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The Myth of the Postmodern University

ORIGINALLY POSTED FEBRUARY 22, 2004

Misperceptions in the public culture about universities are legion--we've noted a recent example, abetted, surprisingly, by an academic--but one of the most peculiar is the perception of universities as hotbeds of "postmodernism," i.e., generalized skepticism about truth, meaning, and knowledge. As best I can tell, there are just two fields where postmodernism has a significant presence and influence: English/Literature and History. Because these fields are popular undergraduate majors, and perhaps, most significantly, because journalists appear to disproportionately have majored in one of these two subjects, the result is that the postmodern fashions of these two disciplines have led to an "official" media vision of universities as hotbeds of postmodernism. But what are the facts?

My knowledge of what is going in some fields is undoubtedly superficial or limited, but I feel reasonably confident in noting that postmodernism plays little or no role in most major academic disciplines. Consider:

Anthropology: there are postmodernist strains in cultural and social anthropology, none at all in physical anthropology. This, of course, has resulted in the bifurcation of Anthropology Departments at some universities.

Biology: postmodernism has had no impact.

Chemistry: postmodernism has had no impact.

Classics: postmodernism has had little or no impact.

Economics: postmodernism has had no impact.

Law: postmodernism has had little impact, outside certain areas like Critical Race Theory whose impact on most other branches of law has been minimal. Postmodernism has had no impact on the mainstream of jurisprudence.

Linguistics: postmodernism has had no impact.

Mathematics: postmodernism has had no impact.

Philosophy: postmodernism has had no impact in the mainstream, some influence at the margins.

Physics: postmodernism has had no impact.

Political Science: postmodernism has had some impact on political theory as practiced in Poli Sci departments, almost no impact at all on the rest of the discipline (international and comparative politics, public law, American politics, formal and rational choice theory).

Psychology: postmodernism has had little or no impact.

Sociology: postmodernism has had some impact in social theory, and little or no impact in the quantitative and empirical branches of the discipline, which dominate the field.

Unsurprisingly, the natural sciences have been untouched by postmodernism--but they are, after all, a substantial portion of any research university. The social sciences have been little affected: Anthropology the most, and Political Science and Sociology only in their abstract theoretical branches; the rest of those fields, like Economics, go about "business as usual" (and often in an anti-postmodern, scientistic way). But the Social and Natural Sciences account for a vast amount of what goes on these days at research universities. The Humanities have been most afflicted by postmodernism, though even there we find two central fields--Classics and Philosophy--largely unscathed by postmodern fashions.

So there we have it: Little or no postmodernist influences in Physical Anthropology, Biology, Chemistry, Classics, Economics, Linguistics, Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, and Psychology. Modest, but still not significant, postmodernist influences in Law, Political Science, and Sociology. Significant postmodernist influences in Anthropology, English and the various literature disciplines, and History. It's really time for journalists to stop writing about universities and intellectual life as though postmodernism were its dominant motif; happily, it is not.

UPDATE: A graduate student in philosophy from the University of Arizona writes with the following interesting additional observations:

You're recent blog entry on post-modern influence in academia is missing something. First, a very popular and deservedly denigrated undergraduate major is communications. Both communications departments and its theoretical parent, media studies, are very pomo. Second, many universities have a lot of cultural studies departments (e.g., African, Hispanic, Gender studies, etc.). These departments tend to be rather small in size and influence, but there are a lot of them. I'd guess that the sheer number of these departments (a long with a genuine influence in English and History departments) also leads to misperception regarding the extent of pomo influence, at least for journalists doing lazy research. Oh yeah, and aren't journalism departments themselves rather pomo?

I actually don't know the answer to that last question.