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July 16, 2006


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This letter echoes our experience on both sides of the student/teacher divide, but we do take issue with this -"Postmodernism strikes again."
We hope she's making this statement to further illustrate what a poor grasp on contemporary intellectual issues Generation Y has. Obviously, the notion that there is a coherent "position" reflected in postmodernism, or that so-called postmodern scholars actually advocate that all ideological positions are valid, is mistaken.

She's dead on though in describing this as being the position of students. They often confuse the right to an opinion with the validity of that opinion.

As an aside, we were recently discussing the bestseller lists of college bookstores. It was amazing to see the difference between those of the 60s and those of the 90s (can't remember where we saw the lists). Political (often leftist) theory vs. self-help. Even if it was "trendy" to be a protester or intellectual in that era (as many people have dismissively told us), what an extraordinary cultural moment when it was "hip" to read Marx, rather than "hip" to not read at all (excluding instructions for your ipod or Xbox).


She kind of loses me with the rather patronising gaze and the 'defense of the Republic' thing, I'd have to say.

If students are increasingly unwilling to debate, this may well have to do with not caring, but also perhaps poor classroom practices and, not least, a conformism that becomes heightened at a time of increasingly precarious economic prospects.

Personally, I hate baby boomers, for their self-absorbed notion that the economy is now as it as was for them. Obesity, taco bell, all these things she turns her nose up at - these are related to poverty, yes?



It seems to me that if something like 'unwillingness to debate' is widespread, then it may not easily be reduced to the dynamics of a specific classroom but rather to the larger situation of classrooms and students. My students, many of whom are quite privileged and confident in their economic futures, are also conformist, but I don't think their conformity is linked to anxiety about the future--I could be wrong about this, though.

Also, I'm not sure she's necessarily blaming the obese eaters of tacos as much as she is the generation that produced strip malls, malls, fast food restaurants, and entertainment driven consumer culture. I think she is blaming the drivers not the driven.

McKenzie Wark

Bad teachers blame their students.


Ken--perhaps. But that still doesn't address the changing nature of the students, the new challenges they present, their aptitudes and interests. And, there is again the question of patterns across different teachers.


I'm intrigued by the responses to this post, which indicate to me that the author has hit something real. It would be easy to simply say that "bad teachers blame their students", but as a professor who has consistently received outstanding reviews for my teaching (and I'm not trying to toot my own horn), I encounter very similar dynamics in my classroom.

I teach philosophy, and one of the more surprising things I find is that teaching Plato and Descartes is like pulling teeth. This is not because of the inherent difficulty of these texts (the early and middle dialogues, along with the Meditations, are highly accessible), but because of the *truth-claims* these philosophers are making. Both Plato and Descartes assert the possibility of universal truths and attempt to give arguments in defense of such truths. Now, what I find remarkable in the classroom, is that introductory students have a tremendously difficult time even conceiving the possibility of such a truth or in entertaining the possibility that they or someone else can be mistaken (rather than simply have a different "opinion"). When I say they have a difficult time conceiving the *possibility* of such truths, I do not mean that they are *skeptical* of these sorts of truths, but that they're not even aware that there are universes of thought where someone might legitimately hold that 2 + 2 = 4 is not simply an "opinion", but a universal truth, regardless of whether one *believes* it or is aware of it.

In short, the classroom I encounter is a classroom where questions of knowledge (which are quite independent of belief) have all backslid into categories of belief, opinion, and perspective. I've been tremendously surprised to discover that my students are generally historicists, perspectivists, and cultural relativists in all matters. Indeed, even questioning another person's beliefs is encountered as being "rude" and "beligerant" as "everyone is entitled to their beliefs" and those beliefs are "true for them" (as if "true for me" were even a coherent concept). The result is that debate can't even emerge because the category of fact and the possibility of being mistaken has disappeared altogether. This strikes me as a fundamental mutation in contemporary subjectivity, that reflects wider scale transformations taking place with regard to the symbolic and legitimation. Pimping my own blog, I write about this here:


