Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory
reviewed by Dan Butin - 2004
Title: Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory
Author(s): Dave Hill, Peter McLaren, Mike Cole, Glenn Rikowski (Eds.)
Publisher: Lexington Books, Lanham, MD
ISBN: 0739103466, Pages: 364, Year: 2002
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Glenn Rikowski and Peter McLaren, in the opening paragraph of this edited volume, sound the clarion call loudly and clearly: “In many parts of the capitalist world, postmodern politics still attests to contemporary relevance. Indeed, it claims to be the only politics available. The authors of this book collectively discern a need to clear the decks of such junk theory and debilitating ‘political’ posturing because of the urgent tasks ahead for socialists” (p. 3).
This book brings together a group of prominent American and British critical theorists to question postmodernism and argue for refocusing educational research towards the Marxist emphasis on capital as determining educational and social practices. The headings of the main sections – “Postmodern Excess,” “Human Resistance Against Postmodernism,” and “Pedagogy, Reprise and Conclusion” – are clear signs of the take-no-prisoners approach to be found throughout the book.
I should note that the critical issues the authors raise concerning inequity, social justice, and the importance of class-based analysis in education continue to be extremely relevant. Glaring achievement gaps across socioeconomic classes, woeful funding inequities within and across school districts, and the market-driven pressures that foster prescriptive curricula, behaviorist outcome measures, and instrumental conceptions of teaching and learning are endemic to our educational system. I also accept Marxist (and other) perspectives that question how the “postmodern turn” can offer fruitful and significant direction to educational practice, research, and policy. For we must all hold a healthy skepticism to claims of living in the post-industrial age when the vast majority of the world’s populace has barely moved into the industrial.
Yet what I find highly problematic about this book are not only its sweeping and inaccurate generalizations about postmodernism, but the very tenant that postmodernism has become the de facto theoretical orientation in the academy and an ally of the far Right.
“The effects of postmodernism,” claim Rikiowski and McLaren, “are predictable: relativism, nihilism, solipsism, fragmentation, pathos, hopelessness” (p. 5). There is a harsh edge to these attacks; postmodernism is equated to sophist posturing and vacuous theorizing. Thus Jenny Bourne, writing on postmodernism’s seeming inability to tackle issues of race, argues that, “Fortunately, most postmodern theorists on race are confined to the lecture theatre and so rarely contaminate ‘the real world’” (p. 204).
Postmodernism is not just a failed conceptual undertaking for these authors, but a (willing?) partner of the far Right project. Mike Cole and David Hill, in a phrase echoed throughout the book, argue that “in rejecting the determining effects of capital, or in neutralizing capitalism itself, postmodernism serves to uphold the current capitalist project” that privileges “individualism, consumerism, and greed” (p. 90). Postmodernism becomes in this book a radical relativism that, by refusing to speak at all about truth or justice, gives free reign to the radical right agenda of corporate gluttony and capitalistic hegemony.
At first I wondered who they could be possibly reading to have such a stance on postmodernism. But they were reading the same authors I was: Patti Lather, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Judith Butler, Stuart Hall, Ali Ratansi, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida. Yet they took such authors in a fundamentally different, and I would suggest disingenuous, direction. Peter Mclaren and Ramin Farahmandpur, in their essay “Breaking Signifying Chains,” suggest that:
Like graffiti sprayed across the tropes and conceits of modernist narratives, postmodern theory remains a soft form of revolt…Slouching under the Promethean hubris of avant-garde cosmopolitanism, postmodern theorists privilege the poetics of the sublime over the drab flux of quotidian existence; evanescent immateriality over the concrete materiality of lived experience…fashionable apostasy over the collective ideals of revolutionary struggle from below; the salubriousness of aesthetic subversion over political insurrection; the bewitchment and exorcism of signs over the class struggle that shapes their epistemological character; transgressive pedagogy over the pedagogy of revolution (p. 58).
It is this “pedagogy of revolution,” it seems to me, that ultimately drives this book. There is an urgency to the writings for maintaining the Marxist frame of class-based analysis on all aspects of educational practice and theory. And there is a frustration that postmodernism has failed on such an account. Michael Apple and Geoff Whitty offer what I consider to be the fairest account of this dilemma:
There are gritty realities out there, realities whose power is often grounded in structural relations that are not simply social constructions created by the meanings given by an observer. Part of our task, it seems to us, is not to lose sight of these gritty realities in the economy, in the state, and cultural practices, at the same time as we recognize the dangers of reductive and essentializing analyses. Our point is not to deny that many elements of ‘postmodernity’ exist, nor is it to deny the insights of aspects of postmodern theory. Rather, it is to avoid over-statement, to avoid substituting one grand narrative for another…we need, then, to continue to ‘think through’ the complicated structural and cultural conditions surrounding schools, to uncover the cracks in these conditions, and in doing so to find spaces for critical action (pp. 71-72).
This is, I believe, an excellent articulation of the issue facing much of educational research, and one that a postmodern perspective would certainly embrace. As Richard Rorty has argued on more than one occasion, “nobody, not even the most far-out post-modernist, believes that there is no difference between the statements we call true and those we call false” (1997, p. 23). To claim that postmodernism is bereft of value and in league with the Radical Right is a caricature not worth engaging; much like it would be a caricature of Marxism to brand it as a failed project that collapsed with the Berlin Wall.
Let me thus, for the sake of argument, take the claim that postmodernism has become the dominant theoretical orientation within the educational establishment. I just returned from AERA in Chicago, where postmodernism certainly did not seem in ascendance. A cursory use of the AERA conference search engine (http://www.tigersystem.net/aera2003/searchaera2003.asp), moreover, reveals the following “hits” for the title/keyword search: Postmodern – 9; Critical theory – 4; Marx – 1; Foucault – 5; Dewey – 19; Motivation – 41; Professional development – 114. What I take from this is that if critical theorists want to attack anyone for theoretical hegemony, it’s the educational psychology folks (with due apologies, of course, to all my colleagues in ed psych).
Seriously, though, my point is not that educational research should embrace a destructive game of theoretical-king-of-the-hill. Different theoretical orientations allow all of us a clearer picture of the messy and turbulent world within the educational system, and both critical theory and postmodern perspectives have much to offer. Yet it is this lack of genuine dialogue across theoretical orientations within the book that truly frustrated me. Much fruitful work in the 1990s by some of these same authors – McLaren, Apple, and Henri Giroux come immediately to mind – offered a useful counterpoint to radical orthodox positions in both theoretical camps. Yet the book as a whole does not take up such work. Instead, it may offer much to the graduate student and/or researcher committed to a strong Marxist perspective. It may certainly win the immediate rhetorical battle of theoretical one-upmanship. But it offers little ground for collaboration in the bigger picture of academic comprehension of and engagement with pressing educational issues.
Rorty, Richard. (1997). Truth, Politics and 'Post-Modernism'. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum.