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The Journal of Higher Education
ISSN: 0022-1546 (Print) 1538-4640 (Online) Journal homepage:
Whatever Happened to Postmodernism in Higher
Education?: No Requiem in the New Millennium
Harland G. Bloland
To cite this article: Harland G. Bloland (2005) Whatever Happened to Postmodernism in Higher
Education?: No Requiem in the New Millennium, The Journal of Higher Education, 76:2, 121-150,
DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2005.11778908
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Published online: 01 Nov 2016.
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Date: 12 November 2017, At: 04:39
Harland G. Bloland
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Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
in Higher Education?: No Requiem in
the New Millennium
For a social theory perspective that was assumed to
be a passing fad, postmodernism has had remarkable staying power.
While spawning a range of new and exciting ideas, postmodernism has
generated heated academic controversies that have lasted for decades. A
major arena for postmodern intellectual warfare occurred in institutions of
higher education, for higher education is a modern institution, albeit infused with both premodern and postmodern characteristics. Most professors who populate colleges and universities are products of and ardent
purveyors of modernism. Postmodernist academics interrogate higher education in almost every aspect of its existence: from its allegedly arbitrary
professorial hierarchies, to its deification of science and scientific methods, to its unquestioned acceptance of Enlightenment assumptions regarding rationality, progress, and the promise of discovering universal truths.
In some extreme cases in the 1970s and 1980s, issues involving postmodernism in academic departments hardened into bitter word warfare.
Despite the widespread disapproval of postmodernism and its protagonists, a large contingent of social theorists who disclaim identification
as postmodernists nevertheless conclude that conventional modernist
explanations are inadequate to explain the extraordinary and rapid
The Journal notes with great sadness the passing of Harland G.
Bloland. His contributions and thoughtfulness will be greatly missed.
Harland G. Bloland (1928-2004) was Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami.
He was the author of books on the Washington higher education associations, American
learned societies, and the creation of a new national accrediting association. He published articles on postmodernism, literary criticism, professionalization, and convention
The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 76, No.2 (March/April 2005)
Copyright © 2005 by The Ohio State University
The Journal of Higher Education
changes taking place in the society. They turn to postmodernism for concepts and terms to aid in their struggle to understand the swift, multiple,
coevolving forces that are generating massive disequilibria locally, regionally, and globally. (Best & Kellner, 2001).
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Modernism, Structuralism, Poststructuralism,
Postmodernism, and Premodernism
The terms modern, poststructural, postmodern, and premodern are
used throughout this article. The modern refers to strongly held assumptions both in and out of academia regarding the core values of the Enlightenment: the centrality of reason, the belief in progress, the virtues of
individualism, and faith in the scientific method. Modernism encompasses much more than the Enlightenment body of thought, but the Enlightenment values cited are appropriate for my discussion of modernism.
Poststructura1ism is derived from but is a critique of structural linguistics. Structural analysis aims to uncover the underlying scientific
rules of discourse that organize social life (Best & Kellner, 1991, p.18).
While in agreement with the importance of the linguistic turn, poststructuralists attack the structuralists for their claims to be objective and scientific. As a critique of structuralism, poststructuralism emphasizes
the indeterminacy of language, the primacy of discourse, the decentering and
fragmentation of the concept of self, the significance of the "other," a recognition of the ... unbreakable power/knowledge nexus, the attenuation of a
belief in metanarratives, and the decline of dependence of rationalism.
(Bloland, 1995, p. 526)
Each of these poststructural emphases is used by postmodernists to undermine and to critique the assumptions of modernism.
The postmodern is conventionally divided into two orientations: postmodernism and postmodernity (Brooker, 1999, p. 174). Emerging from
poststructuralism, postmodernism appropriated much of the vocabulary
and perspective of poststructuralism, but it broadened and extended poststructuralism to topics that focused on a wide-ranging critique of
the modern, including the modern university. Postmodernists draw
upon such a variety of theoretical sources that it is not possible to define
postmodernism as a coherent theory. It is more helpful to think of postmodernism as an intellectual trend or condition (Lyotard, 1984). Postmodernism attacks and negates modernism using much of the poststructuralist
vocabulary of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault plus terms and concepts from such leading postmodernists as Jean-Francois Lyotard and
Jean Baudrillard (Bloland, 1995, p. 526; Featherstone, 1991, p. 3).
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Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
Postmodernity refers to a break from modernity, the emergence of a new
epoch or era. Postmodernity signals the emergence of a period of multiple
changes in society, involving information advances, consumerism, the omnipresence of simulations, and the rise of a postindustrial order (Brooker,
1999, p. 174; Featherstone, 1991, p. 3). Since the postmodern sensibility
and vocabulary are operative in the era of postmodernity, the two terms are
regularly used interchangeably. Arnold Toynbee is credited with the initial
use of the term "post-Modem" in 1954 to describe the rise of a new era in
his description of civilization's decline (Toynbee, 1954, Vol. 7, pp.
339-346, Vol. 9, 185, pp. 420-421). The postmodernism that developed in
the United States was imported from France in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to the impetus to postmodernism provided by poststructuralism, the
dramatically failed revolt of French students and workers in 1968 convinced a group of French social theorists that a major rupture had occurred
and that a new, historical era was emerging. The failure of that revolution
influenced French theorists to tum away from the grand narrative of Marxism, with its Enlightenment flavor of emancipatory politics, to negate
modernism and to search for new approaches to understanding the changes
taking place. Poststructuralist perspectives then developed into the international movement of postmodernism.
The premodern refers to a nostalgic, atavistic posture that relishes the
past and that seeks a future of true believers who will no longer experience the alienation, isolation, and disenchantment that modernism has
Postmodern Terminology and its Use in Tracking Change
Concepts and vocabulary from four seminal poststructuralist/postmodern theorists remain significant, for they provide a useful path for
identifying and interpreting trends and events in the new millennium:
Lyotard's doubts concerning the master narratives of modernism (1984),
Derrida's deconstruction (1976), Foucault's perspective on the connection between knowledge and power (1979), and Baudrillard's concepts
of implosion, hyperreality, and simulacra (1994). Other terms associated
with postmodernity include: spectacle, pastiche, ambiguity, doubt, contradiction, novelty, reflexivity, otherness, difference, identity, heterogeneity, upheaval, carnival, turbulence, instability, discontinuity, limitless choice, and flux. Terms related to the postmodern era are most
frequently used when postmodern discussions, descriptions, and analyses are offered concerning the information society, globalization, rapid
scientific and technological change, certain aspects of art and architecture, and now terrorism (Best & Kellner, 1997, p. 73).
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This article concerns the usefulness of postmodernity for illuminating
change in higher education associated with the new millennium. Overarching is the notion that history is not a smooth, rational, progressive unfolding of events but a series of ruptures and fragmenting disjunctures.
This study asserts that when viewed in epochal terms, the perspectives,
concepts, and vocabularies of postmodernism are especially helpful in
the formidable task of identifying, communicating, and understanding
important aspects of our current state of flux. As Richard Bernstein
writes, "There are moments in history when, because of all sorts of historical accidents ... a new set of metaphors, distinctions, and problems
is invented and captures the imagination of followers" (1992, p. 22). The
postmodern vocabulary is rich in such metaphors and distinctions, providing arguments and striking terms to help guide our way in the new
millennium. The postmodern orientation is useful in sorting out positive
and negative aspects of the revolutionary period in which we live.
Postmodern Doubt
Much literature on postmodernism concentrates on Lyotard's full definition of postmodernism "as incredulity towards metanarratives"-that
is, on rejecting belief in metanarratives, the grand universals that legitimize the assumptions of modernism. But a richer response to Lyotard's
statement, as Burbules observes, is to emphasize the word "incredulity"
in Lyotard's definition (1995, p. 2). This is because metanarratives are
so fundamental, ingrained, and useful that we cannot do without them,
and concentrating on "incredulity" invites us to raise questions about
metanarratives without denying their significance or necessity. And incredulity and uncertainty are increasingly consequential aspects of our
lives in the new millennium. Doubt is especially important, for it invites
a posture of skepticism toward modernist assumptions, generating incentives to interrogate the master narratives on which modernism rests.
The postmodern perspective offers concepts, insights, and ways of viewing our current situation, using a vocabulary that illuminates profound
changes confronting universities and colleges and their place in postmodern society. The postmodern position can alert us to be skeptical of
unexamined claims regarding linear progress, and it directs us to search
out and surface the implications and consequences of such claims. For
example, in our euphoria regarding the prosperity of the late 1990s,
there was much uncritical acceptance of the positive aspects of economic globalism. We are very much more aware now that economic
globalism carries a heavy price, that there are many kinds of globalism
beyond the economic (e.g. cultural, political, social, military, and reli-
Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
gious), and that each aspect of globalism carries unanticipated negative
as well as positive aspects. Postmodernism's emphasis on heterogeneity
encourages us to stay focused on the multiple realities that emerge from
a search for informative alternative perspectives beyond the view that
globalism is overwhelmingly an economic phenomenon.
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Shifting Postmodern Perspectives
Recent changes in the postmodern perspective add to the usefulness
of a postmodern vocabulary for interpreting the postmodern era. By the
end of the 1990s, the postmodernism focus was shifting in four significant ways.
First, the academic warfare surrounding postmodernism in the 1970s
and 1980s began to diminish in the 1990s as the positions of each began
to interpenetrate in ways that blurred some of the stark contrasts evident
in early modern/postmodern battles.
Second, postmodernists became more centrally interested in postmodernity as a means for interpreting the period of the 1990s and the
early twenty-first century. Three volumes of postmodern studies by Best
and Kellner, published over a decade, provide an example of this
change. Best and Kellner begin with a presentation and critique of postmodernism in its many theoretical faces in Postmodern Theory (1991).
Then they undertake a history and analysis of the rise of consumer culture, an exposition of postmodern art as the deconstruction and erasure
of boundaries between high and popular culture, and an exegesis on
postmodern science emphasizing entropy and chaos in The Postmodern
Turn (1997). In a third volume, The Postmodern Adventure (2001), Best
and Kellner present a full interpretation of society in the new millennium as existing between modernism and postmodernity, concentrating
on high-tech warfare as media spectacle, on contested scientific epistemology, on coevolution of the technological revolution and human
change, and on globalism as it is linked to the information society, technology, and postmodern thought.
The assumption that postmodernity is a historical period is central to
this study. In truth, we do not live in a fully postmodern world, but in an
environment interlarded with aspects of modernism and postmodernity,
along with strong traces of the premodern. A central descriptive term
embedded in postmodernity as epoch is "rupture," a series of decisive
far-reaching breaks from the past. Unlike most previous theories and
predictions of revolutionary change (e.g. Marxism, which grounded
apocalyptic change in economic forces), postmodernity posits major upheavals stemming from a wide variety of economic, political, cultural,
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informational, and societal sources. Unlike most modern perspectives,
postmodernity does not include a future of inevitable progress. The
clashing, interpenetrating, and overlapping of the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern in our society form a pastiche, a jumbled mixture of economic, political, social, and cultural forms that together can
be considered postmodern.
The third shift in postmodern perspectives involves the expansion of
the concept postmodern beyond the borders of academe to become a familiar term in everyday language, inserted regularly in the discourse of
newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and e-mail. It is no small matter that postmodernity as a concept denoting a historical period moved
beyond higher education into the wider worlds of business, government,
technology, and media. Having entered mainstream culture, the term
postmodern has been received with enthusiasm by the media.
Thus, it has become conventional wisdom that we are living in a postmodern era. Newspapers and magazines, in chronicling abrupt changes
in our lifestyles and life circumstances, report almost casually that we
are already citizens in a postmodern world. Postmodernity has become a
catchall referent to the rapid, bizarre changes associated with the recognition of America's new, more precarious position in the world and of
the changed conditions in which we live. Many terms associated with
postmodernism have entered the mainstream vocabularies of popular
culture, media descriptions of news events, technological innovations,
and entertainment. The New York Times regularly drops the term "postmodern" into its news stories, particularly when discussing popular culture items. For example, in a review of the television program, The Sopranos, Terry Teachout mentions the word "postmodern" three times in
two half columns (2002, p. 3).
The fourth alteration concerns the relationship of modernists and
postmodernists concerning our understanding of modernism. A diffuse
awareness emerged that something large and very different was happening in the world. It is not necessary to believe that we live in a postmodern age, but it is increasingly evident that modernity is being superseded
by something. As Charles Lemert writes, "That something powerful,
deep, and potentially far-reaching is going on seems to me beyond
doubt" (1997, p. xi).
Postmodernity: The Postmodern Age
A transformation is taking place that involves how we think, understand, and live in a knowledge-saturated society and in a changing culture. That transformation here refers to a postmodern age.
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Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
What are the characteristics of postmodernity? How did we get there?
How does the transformation affect higher education?
The world appears to be breaking up but reorganizing itself. Globalism, the information revolution, science and technology, fluidity in the
definitions of identity and self, and terrorism are producing a society
filled with contradiction: an open society with almost unlimited possibilities and options yet constricted by increasing regulation and surveillance, the threat and actuality of war, and a growing maldistribution of
wealth. A host of unanticipated consequences flows from the rapid concurrent changes taking place, creating a world of such complexity that it
produces a widespread sense of anxiety, dislocation, ambiguity, and
risk-all of which are characteristics of a postmodern world.
Questions abound in attempting to understand globalism: What is it?
Is it a good or a bad phenomenon? Can it be controlled? What is the impact of globalism on higher education? None of these questions has definitive answers, and the answers provided are contested. The globalism
concept presents a fuzzy, indeterminate picture of the world in which a
variety of meanings is projected. Globalization has different definitions
depending on what is being emphasized: the worldwide expansion of a
system of capitalism; an imperialism imposed by the United States; the
creation of political systems in which the relationships among states, nations, regions, and local communities experience novel and rapid
changes, and in which nongovernmental organizations spring up to challenge and influence the political order across national boundaries
(Curry, 2000, pp. 1-15). Globalization involves the flow of money,
goods, people, information, knowledge, technology, and culture, as well
as disease and terror, across a networked world (Castells, 1996; Lechner
& Boli, 2000). These streams move quickly and sometimes erratically,
interrupting and destabilizing societal connectedness, creating a seemingly boundaryless world of unlimited options, but it is a world severely
constrained by increasing surveillance and regulation, terrorism and
war, and severe inequalities of wealth. (Best & Kellner, 2001, pp.
205 -214). The result is a process of rupture that generates widespread
anxiety, ambivalence, and an increased perception of risk. Globalization
is expanding, but it is so complex in its implications, ambiguous in its in
meaning, and fraught with political conflict that it is difficult to understand and to know where it is going.
Globalism looms large in the continuing puzzle of fixing the place of
higher education in the postmodern era, particularly as we confront the
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implications of the global uses of the Internet and other means of instant
communication. It is a widely accepted generalization that the major engines of change in a global world are knowledge and information. Universities playa dominant role in the development and dissemination of
knowledge, and they are viewed as crucial for the development of economic globalism (Carnoy & Rhoten, 2002, p. 1). Thus, education and
the creation of new knowledge are of primary importance to national
governments, transnational corporations, and international organizations
such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. Such institutions want to use higher education to aid in the development of the world economy. For transnational organizations, the purposes of education are to educate efficient and knowledgeable work
forces and to generate science research capabilities that will result in
marketable technology products. These global institutions become interested in educational standards, assessment, accreditation, and planning,
as they seek to bend national educational systems to fit their conceptions
of what will help make those systems more efficient and productive.
They seek external accountability controls to assure that their versions
of quality will prevail. Corporations view the autonomy of higher education, which features tenure and the free exchange of scientific and technical knowledge, as problems for their purposes. Higher education independence may be incompatible with the high level of control that many
transnational organizations prefer.
Information Technology
Globalism and information technology are intimately involved in all
aspects of knowledge creation, dispersion, and use. Once knowledge appears on the World Wide Web, it can be consumed by anyone anywhere.
How information is now transmitted has changed life immeasurably for
millions of people. The Internet produces time-space compressions that
erase almost all sense of information boundaries. The reality of instantaneous messages flashing around the world among millions of individuals has transformed the means by which business and politics are conducted, the ways in which news is produced and received, the ways in
which entertainment is created and consumed, and the ways in which
culture is disseminated. It is also rapidly modifying the ways higher education is structured, generated, and distributed globally and locally. For
a time it was believed that education would be immediately changed and
that distance education would provide easy access to the best of education for everyone with very little cost. Higher education is being transformed, but not in the ways anticipated.
Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
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Science and Technology
Two areas where "incredulity toward metanarratives" is rampant with
implications for higher education are science and technology. The postmodern vocabulary can be helpful in interpreting the dynamism of science and technology in their impact on higher education.
It is the modernist belief that science is the primary means for bringing coherence to the search for truth (Usher & Edwards, 1994, p. 17).
Higher education lives and operates within modernist metanarratives; it
is legitimated by science, and it plays a central role in legitimating science. As the emancipating instrument that eliminates superstition and
myths about nature, science has more legitimacy than other kinds of
knowledge in higher education, and it provides the basis for organizing
branches of knowledge into hierarchically arranged disciplines. Science
perspectives and scientific methods have acted as a glue holding higher
education together. With its successes, science has provided a standard
with which other disciplines could be compared and has been instrumental in creating a status hierarchy generally recognized across disciplines. Higher education has benefited greatly from its relation to science. Colleges and universities are infused with the scientific ethos, and
they partake in the prestige associated with science as a metanarrative.
Doubts cast upon science spill over to higher education and threaten the
status of educational institutions. But the problem is deeper than that.
In the postmodern era, the distinction between science and technology is
blurred so that determining where science ends and technology begins is
not certain. Science and its increasingly dominant partner, technology, are
among the most significant and successful aspects of the modern era, and
thus they continue to structure and strongly influence much of the character of the postmodern epoch. They are especially powerful in the development of the knowledge society, the economic global society, and the warfare society. Science and technology are becoming even more important in
the postmodern era since they are so closely tied to the purposes of transnational corporations and to governments seeking to cope with economic
problems and military defense. Even as they have provided the cornucopia
that characterizes much of American and European life, science and technology have added considerably to the precariousness of the role of higher
education in the postmodern period. Colleges and universities have a long
history of developing and transferring the scientific and technological
fruits of research to corporations and governments. But the postmodern
world is replete with multiple sites for knowledge creation, thereby threatening the role of higher education as the central source for knowledge production. Science and technology can be, and are, produced elsewhere.
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Science and technology are involved in a basic issue in the new century: the politics of science. An important use of the postmodern perspective is to focus on the way science and technology are situated in society, culture, and the economy. In the postmodern society, science and
technology become more visibly entrenched in all aspects of contemporary life. The strength and soundness of science and technology are not
in question, and we cannot escape their influence on our lives. But their
very success and importance renders their activities increasingly centered on politically explosive issues. Questions need to be asked regularly concerning their place in our social, political, economic, and cultural life. It has become clear that what we name scientific progress,
with its positive contributions to medicine, transportation, and information, is accompanied by an underside that poses serious threats to our
everyday lives and to the nation: for example, hugely increased firepower for individuals, groups, and nations; advanced chemical and biological weaponry; and the possibility of complete annihilation through
nuclear catastrophe. In the modern era, science has been viewed as an
independent enterprise, with its own successful rules, purposes, assumptions, and methods that have allowed it to stand apart, at least by its own
reckoning, from other aspects of society. The scientific enterprise operated on the assumption that it was neutral and objective, and this belief
in the neutrality of science has been part of the reason the state has allowed universities and colleges a considerable measure of independence. This concept has been fostered by universities and colleges, giving the impression that science is not influenced by politics, economics,
or culture. However, in the postmodern age, incredulity toward scientific
claims to neutrality and objectivity is increasingly apparent. Foucault
(1979) presents a compelling line of argument that underscores doubts
concerning objectivity in science. He introduced the notion that power
and knowledge are always connected, and his perspective on the connection between power and knowledge means that scientific claims to be
objective and neutral are inherently also assertions of power.
Identity and the Self
In modernist societies, the self is viewed as a stable, individual quality sustained, more or less, over a lifetime. Identity, as associated with
nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, sex, and gender, has been seen as a
persistent human characteristic as well, though more open to modification than the self is. In the postmodern age, both self and identity are
being transformed. Conceptions of the self are subject to modification,
as the prospect of the self as a coherent unity dissolves. For many, older
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ethnic and religious ties are solidified even as others start and join new
religions and negotiate sex and gender identities (Kumar, 1999, p. 88).
