ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Education in the Postmodern Era

Summer 2017

By Renee Owen

From a historical perspective, transitions from one era to the next seem like they happened overnight. But in reality, each transition took lifetimes, and the people who lived through those transitions didn’t fully understand what was happening.
It is becoming clear that we are currently living in such a time of transition. The Modern Era is behind us, and a new era—the Postmodern Era—is ahead. What are the values and skills our students will need to thrive in the Postmodern Era?
A Look at the Past and Future
In order to understand where we’re going, we must first acknowledge where we’ve come from. The Modern Era owes much of its philosophy to 18th century Europe and the Enlightenment. True to its name, this intellectual movement brought the “enlightened” ability for humankind to see itself in a new way. We admired our new human abilities in the areas of medicine and engineering, and we terrified ourselves with our ability to destroy the very earth that supports us.
The Enlightenment brought the Industrial Era, which turned humans into “capital” and the earth into “resources.” It ushered in the age of materialism, in which a scientific, material, and monetary value was placed on everything. The promise of the Enlightenment was that science and materialism would bring comfort to human life. We would “colonize” nature—and by controlling it, life would be infinitely happier.
With the culmination of the Enlightenment came the Modern Era when life expectancies rose sharply into the 70s, and houses could be cleaned with the push of a button or the swipe of a credit card. 
So why aren’t we happier? In his book Habermas: A Very Short Introduction, James Gordon Finlayson discusses the work of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, an academic who studied the emergence of the Holocaust to ensure that such horror would never occur again. Habermas explains why the Enlightenment did not lead to universal happiness:
Ironically, then, the very process of enlightenment which was … supposed to liberate man from nature and lead to human freedom and flourishing, rebounds upon him. Gradually, as industrialization and capitalism take hold in the 19th century, human beings are being subjected to ever more pervasive networks of administrative discipline and control, and to an increasingly powerful and untame-able economic system. Instead of liberating man from nature, the process of enlightenment imprisons man, who is himself a part of nature.” (Italics are mine.)
Indeed, in creating giant bureaucracies that were meant to control nature, we wound up controlling ourselves.
It is the nature of power to maintain the status quo, thereby guaranteeing the continued domination of the powerful. These powerful few have told us that the giant systems of our society are “too big to fail,” while massive tools of power prop them up.
But they are failing. Our country is breaking down. We are transforming from a modern society structured around the efficiency of big government, big corporations, and big education to a postmodern society, where everything will be broken into smaller pieces. 
This time of transition is scary, largely because we don’t know what the transition will bring. At this moment, we see hate crime on the rise and the general demise of what many people thought of as progress.
We might be thrown into another dark age before the next dawn. The postmodern imperative of everything breaking into smaller pieces may very well look like a return to the time of feudal kingdoms.
How Will the Postmodern Era Affect Our Students?
But as long as we survive this time of transition, the new era comes with some potentially good news for our children and hope for the future. This is especially true if we can take the best ideals of the Enlightenment—namely the optimistic belief that humans are ultimately good and that we have the potential to one day create a just and humane society—into the Postmodern Era. 
So what are the characteristics of the emerging Postmodern Era? As the table below shows, most of its features seem to be in direct opposition of those of the Modern Era. 
Modernism Postmodernism
Newtonian Quantum
Reality exists There is no objective truth, only subjectivity and relativism
Capitalism Late-capitalism, with the potential of post-capitalism
Materialism Post-materialism
Hierarchy and central authority Webbed connectivity, flatter structure, localized power
Order Loose structure and complexity (and chaos during transition)
Economy of scale resulting in extended bureaucracy Function and personal relationships more salient in systems
Uniformity and simplicity Variability, hybridity
Relativism, relationships, and reinvention need to be a daily part of a student’s educational life in the new era. Following is a breakdown of the skills required for each:
  • complex, creative, and critical thinking
  • empathy
  • social and emotional intelligence
  • collaborative living
  • spiritual development
  • engaged imagination
  • adaptive leadership
  • questioning of systemic injustice
  • creation of new paradigms
However, educators need to be careful not to fall into the traps that the Postmodern Era sets—namely, a cynical attitude that asserts there is no truth and no reason to attempt to ascend to the greater heights of humanity.
Instead, we might aim to hold what Ken Wilber—in his 2001 book A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science and Spirituality—calls an integral consciousness, which brings greater wholeness to the human experience.
Along these lines, let’s take a closer look at the skills students must acquire in order to maximize their comfort and agility in moving through the Postmodern Era.
1. Relativism is the notion that there is no ultimate truth. The science we were taught in the modern era of education is giving way to the idea that there is no single reality. We now recognize that the observer changes the experiment, and it is utterly impossible to be objective. Because it is impossible to be objective, subjectivity and relativism will reign in the Postmodern Era. If everything is relative to its particular and unique circumstances, then you can only understand a person when you choose to truly walk in their shoes.
Students who have empathy and can see things from multiple perspectives will be better equipped in this world than children who grow up learning within a single belief structure and cannot tolerate other perspectives. This also means that systems that treat everyone the same will fail in favor of systems in which everyone is treated as unique. The opportunity lies in the potential rise of systems that take people’s individual feelings and needs into consideration.
The Modern Era has been shaped by the tyranny of the majority, while minority voices have been largely unheard and disregarded. The Postmodern Era holds the potential for deeper appreciation of the color and diversity of all people, bringing marginalized voices into the decentralized power structure.
We are also seeing that facts no longer reign supreme, which played out in the recent presidential election. People are swayed by feelings, charisma, and gut reactions rather than facts and information. Students who will do well in this postmodern world will be skilled in the expressive arts, media studies, and critical thinking. Students who can hold paradox—that is, understand concepts of both/and—will be equipped to deal with complexity.
2. Relationships are the way of the future. Just as the Modern Era dehumanized people, the new era will connect people. The nuclear family was the quintessential ideal of the Modern Era—four people, on average, who were isolated from the rest of the world, but surrounded by all their material needs. However, psychology and other social sciences now tell us that the nuclear family has been a miserable failure in terms of our mental health. It turns out that humans are, anthropologically speaking, communal people.
So, just like all things modern, the nuclear family has been breaking down. It began by fracturing into even smaller units, such as single-parent families. But these smaller units will soon become hyper-connected larger units that will include extended relatives and surrogate family members who share resources out of economic necessity and/or the human need for connection.  
Students who will be content in this atmosphere will be able to connect deeply with others. Likewise, those who will be successful in the new business world will be emotionally and socially skilled. Individualism will be on the decline, and those who watch out for others will find more happiness and success in life.
In a postmodern world, the amount of information is so vast and the flow of information so fast that we must stop trying to control it and instead allow it to wash over us, choosing on occasion to jump into the current. Since it is impossible for any individual, organization, or government to control the information, the power of knowledge becomes shared. Students have to understand how to work through relationships, because no one individual or leader can know as much or think as well as the combined, synergistic intelligence of a group.
Students who will be successful in this environment will be taught from an early age to engage with their emotions and inner life. Their ability to self-reflect and to cultivate personal transformation will help them manage conflict and understand other people’s perspectives.
As we place more value on relationships, we will naturally start to devalue the stronghold of materialism. Living in a post-materialist world will mean that things that cannot be seen will be considered just as real as those in the physical world. In the Modern Era, what mattered most was what could be materially measured. But the new era will appreciate that which can be felt and understood on an intuitive and spiritual level. 
3. Reinvention is the opportunity that lies ahead. The dominance of relativity will mean that people and things will no longer be seen as stagnant. Each of us will be allowed, even expected, to reinvent our lives—to transform. Ideas, more so than things, will be treasured. Our children will have the opportunity to reinvent the world by bringing these ideas to life. Students who thrive in this world will have an education in which their imagination is engaged and enhanced. 
Students will need to be highly adaptive in this environment. They will need to preemptively sense when circumstances are changing and learn how to respond by either leading themselves (and others) into a new situation or adapting to the changes around them. 
Finally, reinvention means understanding how to work through dynamic systems. Postmodernists recognize that human misery in a modern world is a result of the “alienation, stress and oppression of large bureaucratic systems that we have come to regard as ‘necessary evils,’” according to Ernest Stringer’s book Action Research.
We are so accustomed to the modern way of life that we don’t even question it. Students who will be successful in the new era will have the perspective and courage to question the current systems, to recognize that such oppression is not acceptable, and to create more organic and humane systems.
The Responsibility of the Postmodern School
The American public school system is the quintessential modern bureaucracy—hierarchically designed around an economy of scale. The longer it clings to its modern elements, the more chaotic and potentially devastating its transition into the new era could be. It would be healthier for the public school system to start embracing radical change and transition now instead of experiencing potential collapse when it is forced to acquiesce to changing times.
The idea of the current public school system breaking down is terrifying, and we have to do everything we can to ensure that its transition—whether slow or devastatingly sudden—doesn’t leave the most vulnerable as the primary victims. 
Despite the efforts of well-meaning educators and leaders to hold onto the current public school system model, smaller schools will continue to spring up until the latter subsumes the former. Therefore, it is imperative that “new era” schools, such as many independent schools, do everything we can to include and support students who are the most marginalized by the public school system.
Unfortunately, chaos is common during times of transition, but so too is a period of harmony and tranquility once the chaos settles. We don’t know whether such a time will come in our lifetimes or beyond.
But we do know that the postmodern world of relativism, relationships, and reinvention is upon us, and independent schools are in a unique position to educate the next generation of critical thinking, justice-seeking, compassionate leaders. For the sake of our children, we hope for harmony.
Renee Owen

Renee Owen is executive director of the Rainbow Community School and Rainbow Institute in Asheville, North Carolina. She is also a doctoral candidate at Columbia University Teachers College.