The three books under review are typical of a growing number of studies that advocate the adoption of a “postmodern turn” for critical educational theory today. Now, before going on, it would perhaps be best to anticipate certain reservations that some readers may have on perusing the titles of the books at issue. For many, even a passing acquaintance with postmodern texts and authors has represented the cognitive equivalent of a “bad hair day.” At its worst, postmodern writing can be jargonistic, pretentious, and often downright unreadable. At its best, however, it can provide valuable strategies that will further empower a strategic response to the havoc wrought on the U.S. educational system by neoconservative corporatism in the Reagan-Bush years. It would be worse than na•ve for Canadian educators to assume that our educational system has escaped an analogous fate over the course of the last decade or so; there may be a question of degree here, but we all know that it has not. In general, then, new strategies for educational praxis are needed, and these authors have some interesting suggestions.
Postmodernism, Feminism, and Cultural Politics is a collection of essays offering educators a discourse that will, it may be hoped, allow them to reconceptualize pedagogy and its relationship to the contemporary social scene. Douglas Kellner's contribution, “Reading Images Critically: Toward a Postmodern Pedagogy,” constitutes an especially accessible introduction to the field. In his essay, he draws on postmodern theory's insight into the centrality of the image (or simulacrum) in contemporary social formations, and accordingly draws the reader's attention to the pressing need to encourage what he calls “critical media literacy.” Developing this skill in our students will, he tells us, “empower individuals to become more autonomous agents, able to emancipate themselves from contemporary forms of domination and able to become more active citizens, eager and competent to engage in processes of social transformation.” Using the contributions and insights of feminism, semiotics, culture theory and poststructuralism, Kellner deconstructs a number of familiar advertisements and in doing so provides an invaluable example of just how one might begin to go about facilitating critical media literacy in the classroom.
Coming from a postmodernist feminist perspective, Mariamne Whatley's “Raging Hormones and Powerful Cars” is another accessible piece devoted to expediting critical media literacy. Whatley, in a pleasant twist on the more common feminist strategy of examining women's oppression, explores the fragility, violence and often ludicrousness of depictions of male sexuality in popular contemporary adolescent films. As in the case with “Raging Hormones,” all the essays in this volume emphasize the salience of bringing popular culture into the classroom and analyzing how these forms produce and reproduce race, gender and ethnicity as crystallizations of domination and oppression.
Kanpol's Toward a Theory and Practice of Teacher Cultural Politics takes advantage of the transgressive tendencies of much postmodern thought. It is also worth reading for the way in which it illuminates the problematicity of supposedly radical (i.e., critical-modernist or neo-Marxist) approaches to educational praxis. The seminal work here is Bowles and Gintis' Schooling in Capitalist America, published in 1975. Bowles and Gintis and their sympathetic successors tied educational achievement to social class and suggested that capitalistic educational systems were little more than sites for the reproduction of outside ideological and economic forces. Kanpol points out that such an economistic perspective has the effect of making agents (students, teachers) little more than dupes, rather than subjects capable of effecting any real changes in their lives and social relations. Unless we give up hope completely, Kanpol argues, we can't afford to embrace such a defeatist view. The alternative, he suggests, is to work to make schools sites for social transformation by actively resisting the structural constraints that are imposed by and in these institutions. Schools should, Kanpol argues, become a contested terrain where teachers practice “institutional political resistance” among the students by teaching them how to deconstruct those “cultural forms of meaning making that emerge out of the dominant ideology (individual success, competitiveness, egotistic desires, sexism, and racism).” These are micro-revolutionary strategies that are surely worth contemplating.
As its title suggests, Stanley's Curriculum for Utopia also sees schools as potential sites for social transformation in the postmodern era. As is the case with the other writers considered here, Stanley is a “qualified” postmodernist. He is wary of the way in which some of the more extreme postmodernists seem to want to reduce human subjects to speech acts, and he takes issue with postmodernism's tendency to slide into epistemological nihilism. He feels, however, that these tendencies can be bracketed and that when we do so, much remains that is worthy of consideration for revitalizing a critical pedagogy. Curriculum for Utopia is at times a challenging read; however, drawing as it does on insights from the new sociology, Critical Theory, neo-Marxism, feminism, cultural studies, neopragmatism, postmodernism and poststructuralism, it also manages to provide a comprehensive and eclectic introduction to the state of the art in critical educational theory today.
Perhaps what is most engaging about these books is that they represent the voices of intellectuals who have not given up hope in these dark times. Possibly, one of the reasons for this is that they have had the courage to embrace the postmodern, a diverse constellation that, in its theoretical guise, is characterized above all by openness and a questioning stance. This is not an easy thing to do. At one point in his book, Stanley refers to the “Cartesian anxiety” that is often the result of letting go of the fundamental certitudes of modernity. Well, yes, it's there. But surely facing the possibility that there is no Archimedian position is preferable to succumbing to a politics of despair.
Michael R. Whealen has many years of college teaching experience and is currently associated with the Centre for Academic Writing at York University in Toronto, Ontario.