The increasing fluidity of self is augmented by science and technologies
that offer the possibility of even more radical modifications of what self
can mean. In describing the penetration of science and technology into
society and nature, Best and Kellner portray a veritable frenzy of boundary erasures involving technologies that merge humans with machines
and humans with animals, science-driven technologies that increasingly
problematize our understanding of self and identity (2001, p. 151).
For colleges and universities, the malleable self and identity shifts
create major questions concerning what higher education should be
about. The modernist higher education tasks of educating for citizenship, preparation for jobs, and growth and development of the individual
become more ambiguous and uncertain. For what should institutions be
preparing students in the postmodern era? We are already telling students that they should prepare for a lifetime of shifting jobs, constant
learning, and precarious health and retirement benefits. Should we also
be educating people to test different identities and conceptions of self?
On the level of teaching/learning, trust in quality assurance becomes less
solid, if, particularly through the Internet, it is less possible to assume
the legitimacy of the teachers, teaching material, and the organizations
that offer them. In addition, does it make any difference if those delivering education are not able to tell the identity of those taught, or if the
identity changes during delivery? Perhaps not, but a certain level of uncomfortable instability does seem to arise in these circumstances.
Vulnerability and risk become a regular part of our lives as we become
more aware of the global reach of terrorism. Besides being horrific
events of startling magnitude, the attacks of September 11, 200 1 were
examples of a kind of postmodern pastiche of premodern, modern, and
postmodern segments. A group of premodern terrorists, using modern
technology, generated a postmodern disruption and provoked a strong
sense of anxious indeterminacy in the nation. The attack was not initiated
by a hostile sovereign nation. The perpetrators did not fit the conventional profiles of suicide bombers, and the attacks conjured up a vague
vision of a clash between civilizations with incommensurable religions
and cultures. The global reach of terrorism gives powerful evidence of
the inherent complexity and vulnerability endemic in globalism.
Perhaps the short-range result of terrorism for higher education is
to remind us that no place, not even the usually tranquil campus of a
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college or university, is removed from the terrorist interest in "soft" targets, sites that have little strategic value but that are easy to penetrate
and disrupt, spreading fear and anxiety entirely out of proportion to the
actual dangers to the nation as a whole. Terrorist acts and war have stimulated the start of a vast array of surveillance projects by the federal government to gain information about and to track not only foreign students
and professors residing in the U.S. but also U.S. citizens. Vulnerability
to terrorism generates a pervasive sense of malaise totally at odds with
the physical peace that seems necessary for constructive learning.
Modernism and Postmodernism in Higher Education
Given the extraordinary, rapid changes taking place in the world,
through globalism, space-time compressions, science/technology advances, modifications of self and identity, and terrorism, we become
aware that we are entering a new and unfamiliar world in which higher
education's form and place in society is undergoing far-reaching, unpredictable changes. We are no longer certain what role higher education
will or should play in the new millennium As Bill Readings writes, "the
wider social role of the University is now up for grabs. It is no longer
clear what the place of the University is within society, nor what the
exact nature of that society is" (1996, p. 2).
What does characterize institutions of higher education in the postmodern era? To understand this, it is useful to look at some of the basic
roles that institutions of higher education have played in the modern era
and to assess what place colleges and universities occupy in the postmodern epoch, bearing in mind that premodern, modern, and postmodern characteristics will all be simultaneously evident in the postmodern
era. In the modernist era, there was a sense that the aims of colleges and
universities were limited and generally understood: teaching; conducting research; training professionals; promoting civic virtue, cultural
transmission, and economic development. There was an assumption that
teachers, students, and administrators were involved in an enterprise in
which common beliefs were held about what the institution was doing.
There was an assumption that high quality scholarship was recognizable
across disciplines and was to be rewarded in whatever disciplines were
Higher education operated under the auspices of the nation-state in
the modern era. The nation-state subsidized and protected higher education, while allowing colleges and universities considerable autonomy. In
turn, higher education provided scientific and technological services to
the society and served an important role in continuing the cultural tradi-
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tions of the nation (Delanty, 2001, p. 2). The university supplied credentials for a middle-class work force and socialized students for citizenship in the nation-state. Modernist higher education has been the central
engine for knowledge production and dissemination in the society. Colleges and universities have enjoyed a near monopoly in this regard. That
monopoly had a highly important characteristic that was scarcely noticed or commented upon in the modernist era. Knowledge creation and
dissemination, as well as a large measure of consumption, existed primarily in specific physical locations-that is, on the campuses of institutions of higher education.
In sharp contrast, knowledge production and distribution in the postmodern era have moved far beyond the boundaries of the university, seriously challenging modernist higher education's control of knowledge.
Because of technological and economic changes in postmodern times,
particularly the growth of the Internet and the onset of market globalism,
knowledge is found, created, and used in a wide variety of sites. That is,
knowledge is now produced, distributed, and consumed in many different physical sites-not just in universities and colleges but in television,
the Internet, corporations, think tanks, government bureaus, and consultancies. Knowledge is globally dispersed as well, with few geographic
locations without the means for creating, disseminating, and consuming
the world's knowledge. The ubiquity of knowledge is such that we now
plausibly recognize that we are dwelling in a knowledge society (Delanty, 2001). But it is unsettling to see the boundary between knowledge
in the university and knowledge in the society being erased.
The Scatteration of Knowledge and the Rise of Metanarrative Doubt
That knowledge is lodged everywhere means higher education is
rapidly losing its knowledge monopoly. It means that consumers of
knowledge outside of universities and colleges are in a much stronger
position to question and select just what knowledge will be important
and used. This widespread scattering of knowledge is viewed by Gibbons et al. as socially distributed knowledge (1994, p. 4). The dispersion
of knowledge generates special problems for professions whose power
to attract fees and prestige is dependent on monopolies of knowledge.
At the same time that higher education is losing its knowledge
monopoly, technological and economic forces negatively influence the
state's ability or its willingness to provide protection for institutions of
higher education. With knowledge production no longer monopolized
by higher education, "the role of the university is in crisis: the ivory
tower is collapsing" (Delanty, 2001, p. 105).
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The Fragmenting Higher Education Enterprise
Part of the modernization process in the 20 th century in universities
and colleges has been the development of knowledge specialization controlled primarily by professors and contained within the borders of academic disciplines. However, serious fragmentation is now occurring in
higher education. This is most noticeable in the constant breakup of disciplines into ever more specialized entities and in the creation of new
disciplines. This fractionalization has been happening since the midnineteenth century and has increased in recent years.
