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Why Postmodernism still has a lot to contribute to academia

My friends hate me for bringing up the word ‘postmodernism’ in every conversation. I’m exactly what you would describe as a staunch postmodernist; annoyingly pretentious, convinced that others only disagree with me because they don’t understand what I’m talking about. Is postmodernism a pointless conversation, intellectual merely for the sake of it? Postmodernism as a term is ubiquitous in any arts degree, but the quality and extent of actual teaching about it is lacking. Students hear about it endlessly but don’t fully understand it or its value. Really, putting it into practice and fostering a postmodernist curriculum is not only what students need, but what they want. And slowly, this is surely where the future of study in arts degrees is heading.

I will try to define postmodernism from what I’ve been taught as a History student. It encapsulates a rejection of absolute truth, grand narratives and ideology. Universal (mainly Western and Enlightenment) ideas about reason, human nature and liberalism are questioned and critiqued. Since the 1960s, scholars have suggested that language directly affects the way people experience and understand the world. But, the issue is, language and meaning are unstable and don’t always link seamlessly. This sounds pretty empty and up in the air, I know. All that most of us really took away from our lecture was that nothing is real and everything is a social construct.

In a curriculum still essentially dominated by the European or Western World, the measly two hours of first year dedicated to postmodernism were pretty eye opening, affirming to me the importance of embracing relativism and other world views. I came away feeling both empowered and disillusioned. Surely this is a good thing for us arts students? Isn’t our ability to be critical and analytical key to good grades? Alongside making me hate the world, postmodernism, taking questioning to the extreme, is a valuable toolkit.

There’s no denying that the concept of postmodernism can be so incoherent that it borders on the conceited

There’s no denying that the concept of postmodernism can be so incoherent that it borders on the conceited. What’s the point of learning anything? It makes studying seem futile. But it does have its uses. It helps us approach the origins of conflict in the Middle East; nations and borders are man-made and the lines drawn on maps mean nothing past the tensions they create that didn’t exist before. Postmodernism is further inseparable from post-colonialism, feminism/gender studies and social history. In this day and age it is impossible to dismiss them as “intellectual masturbation” and “political correctness gone too far”. They must be applied to our learning in a meaningful way in order for them to carry any weight beyond the lecture theatre.

This year, both my optional modules focus on the non-Western world (India and the Caribbean). In a Caribbean seminar, my tutor asked us to explain why we chose this module; nearly every student answered that they simply wanted to learn about something other than Europe. Arts students are tired of a traditional focus, and being taught one version of historical truth that claims that events in Europe (the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the list goes on…) were the only ones capable of catalysing global change and progressing us towards the golden gates of capitalism and ‘modernity’. We are bored, and the study of postmodernism finally gives us a way to articulate our disillusionment.

I do give the History Department credit. Throughout my First Year I was continually stimulated and encouraged to question the validity of accepted ideas. I was impressed by how many modules on the non-Western world and social history I had to choose from for my second year, and Warwick compares favourably against other universities in studies on numbers of staff members teaching non-Western topics. We’ve been getting closer, but it isn’t enough to convince me that more progress still isn’t needed. Some argue that postmodernism is over and done with, but has it reached its full potential? I don’t think so.


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