Postmodernisms: What does *that* mean?

In response to What’s so dangerous about Jordan Peterson?, there have been a bunch of discussions about what “postmodernism” means (“He believes that the insistence on the use of gender-neutral pronouns is rooted in postmodernism, which he sees as thinly disguised Marxism.”) By now, postmodernism has become so vague and broad that it means almost anything—which is of course another way of saying “nothing”—so the plural is there in the title for a reason. In my view most people claiming the mantle of big broad labels like “Marxist,” “Christian,” “Socialist,” “Democrat,” etc. are trying to signal something about themselves and their identity much more than they’re trying to understand the nuances of what those positions might mean or what ideas / policies really underlie the labels, so for the most part when I see someone talking or writing about postmodern, I say, “Oh, that’s nice,” then move on to talking about something more interesting and immediate.

But if one is going to attempt to describe postmodernism, and how it relates to Marxism, I’d start by observing that old-school Marxists don’t believe much of the linguistic stuff that postmodernists sometimes say they believe—about how everything reduces to “language” or “discourse”—but I think that the number of people who are “Marxists” in the sense that Marx or Lenin would recognize is tiny, even in academia.

I think what’s actually happening is this: people have an underlying set of models or moral codes and then grab some labels to fit on top of those codes. So the labels fit, or try to fit, the underlying morality and beliefs. People in contemporary academia might be particularly drawn to a version of strident moralism in the form of “postmodernism” or “Marxism” because they don’t have much else—no religion, not much influence, no money, so what’s left? A moral superiority that gets wrapped up in words like “postmodernism.” So postmodernism isn’t so much a thing as a mode or a kind of moral signal, and that in turn is tied into the self-conception of people in academia.

You may be wondering why academia is being dragged into this. Stories about what “postmodernism” means are bound up in academia, where ideas about postmodernism still simmer. In humanities grad school, most grad students make no money, as previously mentioned, and don’t expect to get academic jobs when they’re done. Among those who do graduate, most won’t get jobs. Those who do, probably won’t get tenure. And even those who get tenure will often get it for writing a book that will sell two hundred copies to university libraries and then disappear without a trace. So… why are they doing what they do?

At the same time, humanities grad students and profs don’t even have God to console them, as many religious figures do. So some of the crazier stuff emanating from humanities grad students might be a misplaced need for God or purpose. I’ve never seen the situation discussed in those terms, but as I look at the behavior I saw in grad school and the stories emerging from humanities departments, I think that a central absence better explains many problems than most “logical” explanations. And then “postmodernism” is the label that gets applied to this suite of what amount to beliefs. And that, in turn, is what Jordan Peterson is talking about. If you are (wisely) not following trends in the academic humanities, Peterson’s tweet on the subject probably makes no sense.

Most of us need something to believe it—and the need to believe may be more potent in smarter or more intellectual people. In the absence of God, we very rarely get “nothing.” Instead, we get something else, but we should take care in what that “something” is. The sense of the sacred is still powerful within humanities departments, but what that sacred is has shifted, to their detriment and to the detriment of society as a whole.

(I wrote here about the term “deconstructionism,” which has a set of problems similar to “postmodernism,” so much of what I write there also applies here.)

Evaluating things along power lines, as many postmodernists and Marxists seek to do, isn’t always a bad idea, of course, but there are many other dimensions along which one can evaluate art, social situations, politics, etc. So the relentless focus on “power” becomes tedious and reductive after a while: one always knows what the speaker is likely to say, unless of course the speaker is seen as the powerful person and the thing being criticized can be seen as the obvious (e.g. it seems obvious that many tenured professors are in positions of relatively high power, especially compared to grad students; that’s part of what makes the Lindsay Shepherd story compelling).

This brand of post-modernism tends to infantilize groups or individuals (they’re all victims!) or lead to races to the bottom and the development of victimhood culture. But these pathologies are rarely acknowledged by their defenders.

Has postmodernism led to absurdities like the one at Evergreen State, which led to huge enrollment drops? Maybe. I’ve seen the argument and, on even days, buy it.

I read a good Tweet summarizing the basic problem:

When postmodern types say that truth-claims are rhetoric and that attempts to provide evidence are but moves in a power-game—believe them! They are trying to tell you that this is how they operate in discussions. They are confessing that they cannot imagine doing otherwise.

If everything is just “rhetoric” or “power” or “language,” there is no real way to judge anything. Along a related axis, see “Dear Humanities Profs: We Are the Problem.” Essays like it seem to appear about once a year or so. That they seem to change so little is discouraging.