An important positive result of specialization has been phenomenal
growth in knowledge and its application in all fields of research associated with higher education. However, such fragmentation has eroded
any sense of unified purpose for institutions. The high levels of fragmentation allow persons to wander off into isolated academic communities that need not communicate with or try to understand others or
attempt to assimilate new knowledge beyond their specialties. Fragmentation also affects the ways in which knowledge is delivered. Education
is increasingly disseminated in bits and pieces with little regard for the
unity and purposes of colleges and universities. In this rich diversity, it
becomes more difficult to identify the nature of the professorship. The
traditional concept of the professor as a full-time, tenure-track teacher
and researcher describes a diminishing percentage of those who deliver
higher education. Part-time teachers, full-time researchers, professors
who spend much of their time researching or teaching in companies that
have primary purposes other than higher education, instructors in forprofit educational companies, instructors as conduits for curricula produced by for profit companies: all are evidence of a fragmentation of the
professorship. Yvonna Lincoln has observed that just as personal identity is under great stress and fragmenting, universities find themselves
"torn between multiple missions, multiple responsibilities, multiple demands, and hence, open to multiple criticisms" (Lincoln, 1998-1999, p. 2).
The increase in the power of knowledge consumers, derived from
their ability to tap into unlimited sources of knowledge, means that users
of knowledge can now produce, disseminate, and consume knowledge
without relying on universities to define what knowledge is important.
Thus, knowledge users are encouraged to raise doubts about and to
question foundational assumptions of modernism.
Jean Baudrillard originated several of the most helpful terms for
tracking the postmodern condition in society and in higher education.
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His concepts of implosion, hyperreality, and simulacra identify major
disruptions and changes in the postmodern era (1994). Baudrillard proposed an extravagant version of postmodernism, focused on rupture as
characteristic of change in the postmodern era. Perhaps no other postmodern term covers more ground or is as reflective of conditions in the
new millennium than Baudrillard's word implosion. In his original use
of the term, he meant the collapse of the walls between technology and
the media into a universe of signs and images (Best & Kellner, 1991, p.
181). Implosion here refers to boundary collapse, a process that occurs
in a variety of forms, sites, and circumstances, with both positive and
negative consequences. Examples of boundary collapses that affect
higher education in the postmodern era include implosion of disciplines
and professional-client/student/consumer relations.
Discipline Implosions
In postmodern contradictory fashion, at the same time that the disciplines are fragmenting through uncontrolled specialization, the boundaries of the disciplines are imploding (Delanty, 2001, p. 21). Academics
do not stay within the confines of their own disciplines but explore the
core subjects of other disciplines. Louis Menand reports that at a conference at the Stanford Humanities Center, "one of the center's directors
... read the titles of projects submitted by applicants for fellowships and
asked the audience to guess each applicant's field. The audience was
right only once-when it guessed that an applicant whose project was
about politics must be from an English department" (2001, p. 52).
A consequence of this type of implosion is a demystification of the
disciplines. That is, if any scholar from any field can invade the field of
any discipline, scholars are likely to increase their criticisms of each
other's fields. This is perhaps most striking already in some scientific
fields as they are studied by other scholarly areas. However, without the
formal coursework, training in research methods, and grounding in a
discipline's vocabulary and definition of significant research areas, the
work of disciplinary outsiders can be accused of producing trivial research, lacking in quality and significance in the eyes of members of the
discipline. Nevertheless, contributions from nondisciplinary researchers
can bring interesting innovation and new perspectives to a field of inquiry.
The Professional-ClientlStudentlConsumer Implosion
In the professions, including the higher education professoriate, the
boundaries between information and knowledge are rapidly collapsing
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as the traditional professional-client relationships dissolve. Computers
allow professional knowledge to be standardized so that professional decision making is minimized, for example, in architecture, law, and medicine (Leicht & Fennell, 2001, p. 107).
Nonprofessionals tap into huge storehouses of professional knowledge to use such knowledge for their own purposes. This vastly increases consumer choices and threatens to reduce the viability of many
professions. Clients have the power to enter professional databases and
use the information to question professionals, outflank professionals,
avoid professionals, and to do "professional" advising to others.
Michael Lewis describes a case that takes us to the heart of this new professional-client relationship. Lewis relates the saga of a young man, 15
years of age, who, without the benefit of a law degree or the successful
passage of a bar exam, gave plausible legal advice to a variety of satisfied clients until he was shut down. He learned his law by watching television programs that were about courts and legal proceedings and from
browsing what he saw as appropriate web sites (Lewis, 200 I, p. 99). The
young legal advisor did not make clear either his age or his credentials,
but, at least in the eyes of his clients/consumers, the quality of his advice
was exemplary. In this case, the boundary between the professional with
expert accredited knowledge and the noncredentialed amateur who supplied what appeared to be unsubstantiated advice was well on the way to
total erasure.
That young people can use professional information in ways that are
plausible to the public is only one way in which the information explosion affects experts. Now that knowledge is everywhere, everyone has
access to professional, expert knowledge. For professionals, this means
there is a rising tide of doubt and questions concerning their information
and judgment. They no longer have a monopoly on expert knowledge in
their fields, and others are likely to question their opinions. This raises
questions regarding professional education. What exactly do periods of
long, professional training do that alleviate the rising tide of doubt that
comes with increasing access to professional knowledge and expertise?
Implosions in this area can be positive, in that students and clients can
become much more knowledgeable, demand better answers to their
questions, and develop skills in judging authentic knowledge. Professional/client knowledge implosions can provide strong incentives for the
professoriate to keep up with the fast-moving changes in their fields. But
the down side is the increased probability of contaminating professional
fields with nonsense, of undermining the standards of academic disciplines, and of promoting disarray in the maintenance of quality in education. This becomes a problem as students and others use the Internet
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as a research tool similar to a library. There may be an assumption that if
information is found anywhere on the Internet it must be accurate. At
present, however, guidelines and standards are inadequately developed
for judging the legitimacy of what is found on the Internet.
In addition, in this postmodern age, the Internet seems to invite plagiarism. What comes up on the Internet too often is viewed as publicly
available to use as one wishes, and the niceties of formal citation are not
always observed. Computer use in classrooms allows students to cheat
on examinations by comparing answers and copying each other's work.
Boundary erasures are not neutral, nor do they provide a mixture that
contains equal amounts of the entities imploded. In almost every case,
one side dominates the mixture. In the professions, the client/consumer
with access to unlimited information can seriously challenge the authority of the degreed professional, potentially creating a free-for-all that
could undermine the whole structure of credentials that colleges and
universities have traditionally provided. In higher education, we already
have the knowledge that at least one generation of professors learned
how to use computers from their students. With unlimited information at
their fingertips, students are also in a very much better position to call
into question the knowledge authority of professors. This is not a negative in that learning from students has always been a positive aspect of
teaching for professors. What is not so positive is the understanding we
have that information is not knowledge. These issues are central to status
and credentialing and raise serious questions in the postmodern world
about quality in universities, professions, business, and government. Implosions, de-disciplinary processes, and fragmentation from increasing
specialization all attest to a disjointed, diverse, postmodern higher education universe in which reliance on the metanarrative of science to repair the disunity is less feasible.
