The dogmas of postmodernism, or how to teach critical thinking?

Veronica Vasterling, Center of Women’s Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen (the Netherlands).

Keywords: Critical Thinking, Interdisciplinarity, Knowledge

As a philosopher who teaches both regular philosophy courses and women/gender studies courses at undergraduate and graduate level, I am aware of two important characteristics of gender studies that constitute its strength vis à vis traditional disciplines like philosophy, namely interdisciplinary practice and international cooperation. Whereas in philosophy there is still little communication bridging the divide of the Continental and Anglo-Saxon tradition, gender studies has a well established practice of ‘travelling concepts’ in the more or less literal sense of concepts being transported from one geographical and/or disciplinary location to another through communication. Gender studies does however also have its weaknesses. Interdisciplinary practice does too often result in misguided applications of concepts, parroted theory and other deficits of method and theory. In this paper I want to discuss what appears to be the related problem of a lack of critical thinking. One of the fields in which I perceive this lack is the one discussed in Clare Hemming’s position paper, i.e. the curriculum.

The call for non-exclusive, inclusive curricula is the natural counterpart of an increasingly international student body and research network. Despite the fact that inclusive curricula are obviously a commendable goal one should strive to attain, the presuppositions of the demand for inclusive curricula stand in need of critical scrutiny. When I discuss the issue of inclusiveness and related issues with my students I often encounter, to put it strongly, two dogmas of postmodernism. First the assumption that cultures differ significantly and second the belief in continuing Western hegemony, i.e. the imposition of Western norms worldwide. The rationale for the call for inclusive curricula based on these two presuppositions is that inclusiveness is believed to redress an imbalance pertaining to representational power and presence: the West is overrepresented and the rest is underrepresented. Redressing this imbalance by way of inclusive curricula means more equal representation of cultural diversity on the one hand, and critique and undermining of Western hegemony on the other hand.

The problem with the two dogmas is not that they are false but that they evoke a too simplistic picture of the present day world. The question should be raised in what way the thorough colonization of the world by the West in the past and the present process of globalization complicate the assumption of cultural difference and Western hegemony. What does cultural difference mean in a world in which the establishment of cultural uniformity through aggressive marketing (‘Mac World’) and the universalization of democracy and human rights in both legitimate and illegitimate ways (cf. the recent Iraq war) goes in tandem with a self-conscious, often reactive valorization of local differences? And in which Western orientalism does by now appear to have its non-Western counterpart that ‘others’ the West by blaming it for all that is and goes wrong in the non-Western world? Doesn’t the notion of cultural difference suggest an unrealistic picture of cultures as islands retaining a kernel of purity in the recesses of the interior despite all the colonial and global commerce and violation that has been and is going on in the shore regions? And to complicate matters further, what are the effects of having to communicate in the de facto lingua franca of the globalized world, i.e. English? As languages are not mere neutral instruments for communicating interior thoughts but, on the contrary, do already represent a culture or world, worldwide communication in the English lingua franca does contribute enormously to the cultural globalization of the world and, at the same time, to anti-Western/American resentment for it is perceived as a symptom of American hegemony even though the USA does of course not impose the use of English.

Instead of a Western or American hegemony pure and simple, I discern a more complicit power differential between the educated elites of the Western and non-Western world which in some respects is not unlike the power struggle of the sexes. Remember the discussion on equality versus difference in the eighties? The well established goal of emancipation, i.e. equality, came under attack because having reached already a measure of equality women started to realize that the prize they were paying was the relinquishment of positive or valued aspects of feminine practices and identity like care and cooperation. Hence the reaction that women’s different identity should be acknowledged and revalued. Since then the goal of equality has changed into equal recognition and representation of different identities (different cultures etc.). But the dominance of the politics of recognition has made the educated elites worldwide – of which we, as teachers, and our students are members – forget that we have a lot more in common with each other, whether Western or non Western, male or female, than with the marginalized poor and uneducated worldwide.

