STEM and (post-)modernism

by Sebastian Benthall

There is an active debate in the academic social sciences about modernism and postmodernism. I’ll refer to my notes on Clark Kerr’s comments on the postmodern university as an example of where this topic comes up.

If postmodernism is the condition where society is no longer bound by a single unified narrative but rather is constituted by a lot of conflicting narratives, then, yeah, ok, we live in a postmodern society. This isn’t what the debate is really about though.

The debate is about whether we (anybody in intellectual authority) should teach people that we live in a postmodern society and how to act effectively in that world, or if we should teach people to believe in a metanarrative which allows for truth, progress, and so on.

It’s important to notice that this whole question of what narratives we do or do not teach our students is irrelevant to a lot of educational fields. STEM fields aren’t really about narratives. They are about skills or concepts or something.

Let me put it another way. Clark Kerr was concerned about the rise of the postmodern university–was the traditional, modernist university on its way out?

The answer, truthfully, was that neither the traditional modernist university nor the postmodern university became dominant. Probably the most dominant university in the United States today is Stanford; it has accomplished this through a winning combination of STEM education, proximity to venture capital, and private fundraising. You don’t need a metanarrative if you’re rich.

Maybe that indicates where education has to go. The traditional university believed that philosophy was at its center. Philosophy is no longer at the center of the university. Is there a center? If there isn’t, then postmodernism reigns. But something else seems to be happening: STEM is becoming the new center, because it’s the best funded of the disciplines. Maybe that’s fine! Maybe focusing on STEM is how to get modernism back.