News and Views

Educating the Postmodern Child

15 Sep
Dr Fiachra Long pictured in St Fin Barre's Cathedral Image:Provision

Dr Fiachra Long discusses some of the problems presented to educators in the early decades of the twenty first century. 

Traditionally teachers deal with knowledge, attitudes and skills. They involve themselves with the cognitive and emotional capacities of young people and they try to induct them into the science and social and political structures of the time the adults live in. Traditional teachers see themselves as standing between the young people they teach and wider society represented by sound and steadfast institutions like the Banks, the Church, the legislature, Big Government. Adults know the way things work. Adults are then best placed to introduce the young to the social institutions they will need in the future.

Something, however, has happened. There is no institution out there now that is presumed innocent until proven guilty, as it were, and the pace of social change is so fast that adults are now uncertain about how society will look in the future. Children are picking up on this uncertainty. They quickly learn to look more globally for signs about what they will need in years to come. They are becoming globalised through social media, internet access and a general facility with computers. The west coast of Africa is apparently ahead of Europe in 4G reception, even though in those same places water may be in short supply and polluted. This is a key symbol of the priority given to the global over the local. It is an example of how education has changed and why teachers now find themselves helping children relate to postmodern (global) institutions rather than modern (local) ones.

Of course many people complain about this shift but they are not always the most reputable of groups. ISIS wages war against local populations in the name of a stable religious structure. Brexit campaigners complain about the way Big Government has left the little man in the lurch and Donald Trump sounds very plausible when he causes listeners to look at how the inequalities in American society negatively impact on the ordinary citizen.

Are children, teenagers, University students not to be affected by this general bad mood, this sense of political protest? Of course, they have to be affected and yet they too are caught in the increasing virtualisation of the world, as if they cannot stop themselves being drawn into the spider’s web of Twitter accounts and so called ‘Reality’ YouTubes. How can they seriously sit down and listen to a lecturer going on and on about an old society that has been replaced? Oh, I know. Let us make it active. Let us get them to jump about the place and fill in questionnaires and feedback sheets. Or no, better still, let us put the information online so that they can switch it off whenever they find it irrelevant. Which is most of the time. Come to think of it, maybe we could resolve this whole matter by taking as experts those who operate well in the virtual world as distinct from those who are limited by their knowledge of the local world.

Aristotle, that strange man, once held that the ability to make the right kind of friendships is the best outcome one could expect from a moral education. He had not heard of the modern appeal for knowledge, attitudes and skills. Nevertheless, he may have been on to something. Friendships, however, can sometimes be messy and they demand real world evidence. You can’t pretend you are someone else or even claim to be two or three people wrapped into one if you want to be someone’s friend (human, that is). You might even be called to order on a few things. Aristotle started going on and on about the qualities that attract us in a friend. The downside is that we are repulsed by other things. So a certain kind of negotiation has to happen and this can be awkward. We postmoderns are lucky though that scientists in Harvard have just invented an autonomous robot which can be a constant companion. The robot might look like an octopus and mightn’t be great at a party but he, she or it (can be LGBT also) though silent at the moment could be programmed to tell you exactly what you want to hear. Now this is the best kind of postmodern friend, because it ultimately reflects what you want to believe about yourself or your multiple selves. It is committed only to the virtual game arena and is not fazed by local issues like air pollution or the cost of accommodation.

Now if you are a bit of a drag and really insist on belonging to the real world and still face difficulties in doing so, then some minor chemical enhancements might help. Ritalin, which is helpful in settling down kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has also been found useful in sharpening the attention of normal kids. The American Congress has been worried by this trend since 2000 while anecdotally the use of enhancement drugs is on the increase. Uppers can give you a more bubbly personality, while downers can prevent any hyperactive excesses. Of course we could try to imagine ourselves with metallic extensions like an iphone or google goggles, but that is so commonplace that we have crossed this Rubicon without so much as a comment. The problem of postmodern education is how to teach and learn lessons about reality (whatever that is) while our preferred headspace remains in the Hollywood world of X-men and Transformers.

Fiachra Long teaches in the School of Education where he is currently Head of School. A trained secondary teacher (UCD, 1976), Fiachra worked in the classroom teaching French and Religious Education to all levels along with Maths until 1983. Fiachra holds a doctorate in philosophy from Louvain-la-neuve, Belgium (1986) and subsequently taught at college level in New York before coming to UCC in 1990. He led the Professional Diploma in Education for a number of years (2008-2014) and prepared the groundwork for the accreditation of the new two year PME. Fiachra is author of Educating the Postmodern Child (Bloomsbury: 2013) and is currently interested in developing collaborative curriculum. His current writing projects include an edited collection with Routledge and a book on Transhumanism. 

If you are interested in educational issues you might like to visit the School of Education website for information on courses and research  http://www.ucc.ie/en/education/

University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 YN60

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