Please do not misunderstand me. I'm not suggesting that universalism is true (though I do tend to be a realist where mathematics is concerned, i.e., I don't think maths are simply human constructs or language games). What bothers me about this whole trend is that it tends to yield complacency, disrespect of otherness, and a lack of critical thought. If everything is opinion and there are no facts, then there really no motivation to critically evaluate one's own beliefs as you'll simply be rewarded with more opinions. I take it as axiomatic that we act in the world on the basis of our beliefs. My actions are a function of what I (un)consciously belief. The problem with the endless mantra I constantly encounter in student essays where students are the "true for me" line and the "everyone is entitled to their own beliefs line", is that belief is then seen as a category of pure interiority, a private affair, belonging only to oneself, yet one ends up disrespecting the other in that they nonetheless act on their beliefs in the world (through voting and more concrete forms of action) effectively imposing their ill thought out beliefs on others about them in the social world. Belief is not simply between the ears (and as Zizek has compellingly argued, it's not even clear that belief is in our propositional attitudes).

I'm highly sympathetic to social constructivist forms of thought, but increasingly I'm coming to feel that the truly radical gesture, where teaching is concerned, is not a defense of social constructivism that shows how things we believe to be natural and universal are instead products of a particular culture, language, and history, but a staunch defense of universalism that holds out the possibility that we can be mistaken. Of course, this would be an ever receding universalism similar to what Socrates advocated, where we're always pursuing it without ever finally reaching it, thereby putting ourselves and our knowledge perpetually in question.



The funny thing is that even in the crass business world the successful participants are those that stand for something - not because they make money, but because they actually believe what they are doing and can articulate why they are right.

The "everyone is entitled to their own opinion" belief (which I counter with "opinions are like assholes, everyone has one") sets up these students for mid-tier office politics, trying to make everyone just get along and execute what comes down from on top.

They are being well-trained.


Ha Pebird! I use the same expression in my classroom. I think we're witnessing the outcome of a certain conception of tolerance. The paradox is that where one tolerates everything, one has convictions about nothing. Tolerance, which is supposed to be a defense of difference, ends up levelling all differences. A sort of prohibition against having convictions quickly emerges.

I'm not sure how to escape this quandry. I'm all for tolerance-- whatever that means --but I'm certainly not for this!


I think what happened is that the identity politics (with which Jodi has an excellent critique) somehow was merged into pop culture as "tolerance".

The verb "to tolerate" really means to put up with a discomfort. So tolerance implies that there is something uncomfortable with the encounter with the unfamiliar and that to endure the anxiety this creates. How that got turned into "whatever you say, whatever" is why the geniuses of Madison Avenue and Hollywood are paid very well.

The point is that no one is even tolerant - they just don't care - if they were tolerating something that would mean they had some disagreement but were putting it aside for some greater good (consumption, perhaps?). But I don't even see any discomfort.

People say they are tolerant because it seems a little cruel to say they don't give a shit.

Mr. Six

[C]ollege is like Burger King -- Get It Your Way!

On one hand, I understand and empathize with your point that education should not be a commodity, but the reality is otherwise, even at — yes — state schools.

As someone paying top dollar for his own (graduate) education, and not taking out loans, I get rightfully upset when the quality of instruction is poor, and I should be allowed to expect better value for my money.

Sorry, but if, year after year, schools keep raising their prices at a rate faster than inflation, their instructors shouldn't complain when their customers/students expect better.


I really don't know WHAT you are talking about, it certainly doesn't seem to illuminate or distinguish my generation with any particular clarity.

A lot of your points ring true for the American public in general. Apathy, love for gadgets, lack of knowledge regarding important literature/current events. So I pose this question to you, how do we as a generation, exhibit these characteristics and more than our fathers and predecesors?

And commercialization in college? Maybe you're pointing your finger in the wrong direction. The grand push towards commercialization starts at the administration. They don't talk about things like well rounded education or personal growth, it's "customer satisfaction", accredidation, rankings, and brand image. We are dehumanized, depersonalized and treated like little wallets. You ever hear the term "research university?" I went to one and I got the distinct feeling that students were and annoyance to the professors, wasting their precious research time.

I agree with your analysis of society (which cuts across all generations), but what do you propose we do about it?