So what does postmodernism mean? Pretty much whatever you want it to mean, whether you love it for whatever reason or hate it for whatever reason. Which is part of the reason you’ll very rarely see it used on this site: it’s too unspecific to be useful, so I shade towards words with greater utility that haven’t been killed, or at least made somatic, through over-use. There’s a reason why most smart people eschew talking about postmodernism or deconstructionism or similar terms: they’re at a not-very-useful level of abstraction, unless one is primarily trying to signal tribal affiliation, and signaling tribal affiliation isn’t a very interesting level of or for discussion.

If you’ve read to the bottom of this, congratulations! I can’t imagine many people are terribly interested in this subject; it seems that most people read a bit about it, realize that many academics in the humanities are crazy, and go do something more useful. It’s hard to explain this stuff in plain language because it often doesn’t mean much of anything, and explaining why that’s so takes a lot.

What happened to the academic novel?

In “The Joke’s Over: How academic satire died,” Andrew Kay asks: What happened to the academic novel? He proffers some excellent theories, including: “the precipitate decline of English departments, their tumble from being the academy’s House Lannister 25 years ago — a dignified dynasty — to its House Greyjoy, a frozen island outpost. [. . .] academic satires almost invariably took place in English departments.” That seems plausible, and it’s also of obvious importance that writers tend to inhabit English departments, not biology departments; novels are likely to come from novelists and people who study novels than they are from people who study DNA.

But Kay goes on to note that tenure-track jobs disappeared, which made making fun of academics less funny because their situation became serious. I don’t think that’s it, though: tenure-track jobs declined enormously in 1975, yet academic satires kept appearing regularly after that.

But:

When English declined, though, academic satire dwindled with it. Much of the clout that English departments had once enjoyed migrated to disciplines like engineering, computer science, and (that holiest of holies!) neuroscience. (Did we actually have a March for Science last April, or was that satire?) Poetry got bartered for TED talks, Words­worth and Auden for that new high priest of cultural wisdom, the cocksure white guy in bad jeans and a headset holding forth on “innovation” and “biotech.”

And I think this makes sense: much of what English departments began producing in the 1980s and 1990s is nonsense that almost no one takes seriously—even the people who produce it, and it’s hard to satirize total nonsense:

Most satire relies on hyperbole: The satirist holds a ludicrously distorted mirror up to reality, exaggerating the flaws of individuals and systems and so (ideally) shocking them into reform. But what happens when reality outpaces satire, or at least grows so outlandish that a would-be jester has to sprint just to keep up?

What English departments are doing is mostly unimportant, so larger cultural attention focuses on TED talks or edge.org or any number of other venues and disciplines. Debating economics is more interesting than debating deconstructionism (or whatever) because the outcome of the debate matters. In grad school I heard entirely too many people announce that there is no such as reality, then go off to lunch (which seemed a lot like reality to me, but I was a bit of a grad-school misfit).

A couple years ago I wrote “What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?“, which attempts to explain some of the ways that academia came to be infested by nonsense. Smart people today might gaze at what’s going on in English (and many other humanities) departments, laugh, and move on to more important issues—to the extent they bother gazing over at all. If the Lilliputians want to chase each other around with rhetorical sticks, let them; the rest of us have things to do.

Decades of producing academic satire have produced few if any changes. The problems Blue Angel and Straight Men identified remain and are if anything worse. No one in English departments has anything to lose, intellectually speaking; the sense of perspective departed a long time ago. At some point, would-be reformers wander off and deal with more interesting topics. English department members, meanwhile, can’t figure out why they can’t get more undergrads to major in English or more tenure-track hires. One could start by looking in the mirror, but it’s easier and more fun to blame outsiders than it is to look within.

Back when I was writing a dissertation on academic novels, a question kept creeping up on me, like a serial killer in a horror novel: “Who cares?” I couldn’t find a good answer to that question—at least, not one that most people in the academic humanities seemed to accept. It seems that I’m not alone. Over time, people vote with their feet, or, in this case, attention. If no one wants to pay attention to English departments, maybe that should tell us something.

Nah. What am I saying? It’s them, not us.

“University presidents: We’ve been blindsided.” Er, no.

University presidents: We’ve been blindsided” is an amazing article—if the narrative it presents is true. It’s amazing because people have been complaining about political correctness and nothing-means-anything postmodernism since at least the early ’90s, yet the problems with reality and identity politics seem to have intensified in the Internet age. University presidents haven’t been blindsided, and some of the problems in universities aren’t directly their fault—but perhaps their biggest failure, with some notable exceptions (like the University of Chicago), is not standing up for free speech.