Social Theorists and Higher Education Policy Makers on Change
in the New Century
I have discussed changes continuing to take place in our society, the
impact of this transformation on higher education, alterations in the
postmodern perspective, and illustrations of how the terms and concepts
of postmodernism can aid in capturing a sense of the altered postmodern
world in which we live. The transformation has invited responses from
modernists and postmodernists. An important contingent of social theory modernists is keenly aware of the vast, disruptive changes happening in the twenty-first century, offering interpretations of what is occurring and what it means. These modernists eschew identification as
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postmodernists but employ many of the assumptions, concepts, and
terms of postmodernism. They continue to honor reason and proclaim
skepticism toward postmodernism, but they do see postmodernism as reflective of the changing times and as possessing varying amount of authenticity (McGuigan, 1999, p. 4).
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Higher Education, Chaos, Complexity, and Supercomplexity
A persuasive and far-reaching interpretation of conditions in the new
millennium is that of Ronald Barnett (2000), a professed modernist who
nevertheless subscribes to the notion that we live in a postmodern world.
His view of a quite troublesome future for higher education describes an
environment of not only complexity but also supercomplexity. Complexity refers to overloads of information, forces, and data that cannot be absorbed as increasing loads of input continue to arrive (2001, pp. 22-23).
Supercomplexity is of a different order referring to "the frameworks of
meaning that are available by which individuals might understand themselves ... these frameworks multiply and expand ... [and] ... jar and
contend with each other" (2001, p. 23).
In offering supercomplexity as the defining characteristic of the age,
Barnett finds both complexity and chaos theories inadequate perspectives for interpreting the condition of universities. The problem with
complexity theory is that it assumes that if we only had enough information, we could, in principle at least, decipher the grand design and act to
solve our problems. Barnett argues that no amount of information would
bridge the yawning gaps among the incommensurable frames of reference we face, so complexity theory provides a false hope. He also finds
chaos theory unrealistically optimistic in its assumption that within the
randomness of chaos, there might be discerned patterns that can be understood and that can form the basis for rational decision making (2000,
p. 29). Barnett asserts that there are simply too many frameworks of
meaning extant and coming into existence for us to understand what
they mean and how they relate to each other (Barnett, 2001, p. 26). In
Barnett's view, these frameworks have produced a new world of supercomplexity.
Locating Modern/Postmodern Perspectives
In the heated postmodern/modern debates, partisans have been designated as either entirely modernist or completely postmodernist. However, modernism and postmodernism are inextricably entwined. Discussions of postmodernism always take place with reference to modernism.
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Nowhere is this postmodern/modern nexus more apparent than when
discussing societal and educational change. Table 1 lists social theorists
who have studied these changes in society and higher education. This
table demonstrates that a strict dichotomy is not accurate; further, it conveys the message that many scholars who write about this current age of
postmodernity simultaneously hold both modernist and postmodernist
perspectives in varying degrees across a continuum that goes from high
on both modernism and postmodernism to low on modernism and postmodernism. The table relates to a central theme of this article-namely,
that implosion or interpenetration of the modern and the postmodern
characterizes the contemporary social, political, and cultural scene in
ways that strongly affect that modernist institution, higher education.
The table indicates how authors mix the modern and postmodern in their
quest to explain society and education in the early twenty-first century.
High on Modernism, High on Postmodernism
Best and Kellner's High/High position means that they express both
modern and postmodern orientations. Postmodernism leads them to explore what is novel in the emerging society, pointing to historical discontinuities and expanding indications of ambiguity in society. At the
same time, they see much continuity with modernity, so they adopt a
Imploding Modern/Postmodern Perspectives
I Best and Kellner
2 Barnett
3 Derrida
5 Lemert
7 Habermas
9 Premodern
4 McGuigan
Brint, City of Intellect
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mediating stance inclusive of both. As they write, "Taking this stance requires the deployment of a 'both/and' logic, and not an 'either/or' discourse" (2001, p. 208). This perspective helps them avoid concluding
that information technology will inevitably commodify higher education
and totally subsume colleges and universities to the needs of business.
Their High/High position points them toward a consideration of the opportunities information technology provides for dialogue and the development of a more democratic culture.
Frederic Jameson has interpreted postmodernism as a later stage in
the evolution of capitalism, in which the process of commodification is
extended to almost all aspects of social, political, and personal life as
well as to the economy (Best & Kellner, 1991, p. 185). What makes his
analysis high on both the modernist and postmodernist categories is his
immersion in and acceptance of much of the postmodern orientation
combined with a neo-Marxist, therefore modernist, set of assumptions
(Jameson, 1984).
Medium on Modernism, High on Postmodernism
Neither Barnett nor Delanty self-identifies as postmodernist. However, their descriptions and analyses of the changing universities in the
increasingly complex societies in which they exist are decidedly postmodern. Ronald Barnett asserts a modernist orientation but views the
current dislocations abundant in society as characterizing a postmodern
world (2000, p. 3). For Barnett, the first step in coping with supercomplexity is to understand that the university as traditionally perceived is
no longer operable and to recognize the reality of multiplying, competing but incommensurable frameworks of meaning.
Delanty characterizes the university itself as postmodern in his presentation of what he names the knowledge society (2001). In that society, the university needs to take advantage of the growing democratization and contestation of knowledge, reshaping itself to promote new
forms of technological and cultural citizenship to add to established citizen rights (Delanty, 2001, p. 5).
Low on Modernism, High on Postmodernism
Derrida (1976, 1992), Foucault (1979), Lyotard (1984), and Baudrillard (1994) are four of the most prominent critics associated with the
postmodern orientation. Derrida and Foucault have been linked to poststructuralism, while Lyotard and Baudrillard have been linked directly
to postmodernism. Derrida and Foucault deny that they are postmod-
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ernists, but their orientations and language are central to postmodernism. Derrida's concept of deconstruction and his position on the impossibility of closure in language are central to the postmodern perspective. Foucault's archeological approach to discourse provides an
unorthodox perspective on history, and his genealogy provides a strong
case for connecting power with knowledge. Lyotard is especially well
known for his critique of metanarratives, his attacks on scientific discourse as language games centrally involving power, and his negativity toward the performative character of the university in a postmodern society.
Baudrillard identifies himself as a postmodernist, and he has created
almost a new language for discussing consumerism, the media, entertainment, and the information society. All four have strongly critiqued
modernism and attacked Enlightenment assumptions concerning
progress, and all four are centrally interested in language. They all promote forms of micropolitics aimed at giving voice to minorities.
Bauman has underlined the postmodern concept of difference, a kind
of ultrapluralism in academia associated with the increasing fragmentation of universities. Professors, even in the same departments, do not understand each other, and know ledges are widely contested by external
sources leading to loss of academic control over knowledge (1997, pp.
18,22-23). He asserts that the problems of universities cannot be solved
by modernist methods (1997, p. 24).