D. Armstrong

Thought provoking piece. In looking at the issue of conformism, I generally stick that at the feet of the education system. In general the more school the more conformist. Sometimes I wished i conformed a little more so I could get a decent conformist job, rather than being stuck with unfortunate ability to critique the various systems I participate in.


Gen Y: when you say my points, do you mean the points in the comments? because I didn't write the post. I have a sense that you in some way don't understand the post: the blame is placed on the baby boomers, not the current generation. So, your point about the administration is correct and in keeping with the general blame in the post on baby boomers for pushing a consumer oriented society; folks who are brought up have a difficult time seeing other possibilities or ways of being because these have been increasingly diminished.

What to do about it? That's the hard question. From my side, as a faculty member involved in faculty governance, I work against the extension of corporate models into the colleges where I teach and respond to branding discussions with discussions of education. Students can also reject this--organizing themselves and fighting for a better education.

The larger problem involves the capitalist system. Lenin had some solutions here that I still admire.


Try this:

Don't expect anything of value from the administration except bullshit.

You can't avoid smelling it, but don't swallow.

Read more than you ever thought you could.

Find the 2% of superior professors that exist in your school. Take classes from them regardless of subject matter.

Check every quarter / semester / year for incoming teachers - check out what they have written / accomplished.

Take intro to psych, econ, linguistics, statistics, sociology, art history. If nothing clicks, shoot yourself.

Learn a foreign language. Or two.

Learn to play golf (believe me, it's cheaper at college).

Read about the history of slavery in the US.

Ride a horse.

Turn off the iPod.

Don't worry about building a skill - there aren't any.

Learn to work.

No body cares what degree you got or what courses you took - just that you had the endurance to get one.

Network with students to build relationships beyond school.


These are great, PEbird. Would you mind if I printed them and distributed them to students or at least posted them on my office door?


I am heartened to read academics taking the view that students are not all shiny and hard working little muffins that must be protected from suggestions otherwise, but, often bear no responsibility towards their own and each other's practice as individuals who claim to be 'students'. As a recent graduate, apart from incredulously sharing anecdotes about student disengagement with those few interested parties, those oases in the desert who are uncool enough to read and discuss that reading, I have cringed in silence for years at all those long hours in seminars in which 'that documentary the other night' becomes the catch-all reference in place of anything on the reading list or expounded in the lecture hall. It has been excruciating. Wark's comment may have something to it, but to undergraduates interested in what they do amid indifference, it does more to keep the pressure of opening a book off the students and onto the tutors' abilities to work around this.

On Levi's point about opinions, the eternally strange thing about their valorisation is how that valorisation disappears when grades are given out: suddenly, everything is no longer equally valid, but grades indicate a universe in which there are, to use that creeping management term, 'measurables'.

Southwood's generational line is neither easy to define nor convert into practical solutions based on that definition. This is assuming one is necessary - mature students can be quick to excuse themselves with their domestic burdens, and then discuss all the television they found endless hours for.

The lack of reading and debate is a cultural problem extending beyond universities and colleges, a problem for which I can offer little towards the remedy of, however, for myself at least, it is such a relief to give it a name!


Thanks posting about this, Jodi.



I assume no property ownership of any comments I make on blogs - at least in terms of who can reuse them. Of course, use them/edit them as you wish.

I was late for getting to work this AM (I'm on the West Coast) so I didn't really think them through.

I wanted to add:

"Remember there is no crystal ball; your parents raised you for a world that no longer exists."


Tom Wolf's "I am Charlotte Simmons" speaks directly to the issue student apathy by focusing on the culture of college and the social hierarchies that exist outside the classroom. In the absense of rules and guidence from parents and teachers, life on campus is ruled by social structures created by the student body. It is what goes on outside the classroom that dictates what happens inside the classroom. A student's willingness to participate in discussion is, in my mind, directly correlated to how they feel they will be perceived by their peers. By engaging in debate a student is exposed to criticism by their peers. It is the lack of a long term perspective (a global perspective) and the immediate risk of failure that attributes to apathy.


