to them, it is appropriate to ask further: in a postmodern theoretical context, “is there hope for achieving communities based on undistorted communication, dialogue, communal judgment, rational persuasion, nonviolence, and an ethic of care?” (ibid). Their affirmative response to this question comes only after their critical consideration of the postmodern objections and their cautious avoidance of the pitfalls of modern educational complicities.

Postmodern thought has provided educational theory with conceptual tools that help it respond to the new givens of a postmodern condition and of a globalized world typically accompanied in the nineties with (neo)liberal educational agendas and systemic pressures. The incredulity toward meta-narratives and its significance for reconsidering educational operations of reality construction and of the legitimizing role of reason and theory has helped educators notice (neo)liberal educational expectations that smack of bad utopianism. Managerial, one-sided and ideological pleas for more data and measurable “outcomes” that promised a more ordered and productive world became the target of much postmodern educational thought. Neat categorizations of philosophical persuasions as either analytic or continental that used to block exchanges across the relevant divide also within philosophy of education became complicated when educational theory saw them through the prism of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy. Paul De Man and Derrida deconstructed the metaphysics of plenitude and presence that segregated logos from art (a segregation that downplayed the epistemological value of metaphor). The broader deconstruction of logocentrism contributed to strengthening the critique of those “back to basics” curricular provisions that tended to marginalize aesthetic education or physical education.

Humanism, individualism, and liberalism educated generations of white, male, affluent, superior Westerners who oppressed other human beings on grounds of their supposed “inferiority” or “barbarity” and exploited nature in the name of progress and development. The postmodernist response to such an education is the exploration of the prospect of what is termed “antihumanist” education, an education that should not be mistaken as, ostensibly, operating against humanity but should be understood as beyond and against the specific humanism that had, from the Renaissance onwards, placed the human self (in fact, the “educated man of action,” the “rational egoist,” the administrator and scientist fabricating technologies of the self, etc.) centre stage and tasked a supposed universalism with serving “man.” Thus, postmodern educators are less confident than their modernist colleagues regarding the tenets and visions of “Enlightened” education and progressive pedagogy. Enlightenment principles and the concomitant education are said to mask implicit and unacknowledged violence the very moment that they purport to free the self from its shackles. But, for many postmodern thinkers, there is no human nature which was once, or still is, in chains. Therefore, at best, emancipation is empty and, at worst, a pretext of hegemonic discourses complicit in discrimination or even terror. Generally, postmodern educators have reconsidered and problematized truth, justice, equality, liberation, autonomy, and other such ideas, also known as “the Shibboleths of modernity” that infiltrated educational discourses of humanism, individualism, and liberalism. The meanings of such notions and their educational significance have been “mapped,” “negotiated,” “challenged,” “deconstructed,” “queered,” and “interrogated” – and all these verbs are placed here in quotation marks that indicate the fact that all are part of a typically postmodern vocabulary of “acting” and “performing” instead of providing consensual truths, assertions, reconstructions, foundations, systems, and proofs.

After postmodernism, educational theory has become more sensitive to technologies of the self, performativities, and biopolitical operations (from Foucault down to Giorgio Agamben) and does not rush to recommend educational aims or measures without prior genealogies and cartographies of how concepts and values have historically developed into key terms of pedagogy. Jacques Rancière’s exploration of the “no-count” (that which remains invisible and inaudible in major distributions of the sensible) in established social ontology and Agamben’s notion of the “state of exception” have offered educators critical insights into facile “no-child-left-behind” educational policies. The complication of modern notions of identity, allegiance, and citizenship has had important implications for political education especially concerning inclusion and exclusion. In awareness of state mechanisms of power that interpellate various subjectivities (Louis Althusser) and produce the I (eye) of the student and teacher, much educational philosophy today is largely reluctant to support the cultivation of specific subjectivities or collective identifications and allegiances (e.g., the autonomous subject, patriotism, feminism, cosmopolitanism). Challenges to particularist identities, even to those which appear progressive such as gender, have shown that, when belonging becomes naturalized, it betrays and undermines any positive promise (e.g., the promise to promote equity) (Bryson and DeCastell, 1993). But even the educational fostering of more inclusive identities or virtues such as cosmopolitanism becomes challenged, especially when such -isms are based on universalist pretenses or reflect glossed over elitism. Poststructuralism, postfeminism, postanalytic philosophy, post-Freudian psychoanalysis, and other “postisms” have been broad frameworks for revisiting older commitments and for investing them with new intellectual and pedagogical energies.