These and other questions and suspicions underlie what I perceive as the dogmas of postmodernism. They are in my opinion among the reasons why ‘a focus on the extension of the curriculum frequently results in a reduction rather than an increase in critical thinking’ as Clare Hemmings writes in her position paper. The recipe for dogmatism is the practice of critical thinking. Some essential ingredients of such a practice are mentioned in Eva Bahovec’s position paper, i.e. Denkarbeit and the effort to think ‘without banisters’ (Hannah Arendt 1982) to which Kant summons us in his famous and still inspiring essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’ Like Trauerarbeit, the labor of grief, Denkarbeit, the labor of thought, takes time and is painful for in order to be critical and creative it has to work through and suspend the already known and open up the mind for something new. This is painful because we feel comfortable in what is already thought and known (Lyotard 1991). To leave the ‘banisters’ of established opinion, authority, and habitual knowledge behind, to ‘dare think for oneself’ (Kant) is a risky business that might be exhilarating but it might also be a bruising experience.

If critical thinking by itself is already a challenge than the teaching of critical thinking is even more of a challenge. In my experience, one of the main obstacles to (teaching) critical thinking has to do with the weakness of interdisciplinarity I mentioned in the beginning. Critical thinking requires a firm and thorough command of the concepts, theories and methods that are about to be criticized or that are used as instruments of criticism, yet too often the understanding and command of concepts, theories and methods is deficient. Is this only a practical problem that can be solved, or is it a weakness inherent in interdisciplinarity in that it impels us and our students to work with concepts, theories and methods from fields of knowledge beyond the ones we are trained in?

Based on the above I want to propose interdisciplinarity, knowledge and critical thinking as the three interconnected key concepts.
1) Interdisciplinarity: I did recognize Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou’s observations with respect to the problem of interdisciplinarity. Especially helpful I found the observation that interdisciplinarity, and perhaps also travelling concepts, involves understanding the practices that lie behind a discipline or concept. I think this is the case and that it also goes a long way in explaining why productive interdisciplinarity is so difficult to achieve. In order to probe the problems and possibilities of interdisciplinarity in a more concrete fashion it is helpful to have a ‘case’, and what better case is there but gender? So I support Eniko Demeny’s proposal of an interdisciplinary exploration of the concept of gender, though for a slightly different reason. For me it is the practice of interdisciplinarity that is the problem, for Eniko Demeny it is the concept ‘gender’, but my guess is that the first is at least part of the problem of the last.
2) Knowledge: inspired by the papers of Eva Skaerbaek, Iris van der Tuin and Marina Calloni I have started to wonder whether we should not take the implication of feminist epistemology seriously, i.e. that the concept of knowledge as a set of situated, embodied practices actually functions (more or less) as a critical, counterfactually universal standard in feminist gender studies. According to this standard, the ‘neutral, abstract knowledge’ referred to in Eva Skaerbaek’s paper is nothing but knowledge which disavows and ignores its situatedness and embodiedness. Why do I think it is important to take that implication seriously? Because the further elaboration of the concept and, more importantly, the practice and methodology of situated knowledge in the above sense would perhaps be helpful in establishing a productive interdisciplinary practice.
3) Critical thinking: Eniko Demeny raises the question what difference a feminist perspective makes in using the concept gender. I would say that the difference between feminist and mainstream gender studies consists in the deliberate and reflective attempt to be critical and politically engaged whereas that is not the case in the latter case. And in addition I would submit that critical thinking in this day and age needs at least to engage in interdisciplinary or, as Iris van der Tuin puts it, transdisciplinary dialogues.

Summing up, I guess the focus of my concerns is the practice of critical thinking in relation to interdisciplinarity. On the one hand I have become convinced that inter- and transdisciplinary dialogues are a necessary condition of creative research in general and gender and feminist studies in particular. On the other hand however, the postmodern condition of globalization, though it favors the development of interdisciplinarity, also appears to evoke the counter-reaction of defending and policing the boundaries of one’s identity, whether national, disciplinary or cultural. The two dogma’s of postmodernism I discussed above are part of this reaction. My conclusion would be that critical interdisciplinary practice needs to steer clear of both this reaction and the flight ahead in which any identity is rejected. The openness and creativity that critical interdisciplinary practice requires are impossible to achieve without some firm ground and substance supplied by identity.

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© 2005