Is it really necessary to rehabilitate universality in order to combat the facile misunderstanding of postmodernity as equivilant to absolute relativism? That seems emotionally driven and intellectually irresponsible.

Could we not, rather, teach the historicity and contingency of all ideas and suggest that the (educated)individual subject, with agency to have preferences and to participate politically in reproducing and/or changing dominant narratives, is therefore responsible for those preferences?

To return to a discredited, if ontologically reassuring, idea of universality just in order to combat the distressing banality of the result of the massive misapplication of insights post Nietzsche seems to be sending a more disturbing message, perhaps, than bland relativism: "it feels better to be sure, so go find an ideology that fits."


Not the antiboomers. If anything, they are exactly what boomers turned into. What they ae doing is skipping the silly utopia/all-you-need-is-lov/we-can-change the world/freelove phase. They are just a reflection of their parents.

Not that any of that is agood thing.



Randall--I prefer a credible notion of univerality; there are of course different versions of this notion; some versions of universality are precisely not reassuring, they are shattering and dramatic.

Rodkong: do you think that students should have more rules from administration and faculty? or, that they should find ways of controlling themselves? To a certain extent, the post above provides reasons why students are the way they are, that is, why the campus climate makes debate difficult, makes students fearful of engaging in arguments, etc.


Bad teachers complain about their students.


I guess the answer is: you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't...If you’re focus is on standards and rules, the outcome will inevitably restrict a student’s independence by creating a dependence on grades and performance. Students might be inclined to cheat or cut corners (abuse prescription drugs) if they had to perform to a standard. Each student is an individual, rules and regulation may help some, but hurt others. The other extreme might produce the same results. A lack of rules and standards would produce anarchy within the classroom; the students would become dictators and control the direction of the class. There should be a balance of rules and freedom. The responsibility for this balance should fall on the shoulders of all parties (students, faculty, and the administration) With regard to the classroom; professors should set a minimum standard for class. Example, make participation a requirement or grade engagement to the equivalent of a test. Professor Dunn does a good job of fostering engagement by calling on students randomly and asking for their opinion. While you might be caught off guard the first time, the second time you’ll be better prepared b/c you don’t want to make the same mistake twice. In this case, accountability is shared between the student and the professor. The professor is accountable for calling on the students and keeping them in check, the students are accountable for being prepared to debate. This relationship should also exist between the faculty and the administration and between the administration and the students.


"These damned kids today! It ain't like when I was a student back in the old days, no siree! Back in my day we raced each other to the library to do the reserve readings! And it was uphill both ways! Back in the old days we had to have class discussions while sitting on broken glass! And we were glad to have it I tell you, glad to have it!"

Can anyone here give me a single piece of objective data that suggest students are different in these regards than they have ever been? Cause all I am reading here is grumpy old guy anecdotal nonsense, comparing the typical student of today with the commenter's own atypical experiences as a student. It is embarrassing to see academics practicing such sloppy thinking.


I despise this infantalization of students. As if college were not voluntary but compulsory.

When do people become adults now in the U.S.? At 25, 35? Probably never is the correct answer.

“Students need rules” – how about take responsibility for your life.

For gods sake, grow up.


Randall, for me the verdict is still out on these questions. I'm certainly not interested in returning to a traditional notion of universality. As I see it, the problem isn't universality, but the manner in which the particular has often presented itself as the universal. For instance, some set of qualities masquerades as universal when, in reality, they are a set of contingent standards belonging to a particular group or gender.

In my original post I mentioned Socrates. If you read Plato's early dialogues you find that Socrates doesn't present a single universal in his discussions, but rather the idea of the universal is treated as a sort of regulative ideal that we're always working towards. That is, there's the idea of a truth of the matter, but also a strategy of perpetually treating that truth as deferred. What is important here is the process of dialogue, not finally reaching an end point. This strategy avoids the self-satisfied narcissism of both particularism and universalism. In the first instance, the subject, recognizing that all is contingent, feels no need to inquire into other contingent perspectives. I see this as the logical outcome of postmodernism and don't see how it can legitimately be argued that this attitude is simply the result of facile appropriations of postmodern thought. All things being equal, my contingent perspective is just as good as any other contingent perspective, so why bother?