High on Modernism, Medium on Postmodernism
Based on his writing on globalism, uncertainty, and particularly reflexivity, McGuigan takes a modernist position, rejecting the notion that we
live in a postmodern era. However, he does find some "truth" in claims
associated with the postmodern assessments of culture (1999, p. 4).
Medium on Modernism, Medium on Postmodernism
Charles Lemert identifies himself as a modernist in that he would like
to believe in the notion of progress, but he connects substantively with
the position he names "strategic postmodernism ... a postmodern readiness to think of the world as transformed by a strategic and appreciative
reconsideration of modernist culture" (1997, p. 36). His ambivalence
combined with an ironic touch place him in the category of being
medium on both modernism and postmodernism.
Low on Modernism, Medium on Postmodernism
No individuals seem to fit this category.
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High on Modernism, Low on Postmodernism
The modernist thrust is exemplified in the writings of Jurgen Habermas on higher education, which propose directions in which higher education should move, and in Steven Brint's edited symposium, The Future of the City of Intellect (2002), which indicates directions
researchers in higher education believe colleges and universities are
Habermas writes in the same problem areas as postmodernists, and although he dismissed postmodernism as neoconservative (Habermas,
1993, pp. 103-104), he added a constructivist element to his thinking in
the 1990s (Strydom, 1999, p. 254). Habermas sees the role of the apolitical university as going beyond simply providing and teaching technical
knowledge. Higher education should use its reflexive capacities to interpret and transform the society's culture, thus increasing the society's
communicative action capabilities to further a more radical democracy
(Habermas, 1971, pp. 2-5). Thus, he shares with the postmodernists an
antipathy toward the commodification of the university and penchant for
Brint's edition is a dense series of analyses of the challenges confronting universities. Postmodernism is mentioned only briefly, in connection with the humanities. Higher education is left more or less in
place, continuing to playa highly important role in society, as the university finds means for solving its most pressing problems. While modernist in its tone, this work incorporates a number of concepts and characteristics that other authors project as part of postmodern society.
References to the multiplication of apparently incommensurable tasks in
which universities are involved point to a level of complexity that approaches supercomplexity (Brint, 2002, p. xi). Increases in consumer
control and corporate research funding imply loss of professorial power
to define and evaluate what students should study, and faculty autonomy
is threatened by the encroachment of market standards for determining
what is studied and researched. Postmodern implosions are indicated in
discussions of the erasure of the wall between knowledge discovery and
knowledge application for profit in the university (Brint, 2002, p. xiii)
and of the general loss of power that universities have experienced,
which lead to a loss of control by institutions of higher education to external forces (Brint, 2002, pp. vii, xxi).
Low on Modernism, Medium on Postmodernism
No individuals seem to fit this category.
Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
Low on Modernism, Low on Postmodernism
Logically, this category would be called premodern and might include
advocates of some Western and Middle Eastern fundamentalist religions, such as some Islamic, Christian, and Jewish sects, that find little
to commend in the rational, secular aspects of modernism.
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Social Theorists and Educational Leaders on Higher Education
The social theorists cited have a shared interest in the rapid pace of
change driven by globalism, terrorism, information technology, and science. For those specifically interested in higher education, there is widespread agreement that the driving forces of change are deeply affecting
postsecondary education, creating dangerous fragmentation, dissolution
of community, loss of direction and unified purpose, attenuation of autonomy, supercompetitiveness, and unprecedented implosions dissolving the walls between universities, business, and government. Other
characteristics of the new millennium that affect everyone and spill over
into university life and structure include an openness that provides an almost endless number of options for institutions and individuals, rising
levels of skepticism, increases in risk and risk awareness, contested social and personal issues, and questions about constructed selves and
newly emerging identities.
To survive and continue to contribute to society, colleges and universities must both adapt to and participate in the transforming postmodern
world. Social theorists who speak directly to the condition of colleges
and universities view higher education's future in pessimistic or optimistic terms.
Pessimistic Postmodernists: Lyotard and Baudrillard
Lyotard's description of the high level of doubt regarding metanarratives leads him to take a dim view of higher education's future. Lyotard
wrote his report on the university, The Postmodern Condition, for the
government of Quebec, at what he called "a very postmodern moment
that finds the University nearing what may be its end" (1984, p. xxv).
Lyotard views this ending as based on the university's response to society's demand for performativity and on the increasing fragmentation of
knowledge that leaves the university with no concept of or any possibility for unity.
Baudrillard's concept of implosion, when applied to colleges and universities, elicits images of higher education's dissolved boundaries with
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corporations and governments and of erased borders between professors
as experts and their students. Both kinds of implosions imply serious incursions threatening institutional and professorial autonomy. Baudrillard's hyperreality describes situations in which the difference between reality and the words and images that describe reality become
unglued. Words and images become open to constantly multiplying interpretations. Continually proliferating signs begin to replace reality, becoming simulacra, where the sign becomes more real than reality (Usher
& Edwards, 1994, p.ll). Sensation subordinates reason, so that new experiences are not tied to any foundational objectivity and much of what
higher education believes it has been doing becomes less convincing.
Other social theorists have hopes for the postmodern world and prescriptions for how higher education might deal with its fragmented, supercomplex environment.
Guardedly Optimistic Postmodernists and Modernists
Some social theorists with pessimistic descriptions of the postmodern
world nevertheless offer hope and recommendations for how higher education might both adapt to and influence the environment they exist in,
while retaining some measure of autonomy.
Readings wrote a book on higher education with the pessimistic title
The University in Ruins. However, he offers a role for the university that
takes advantage of the current fragmentation and provides a "community of dissensus" (1996, p. 180), "a space in which it is possible to think
the notion of community ... without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication" (1996, p. 20). He hastens to note that his
approach is not the same as Gerald Graff's project to promote the teaching of conflicts (1987), for that perspective looks forward to reaching
consensus, and Readings argues that that potential closure is a search for
an ideal community and would not keep constantly before us the question of how to be together.
Delanty also posits a university that takes advantage of fragmentation.
Asserting that the university will be the major site for the inevitable battles over contested knowledge claims, Delanty contends that higher education would do well to embrace this role. Delanty worries that the diffusion of knowledge, combined with the tendency of the media to dumb
down public debate, has diminished the significance of the public
sphere. He writes, "rather than seeking the unity of culture, a consensus
based community of communication, the point is to institutionalize dissensus and to make the university a site of public debate, thus reversing
the decline of the public sphere" (2001, p. 7).
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Whatever Happened to Postmodernism
Even as he paints a discouraging picture of the postmodern university
and its supercomplex environment, Barnett retains a kind of optimism
regarding institutions of higher education in defending the notion that
the world still believes in and desires to retain some of their conventional functions, at least in some form. Despite existing in a world of
constant turmoil and being subject to conflicting forces and incommensurable frames of meaning, enlightenment values in the university retain
significant viability for the society. As Barnett writes, "Voices in the
wider society speak of know ledge, breadth, critical reason, freedom, and
even critical conscience" (2001, p. 34).