I don’t see how it’s impossible to see this coming; the right’s attack on academia has its roots in the kind of scorn and disdain I write about in “The right really was coming after college next.” As I say there, I’ve been hearing enormous, overly broad slams against the right for as long as I’ve been involved in higher education. That sort of thing has gone basically unchecked for I-don’t-know how long. It’s surprising not to expect a backlash, eventually, and institutions that don’t police themselves eventually get policed or at least attacked from the outside.

(Since such observations tend to generate calls of “partisanship,” I’ll again note that I’m not on the right and am worried about intellectual honesty.)

There is this:

“It’s not enough anymore to just say, ‘trust us,'” Yale President Peter Salovey said. “There is an attempt to build a narrative of colleges and universities as out of touch and not politically diverse, and I think … we have a responsibility to counter that — both in actions and in how we present ourselves.”

That’s because universities are not politically diverse. At all. Heterodox Academy has been writing about this since it was founded. Political monocultures may in turn encourage freedom of speech restrictions, especially against the other guy, who isn’t even around to make a case. For example, some of you may have been following the Wilifred Laurier University brouhaha (if not, “Why Wilfrid Laurier University’s president apologized to Lindsay Shepherd” is an okay place to start, though the school is in Canada, not the United States). Shepherd’s department wrote a reply, “An open letter from members of the Communication Studies Department, Wilfrid Laurier University” that says, “Public debates about freedom of expression, while valuable, can have a silencing effect on the free speech of other members of the public.” In other words, academics who are supposed to support free speech and disinterested inquiry don’t. And they get to decide what counts as free speech.

If academics don’t support free speech, they’re just another interest group, subject to the same social and political forces that all interest groups are subject to. I don’t think the department that somehow thought this letter to be a good idea realizes as much.

The idea that “trust us” is good enough doesn’t seem to be good enough anymore. In the U.S., the last decade of anti-free-speech and left-wing activism on campus has brought us a Congress that is in some ways more retrograde than any since… I’m not sure when. Maybe the ’90s. Maybe earlier. Yet the response on campus has been to shrug and worry about pronouns.

Rather than “touting their positive impacts on their communities to local civic groups, lawmakers and alumni,” universities need to re-commit to free speech, open and disinterested inquiry, and not prima facie opposing an entire, large political group. Sure, “Some presidents said they blame themselves for failing to communicate the good they do for society — educating young people, finding cures for diseases and often acting as major job creators.” But, again, universities exist to learn what’s true, as best one can, and then explain why it’s true.

Then there’s this:

But there was also an element of defensiveness. Many argue the backlash they’ve faced is part of a larger societal rethinking of major institutions, and that they’re victims of a political cynicism that isn’t necessarily related to their actions. University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce, for one, compared public attitudes toward universities with distrust of Congress, the legal system, the voting system and the presidency.

While universities do a lot right, they (or some of their members) also engaging in dangerous epistemic nihilism that’s contrary to their missions. And people are catching onto that. Every time one sees a fracas like the one at Evergreen College, universities as a whole lose a little of their prestige. And the response of many administrators hasn’t been good.

Meanwhile, the incredible Title IX stories don’t help (or see Laura Kipnis’s story). One can argue that these are isolated cases. But are they? With each story, and the inept institutional response to it, universities look worse and so do their presidents. University presidents aren’t reaffirming the principles of free speech and disinterested research, and they’re letting bureaucrats create preposterous and absurd tribunals. Then they’re saying they’ve been blindsided! A better question might be, “How can you not see a reckoning in advance?”

“The right really was coming after college next”

Excuse the awkward headline and focus on the content in “The right really was coming after college next.” Relatively few people point out that college has been coming after the right for a very long time; sometimes college correctly comes after the right (e.g. Iraq War II), but the coming after is usually indiscriminate. I’ve spent my entire adult life hearing professors say that Republicans are stupid or people who vote for Romney or whoever are stupid. Perhaps we ought not to be surprised when the right eventually hits back?

A few have noticed that “Elite colleges are making it easy for conservatives to dislike them.” A few have also noticed that we ought to be working towards greater civility and respect, especially regarding ideological disagreement; that’s one purpose of Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy. Still, on the ground and on a day-to-day level, the academic vituperation towards the right in the humanities and most social sciences (excluding economics) has been so obvious and so clear that I’m surprised it’s taken this long for a backlash.