Likewise, treating the universal as something we *have* rather than as something we're working towards or as a process, produces a similar self-satisfied narcissism that all too easily confuses its own contingent perspective with what is universal.

In addition to this Socratic perspective, I find the proposals of Laclau and Badiou especially attractive. In the case of Laclau, the universal is thought as a point of the real around which struggles occur to "hegemonize" the universal. The universal is here real, but empty of specific content. It is something that haunts the social field as a sort of *problem* rather than a fixed and positive entity. In the case of Badiou, the universal is thought as that which is subtracted from the particular predicates defining the encyclopedia of a situation, allowing for an infinite truth-procedure that is open ended and irreducible to any positive predicates defining fixed identities in the situation. Once again, the universal is here conceived as a process rather than a thing.

A fourth possibility, perhaps Zizek's (Jodi could answer to this better), would be the Hegelian idea of the universal always expressing itself through the particular, such that it is intrinsically defined by an exception. Zizek devotes a good deal of time developing this concept of the universal in his magnificent, yet underdiscussed, work *For They Know Not What They Do*.

I've always been fond of the Lacanian aphorism that "truth punches a hole in knowledge". The whole problem with the thesis that all is interpretation, that all is opinion, is that it reduces everything to the regime of knowledge, which, in turn, breeds complacency as we no longer experience ourselves as divided. I don't see better and more sophisticated forms of postmodernism being able to respond to this. For instance, identity politics is actually reassuring as it allows me to efface my status as a divided being and proceed on the premise that I *know* what I am. A truth is what interrupts this knowing, and is what cannot be reduced to encyclopedic determinants. When Socrates questions the citizens of Athens, he punches a hole in their knowledge. For instance, in questioning Euthyphro as to the nature of piety, he demolishes Euthyphro's narcissistic identity as one who is knowledgable in matters of religion (Euthyphro is like the Dobsen, Robertson, or Falwell of the ancient world) and opens a space of questioning where piety in its universal dimension can become a matter of thought and questioning, as well as an endless process we're working towards without having it. What's crucial here is to avoid reducing everything to sentiment or identity, whether those identities be cultural, psychological, historical, etc.


omigod does this mean students aren't going to debate uncle joe's forthcoming opus from random house drink pray fight and fuck-- nothing could be more awful than that--for sure-- order your copy of drink pray fight and fuck today and receive as a bonus zizek's politics -- this is a special promotional offer from southern sweethearts jodi and joe and may be rescinded at any time--


Let's be honest: graduate students, on the whole, are no better! How many times have I gone to seminar only to find that three quarters of my peers neglected to do the reading? How many of them expect an extension on assignments - extensions that often go on for months? How many of them expect an A just for showing up and handing in some half-assed work?


As many as you allow, that is how many.

Adam Kotsko

LarryC, Craig is a graduate student himself, not an instructor of graduate students.

Adam Kotsko

Also -- "debate" does not really mean making universalizing truth claims. It often means trying your best to defend an opinion you are opposed to. "Debate" is about the art of persuasion, and that is measured by the contingent particular performance, not by the actual truth-value of the claims being defended. "Debate" is thoroughly relativist.


I'm not fond of the generational blame--uh--game. It strikes me as unhelpfully moralistic or moralizing (as does the tone of the piece in general). It feels like melancholic humanism or ressentiment, perhaps. It's facile, at any rate.

It's the old "kids these days!" saw retrofitted w/ the bite of "kids these days'parents!" And while I often appreciate PeBird's comments, the "dammit, just grow up!" "be responsible!" business rings like a crank. (Unless 'grow up and be responsible!' means 'rise up and revolt!,' in which case I'll follow your lead, sir)

What I do find interesting about young students and their historico-relativist complacency-complex "these days" is the a priori presence of Scientific Truth and the Scientific Method as the terra firma on which relativism pitches its tents.

(What's Deleuze and Guattari's quip in Geophilosophy? 'The French pitch tents on ideas; but the Germans are the worst: they build entire cities on them.'--I might have this wrong)

I'm starting to sense that, especially among secular American liberals, the scientism decried by Horkheimer and Adorno, Heidegger, et al (Germans!), is the new orthodoxy. Pace the willy-nilly relativism, I see the rebirth of scientific positivism as the ground that sustains complacency and apolitical cheer.