For Barnett, the task for the university is to identify significant frameworks of meaning and to create spaces where these frameworks can be
discussed and debated. Like others who discuss current change in the context of universities, Barnett places a premium on the need for constant
probing for self-understanding or reflexivity. He argues that the public
continues to demand that higher education pursue many of its traditional
purposes: knowledge creation and dissemination, citizen education, individual growth, and career preparation. Even as he acknowledges that in
the postmodern age, the self and identity are dissolving, changing concepts, Barnett reminds us that people still look to the university as a place
where personal development and fulfillment can take place (2001, p. 53).
Surprisingly, the antifoundationalist Derrida, strongly identified as a
postmodernist, nevertheless writes, "We live in a world where the foundation of a new law-in particular a new university law-is necessary.
. . . [T]his foundation is already well on the way, and irresistibly so"
(1992, p. 30).
Optimistic Modernists and Postmodernists
An optimistic line of thinking promotes the idea that, because colleges and universities are the major producers not only of new knowledge but also of scientific breakthroughs and technological advances,
higher education will be at the forefront of economic prosperity and will
become even more successful. Much of this writing sees the collapse of
the boundaries between higher education and industry as a positive development in which universities have a major role in driving the information economies of the twenty-first century. Some contributors to
Brint's The Future of the City ofIntellect fit this category, although there
is general agreement that the changes taking place present great difficulties for higher education in the future.
Some postmodernists predict positive outcomes for higher education, Zygmunt Bauman being the most optimistic. He sees traditional
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universities as being transformed into postmodern universities, characterized by extreme heterogeneity with fragmented and differentiated
knowledges. This leads to a flexible university, made better by its ability
to accommodate to this heterogeneity. Bauman believes that the search
for a new higher education consensus is fruitless:
It is the good luck of the universities that there are so many of them, that
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there are no two exactly alike, and that inside every university there is a
mind-boggling variety of departments, schools, styles of thoughts, styles of
conversation, and even styles of stylistic concerns. (1997, p. 25)
In a postmodern world of such diversity that we cannot know what skills
will be needed tomorrow or what ideas will need interpretation, it is the
university that is "capable of rising to the postmodern challenge" (1997,
Because we have multiple and conflicting purposes in higher education, but a desire to resolve issues through the use of totalizing discourses, there is a tendency to reject as merely frivolous or relativistic
the ludic or playfulness found in postmodernism. However, in Derrida's
hands, the ludic becomes a means for subverting the seriousness and totalism of Enlightenment assumptions. Such tropes as irony, tragedy, and
parody provide indirect means for resisting power and totalizing discourses (Usher & Edwards, 1994, p. 15). Rorty reminds us that metaphysicians view irony as unacceptably relativistic (1989, p. 75). But
even Rorty's irony requires something of substance to playoff, falling
short of relativism, when he writes that "Ironists have to have something
to have doubts about, something from which to be alienated" (1989, p.
88). I argue that, despite its potential for extreme interpretation, postmodern suspensive irony can be read redemptively to claim the kind of
openness to change and new experience necessary to respond to postmodern society, without being viewed as either frivolous or totalizing
(1989, pp. 537-49). In higher education, this would mean allowing for
playful ironic responses, a lighter touch to confront the difficulties of
adapting and contributing to the depth and speed of postmodern change.
In the face of the heavy hand of globalism, the implosion of business
and higher education, the turns in science and technology, the implications of the information revolution, and the fluidity of self and identity,
it is important to think about how to cope with the postmodern world. If
colleges and universities are becoming more like businesses, or are becoming businesses, if the professorship is fragmenting and its work dis-
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bursed to a number of other sites, and if terrorism and threats of war are
part of our future, managing risk and uncertainty becomes our major
task. I have discussed ways of managing the university offered by the
guardedly optimistic and the optimistic postmodernists and modernists:
institutionalize dissensus within the university; determine the most important frameworks of meaning, and create sanctuaries within the university where the frameworks can be examined and argued; wait for new
metanarratives to develop; continue to use traditional modernist rational
approaches to problem solving; stop seeking a unified purpose for universities; recognize and take advantage of the plurality of departments,
canons, and styles of ideas and debate as the basis for creating and developing the now unimagined new skills and ideas needed to cope with
the postmodern era; and include a lighter, more playful stance toward
the uncertain world of the twenty-first century.
Beyond the suggestions of the modernists and postmodernists for
maintaining the university are two more general recommendations:
shore up the legitimacy of professionals and institutionalize reflexivity.
Despite the pervasiveness of postmodern doubt concerning professionals generally, the need for professional expertise continues to grow. Academic professionals have been deeply involved in generating the speed
and depth of the hyper-change we are now experiencing, and it is their
responsibility to seek its meaning, interpret it for society, and find solutions. Brint (1994) has made a strong case for the notion that expertise
has become the dominant aspect of professionalization. This emphasis
on expertise means that service to clients, patients, and students is being
neglected. In a postmodern world characterized by rising levels of doubt
about professionals, including professors, it is important to maintain and
strengthen the traditional professional commitment of service to clients
and society. If professionals were to make service the primary orientation, more trust would accrue to them, and there would be more trust in
their expertise as well. With the great uncertainty, complexity, indeterminacy, and doubts generated by our experiences in the postmodern era,
we need some means of dealing with what could be the creation of a
deep sense of pessimism and despair, particularly in relation to higher
Reflexivity is a response to the reality of a bewildering array of unavoidable risks, uncertainties, and options impinging on institutions and
individuals that cannot be dealt with effectively by applying conventional rational assumptions and actions or by relying on a stable array of
social and cultural norms (Beck, 1994, p. 6). Reflexivity involves the
constant monitoring by individuals and institutions of themselves as
they are situated in a postmodern world of supercomplexity. Similar to
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others, both modernist and postmodernist, Barnett asks for a permanent
reflexivity when he proposes that a continuous posture of seeking selfunderstanding should be embedded in university life. His proposition
urges that the frameworks be kept open; the mission of the institution
should never be frozen but continuously be debated. Barnett sums up the
importance of constant monitoring by the university:
[W]hat [the university] can offer is what it has been doing for eight hundred
years: perpetual critical scrutiny of what it encounters alongside its creative
offerings. These two capacities-creativity accompanied by critique-are
the capacities that a world of uncertainty and contestability requires. (2000,
By viewing the early new millennium as a postmodern era, we can see
not only that the postmodern perspective is alive and robust but also that
postmodernism can and should be used to identify and interpret the disruptive and widespread changes occurring everywhere around us. Although postmodernism does not provide an alternative explanatory metannarative, it is crucial for the task of monitoring and questioning our
acceptance of the assumptions and assertions of modernist metanarratives.
Barnett, R. (2000). Realizing the university in an age of supercomplexity. Philadelphia:
Open University Press.
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