Because I’m already imagining the assumptions in the comments and on Twitter, let me note that I’m not arguing this from the right—I find that I’m on the side of neither the right nor the left, in part because neither the right nor the left is on my side—but I am arguing this as someone who cares about freedom of speech and freedom of thought, which have never been free and have often been unpopular. It’s important to work towards understanding before judgment or condemnation, even though that principle too has likely never been popular or widely adopted.

It seems to me that homogeneous, lockstep thought is dangerous wherever it occurs, and increasingly it appears to be occurring in large parts of colleges. One hopes that the colleges notice this and try to self-correct. Self-correction will likely be more pleasant than whatever political solution might be devised in statehouses.

 

Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of something I’ve noticed about teaching and consulting: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy disproportionate time and mental energy.* There’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which negatively impacts interactions with the vast majority of normal, reasonable people.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because the bottom 5% can be noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the few represent the whole—even if, intellectually, one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in consulting.

Something about the human mind seems to make one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. I didn’t realize this at first, so a small number of negative experiences affected me much more than they should have. There’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. Now, when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable or at least not representative of the whole, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole. Behind every irrationally unhappy person there are probably 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have read stories about crazy social justice warriors or censorious students—like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale brouhaha. Sure, these stories are in fact outrageous, but, again, they’re also salient because they’re unusual. Because they’re unusual, they make the news (and these kinds of events do represent a problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances sometimes ask me about the activists students suppressing speech. Yeah, I do, a little, but not very much. The vast, overwhelming majority of college students, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority! As Nassim Taleb says, “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority.” A motivated minority, especially given the college-complaint apparatus, can create a lot of bureaucratic hassle.

Professors and other students often feel a kind of chilling effect, and one related to my essay, “How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Teaching, especially at the K – 12 level, suffers from defensive posture problem. A teacher who tries to be honest and interesting risks the ire of his or her angriest, unhinged, or most ideological students (and, even worse, their parents). Almost no teacher gets in trouble for being boring, but a teacher can get in trouble or can get in trouble for being many values of “interesting.” Even I’ve had that problem, and I’m not sure I’m that interesting an instructor, and I teach college students. Students who complain about school being boring get told that school is supposed to be boring. Students who complain about school being interesting (or “offensive,” or whatever) get much more attention.

It’s easy for outsiders to say teachers should stand up to the vocal, unhappy minority. But it’s less easy to do that when a teacher relies on their job for rent and health insurance. It’s also less easy when the teacher worries about what administrators and principals will do and what could happen if the media gets involved or if the teacher gets demonized. It would be helpful for more administrations to make public statements like the University of Chicago’s, confirming a commitment to free speech and open inquiry.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it? No one, or almost no one, rallies for free speech and free inquiry.


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades—and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Still, it used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. So, with the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up somewhat and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off (so far as I know).

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things with their money.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guess that number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

Why do so many people continue to pursue doctorates?

In “The Ever-Tightening Job Market for Ph.D.s: Why do so many people continue to pursue doctorates?”, Laura McKenna reviews the data on how terrible grad programs and the academic job market are, then goes on to ask: “Why hasn’t all this information helped winnow down the ranks of aspiring professors—why hasn’t it proved to be an effective Ph.D. prophylactic?” Having observed and participated in the mass delusion, I have some possible answers:

1. It’s a way to (pointlessly) delay adulthood.

2. Fear of the job market.

3. Don’t know what else to do.

4. Magical thinking (despite the numerous articles out there, like mine) that attempt to dissuade it). I think this is the biggest issue. In addition, there seems to be a Lake Woebegone effect: Everyone thinks they’re going to be above average.

5. Contrary to what grad students often say, in many disciplines and programs grad school is pretty easy and fun! You get to hang out on campus, think about ideas, take a minimal number of classes, do a bit of teaching, and have copious free time. Also, let me be euphemistic and say that many straight guys spend a lot of time with female undergrads. The problem is that, as time advances and your priorities start changing (want a real life / job, date people who don’t date people whose lives aren’t together, etc.), reality starts to intrude. Many grad students have an unacknowledged Peter Pan complex.

6. For most, academic success has been rewarded every step of the way (thanks to Hacker News reader mathattack for this point). The individuals who’ve gotten the most mileage listening to their teachers are also the ones who most need to stop listening to them. Professors are very keen on producing more professors and reproducing themselves, even though doing so is often not in the best interests of a particular individual.

7. People mistakenly focus on the outliers who accomplish major, important breakthroughs and think that they’ll be like the outliers, not the medians. This is another variant of the Lake Woebegone effect.

Note that a few fields (econ, computer science) appear to have relatively robust job outcomes for PhDs, so some of the above likely doesn’t apply to them.

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