And w/ the Xian Right's anti-Darwinian campaigns what they are, it's easy to see how any critique or critical investigation of a scientific worldview appears beyond the pale.

Relativism only exists in the (illusory) vacuum of the death of ideology. Such is its unhomeliness(?)

Science is here to explain away mystery and to flesh out and delimit the possible. The Liberal Arts are "still important" and debating about Foucault stimulating, but clearly neuroscience has rendered philosophy moot. Etc.

That's my problem w/ my generation. It's still all too humanist. All too liberal. And bemoaning the herd mentality of the young, while necessarily therapeutic it seems, is closer to a symptom than to a symptomology, I think.

Sorry for the length. Gots ta represent for my peeps, yo (etc).

Oh, and lastly: a lot of young adults appear obviously and genuinely depressed and/or disaffected to me. Students included. I would wonder, even, whether cheery consumptive ipodotons are the norm.


... lastestly, I continue to value the mix of theoretical and more personal reflections here. This is a great blog. And I'm grateful for the tip to Levi's blog (which I'm about to bookmark).

All the best,



I admit to being a crank.

I responded to someone's list of rules for students to become more responsible. My point being if you need to rules to become responsible, you won't.

The idea that there is someone’s lead to follow – it shows how difficult it is to internalize that there is no Big Other – there is no revolutionary father that is going lead anyone out of the woods.

This overall infantalization of the general population, this idea that some external authority “owes us” – how was this debt established? Because we are entitled? We deserve something? Consumer culture trains us to expect privilege – so every relationship becomes a commercial transaction. I didn’t like my hamburger – take it back, make a complaint. I didn’t like my grade – what, I can’t get a refund? Outrageous!! Time for a protest!!

The only reason I harp on students is that you still have a chance – the “adults” have already bought the farm on this one – we fucked up bad. Don’t look to us for any leadership.

So yes, I am a crank – I react to comments way too quickly and with little grace. Take no lessons from me.

daniel schut

interesting post, lots of comments, haven't read them all. I wanted to jump in at Levi's idea that this is a problem caused by a different type of subjectivity. I am not quite sure that it's necessary to delve really this deep.Maybe it would be better to have a look at how the 'youngsters' (me being 26) came to construct such a subjectivity, and I believe a huge cause lies in media-consumption. I hate to sound like the old conservative that I ain't but I'd say that easier controllable media like computer games, kids just don't realize anymore that some narratives are method about them, but not with them. Teenagers are used to creating worlds through their media-consumption, so, why wouldn't the 'real'world also be up for such acts of creation?


pebird, just to be clear, my parenthetical aside about revolutionary leadership was in jest. The "sir," facetious.

As for infantilization, yes, sure. But a stern talking-to from Daddy perhaps 'shows how difficult it is' for Daddy not to be.

But I honestly don't want a pissing match. As I said, I value your comments. I agree we have a culture of entitlement. American culture seems an almost total shitshow to me. Canadian culture, a more dilute version of the same.


Actually Andrew, I need to occasionally get in touch with my inner crank - I really do appreciate the comments.

To return to more serious commentary - I am taken by both Daniel's and Levi's comments. The consumption of media is of course a common source of criticism - the concept that we construct a different kind of subjectivity resonates. It might explain the challenge of communication between various groups - of which this "parent" vs. "student" is one example. I am also thinking of the Red vs. Blue state thing.

I have to read more Laclau and Badiou re: Levi's thoughtful, well-written comment above. The idea that universality is shifted from an unattainable goal (e.g., a process) to an end-state is clearly a tactic used by reactionary forces throughout history.

And of course global consumer culture must build a subjective position to stimulate consumption, and at the same time repress impulses to disrupt. Or channel those impulses into different disruptions.

In addition to crankiness, I must admit ignorance with regard to who has written what with respect to this building/manipulation of subjectivity. Of course the usual suspects of linguistics and psychology. Is there a definitive work on this?