The critique of the Cartesian subject, of mentalism and solipsism as epistemic warrants, and of the related rationalist individualism prepared the ground for a rapprochement of educational theory with nonrationalist alternatives to modernism and non-Western philosophies (e.g., Buddhism). Many current educational philosophers feel free from older ideological constraints to pursue and investigate pedagogical convergences of East and West concerning the (knowing) subject and the ethics of teaching. Harkening to postmodern ethics, ethical (rather than moral) education moved away from both deontology and utilitarianism to explore alternative paths that go beyond the “human rights” discourse or the “gains and losses” talk. Though tackled also within a liberal philosophical educational framework, topics such as shame, guilt, forgiveness, friendship, and hospitality have educationally been approached anew through reference to major postmodern ethical philosophers. Postmodern educational research on ethics has been more investigative of the possibility of transcending the moral(ist) education of duties and obligations toward a face-to-face ethics of asymmetrical responsibility of the I to the Other (Levinas). Attentive to the textual fabric of what we perceive as ontological order (Derrida) and to the simulated, “hyperreal” character of educational, cultural material (Baudrillard), educational theory dismisses apolitical complacency, positivist claims to value neutrality, and facile recourse to facticity and “reality” as justificatory framings. Postmodern education is vigilant regarding the political role that narratives play in the shaping of the learner and alert to the “committed” rather than disinterested position of academia and research (Lyotard), retrieving context-sensitivity and situatedness against abstraction and generality.

Following postmodern thought, many educators have become suspicious of educational promises of obtaining representational knowledge and effecting the emancipation of their students or of society; in their eyes, there are no handy solutions to educational issues or prescriptions for a better educational practice, no gigantic leaps to school improvement through bold educational reforms, no radical utopianism but, rather, piecemeal betterment through trial and error (Rorty). The loss of revolutionary confidence, the challenge to knowledge and the questioning of theoretical certainties create space for the educational accommodation of playfulness, pastiche, and experimentation. Questioning pinned-down meanings and illusions of authenticity enables political educational attention to semantic precariousness and diasporic diversity, framing schools as multicultural contact zones. Deleuzian terms such as “deterritorialization” and “rhizomes” shed a different light on educational routes and roots, inspire a writing of multiple entrances, and allow more complexity beyond linear argumentation.


Postmodernism questions ‘all forms of foundationalism and the absolutist and ahistorical categories and values, sustained and propagated through the symbolic unifying power of the grand narratives, by which “man,” “reason,” “history,” and “culture” were first projected in universalist European terms’ (Peters 2005, p. 442). Its relevance is manifest in many educational-theoretical texts of the last decades. The influence of postmodern thought on educational theory is evident in the sources (journals, collections of essays, monographs) of the field, the directions that the corresponding research has taken and the scholarly activities (conferences, fora, website postings) of the corresponding international academic community.

However, this has not been done without contestations and significant objections. Additional issues are the ambivalent positionalities of some philosophers (e.g., it is difficult to situate Levinas within the “postmodern” designation) whose work resists camps and trends, and the predicament that the effort to have rich and multiple philosophical underpinnings of education often leads to placing together difficult theoretical bedfellows.

Even within broadly conceived postmodern idioms, the supposed deconstructibility of truth, knowledge, and justice; their wholesale indictment; and the loss of faith in the Shibboleths of modernity are not always associated with enabling educational ramifications. There have also been challenges to educational tendencies toward newly consolidated postmodern vogue. Modish work tends to be blind to developments in educational theory outside the confines of postmodernist thought and ends up fortifying the walls of postmodernism in the un-postmodern manner of creating new hierarchies and binary oppositions and of blocking exchange and osmosis. Postmodern educational theory requires more engagement with the Frankfurt School (Habermas, Apel, Honneth), (post)analytic and liberal philosophy, and with critics of postmodern thought such as Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux who cannot easily be dismissed as supposedly “modern” or “Enlightened.”

Nevertheless, despite shortcomings such as sterile polemics, fad, and stronghold attitudes, the encounter of education and postmodernism involves the hybridization and pollination that postmodernism celebrates even if somewhat one-sidedly.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationUniversity of CyprusNicosiaCyprus