I am surprised to find my fur sticking up about what still seems a facile, if comforting, dismissal of what is being called here -- as it often is in the classroom -- 'postmodernism'.

It seems to me that the problem with the literature that is generally taught as 'postmodern' -- i.e. post-structuralist, post-foundationalist -- has more to do with the dangerous appeal of its cathartic aspect. Students are likely to read the science-fiction paradox of Baudrillard or the tragic resignation of Lyotard in the same way they have come to read literature and consume narratives in popular culture. It's 'cool' because it makes sense on some sort of descriptive level, and it seems to be describing a familiar world -- whereas the Platonic vocabulary is likely to strike many students, at least upon first reading, as not only standing in reference to an antiquated world, but ontologically and ethically naive.

One result of this sort of exposure is the proliferation of a new kind of thinker (of which I am, despite my best efforts, probably still a prime example) who is far more literate in the polemic than in its illusory target -- a universalism which nobody ever bothered to teach to me so that it stood with much veracity. The holes in the knowledge have always seemed realer than the knowledge itself -- the holes becoming the basis of a negative ontology in which critique is primary and the various problematic narrations of 'knowledge' are simply the imperfect material which accumulates around the solid, if dark, space of revealed aporia.

It seems to me that the state of being stuck in language that has implicit ethical content while recognizing the emptiness of the space around which that ethical content is built is an extraordinarily fertile place to begin debates about ethics and politics and everything that we must do (and speak) in a world created and occupied by that paradox.

Instead, however, we attend survey humanities courses which (hopefully less, these days, than in the 90s when i was an undergraduate) try to teach us about an emancipatory Foucault (for instance) who justifies half-baked identity politics. The really deep and troubling insights of these thinkers are elided, and they are marginalized early into the arcane and aestheticized realms of literary theory and art history.

I think that the powerful -- and, to many young people, instinctively relevant -- critique of 'postmodern' thinkers can, rather, be used as a tool by which to wake up students as politically involved subjects by allowing their education to describe and confront the world that they actually occupy, and helping them to see their (limited) agency within that world for what it is.



your point about science and, let's call it, sciency-ness, underlying a certain left-liberal position is well taken. I don't think that this is the same as the argument for universality or truth (and I'm not implying that you make this claim, just trying to establish a little distance between the positions). But, it does seem a kind of bottom line of facticity and proof that liberals, and likely leftists, are increasingly finding themselves in need of invoking, despite their own best intentions over the last 100 years.

It's like the Right has beat the left at its own game (which is kind of irritating insofar as this is the position Habermas has long held against a certain reading of Foucault and so-called postmodernism).

My partner Paul has actually been saying that in these seemingly medieval times we need to get back to the Enlightenment. Why teach students Foucault or Lacan when they already think that Locke and Rousseau are crazy radicals? When they disagree with basic notions of equality and justice?

This fits with Randall's important point (and fantastic metaphor) that the holes in knowledge are realer than knowledge itself--a wonderful example of the collapse of the Symbolic and the pressure/pressence of the Real, to jump back to lacanian jargon for the fun of it.

By the way, Randall, your description of a language with ethical content caught in an empty space (place?) as a way to begin thinking today is also really wonderful and fruitful.


I'm 22, in college, and happy to debate. Get out from under your rock. We exist. We are passionate. We also hate being generalized as a bunch of apathetic, greedy mouth-breathers.


Glad to hear it Sara. But, you will note that I said that a number of my students debate. Generalizations are necessary for thinking and acting.


Agreed. This country's whole intellectual structure is corrupted. We are in the new age of scholasticism. Post-modernism, subjectivism, and all of our egalitarian assumptions, which are not backed up by empirical science or experience, drives our politics. Anything that has to produce, i.e. the economy, politics, understands that the world is indeed objective and not fair in regards to the distribution of knowledge, talent, and ability. Nonetheless, conservatism has been corrupted by neo-conservatism, a loss of intellectual rigor in the Church (how many priests can read Ancient Greek or Hebrew?), and the rise of mass media as THE source of news. There is a cause behind all of this but anyone who knows it is too afraid to say because of our egalitarian and watered down ideas, which are promoted on the right and the left. The academy is corrupted by bad ideas promoted by our elite, who is quite obvious, and a business and financial elite, who is also quite obvious, corrupts our politics. She hits the nerve. The republic, which died in the early 20th century, will start to tilt more towards totalitarianism, which it already has, and this isn't just in response to George Bush, as the left is just as guilty. Nearly 1% of the population is in jail--Soviet numbers--inflation is far beyond our wage increases, affirmative action destroys any true selection of job candidates, and civilization goes. Look at Cincinnati, St Louis, Detroit, Calcutta, Cape Town, etc., and see how quickly civilization crumbles. But none of you will point to its cause because you are either led by the media or to weak to say it. Oh well, such is life as we slide towards totalitarianism and the loss of civilization.


Jodi writes:
"My partner Paul has actually been saying that in these seemingly medieval times we need to get back to the Enlightenment. Why teach students Foucault or Lacan when they already think that Locke and Rousseau are crazy radicals? When they disagree with basic notions of equality and justice?"

The supposition that undergrads are 300 years behind is striking to say the least. It makes sense, though.


The thing about reading Locke, at least in my limited experience, is that it feels like THE moment when today's common sense began its process of naturalization. Bourgeois individualism, instrumental reason, the imperative to exploit, etc (As a side note, Canadian PM Stephen Harper's right-hand man, Tom Flanagan, has made made an academic career of attacking aboriginal land claims via a return to Locke. See: http://www.walrusmagazine.com/article.pl?sid=05/05/09/2119243 )

But if Paul is correct, left intellectuals are now 300 years ahead of themselves.

This is rather deflating in the aftermath of post-structuralism. But again, it rings true.

Continental philosophy has not trickled down into high school curricula. Nor for that matter, has Marx. Ever.

Academe: rarefied as ever.



Andrew - There was a picture of both Marx and Freud in my grade thirteen politics textbook. I'm sure the two sentence summary of each was hilarious. Flanagan, of course, was also behind Preston Manning - as were the rest of the so-called "Calgary School" people and the Fraser Institute. Continuing with the theme of textbooks, Flanagan co-authored my first year political science book.


Andrew--Paul's point, and mine, is not that students are 300 years behind but that the political discourse enveloping our country, a discourse of faith---I believe there are wmds in Iraq, I don't believe in global warming--manifests a new medievalism (I worry that this sort of remark will enrage medievalists, but, really, my intent is not to disparate the middle ages).


Definitely reflects the "belly of the beast" when one is forced to acknowledge that, yes, there are major cultural divides between so-called Gen-Y, their parents and older siblings, and their grandparents. There is frustration, slight anger, the subtle confrontational language of rhetoric, etc.

Interesting post.


Jodi, I appreciate the distinction you've made. Wendy Brown's recent lecture, "American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization," is excellent on this issue, I think. For those who haven't heard it (I don't know if it made the blog rounds or not) it's here:



Oh, and Craig, thanks for your input. My 10-minute high school introduction to Marx, if memory serves,posited him as a leveller who wanted to bring everyone down, but thankfully for everyone outside the USSR and China, he "underestimated the middle class."

This was also the Marx presented in my Poly Sci 102 class less than 10 years ago. I had to go to the English department to find Marx treated seriously (of course).


Isn't all of this based upon perspective? I would argue the flip side to Craig and Andrew. In college conservative thinkers were rarely discussed in detail in as much detail as as liberals. I was also given skewed opinions of both from nearly all of my college professors (glowing accounts of the leftist mainly).


Yes, how right, rwilson - I was taught political theory from a guy who explained in a fair and balanced why how the "marxoid feminazis" were running and ruining the university!

And once I had the rare pleasure of T.A.ing for a guy who said to me, "You know, Craig, people like you were arrested by the cops, taken out into the snow, and left to die when I was your age."

The same guy: "Criminal justice is a lot like a woman in a bikini: what you see is important, but what you don't see is essential."

I'm with you, rwilson, let's destroy the marxoid, feminazi, liberal orthodoxy and finally start taking Alan Bloom seriously!

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