Reflections on Postmodern Pedagogies for the Perplexed

By Richard Falk
Great Transition Network

For more than 60 years, I have been educating students and myself in the classrooms, lecture halls, and libraries of highly acclaimed centers of learning in the West, and particularly the United States. My own preparation for walking such a path reflected what I learned at a highly regarded NYC high school and several Ivy League universities. I appreciated the mentoring I received, which helped form my worldview and professional life. And yet even as a young adult I sensed the limitations of such elite education, at first inarticulately, but gradually, explicitly.

It was a privilege to be a faculty member at Princeton for 40 years; to visit Stanford for a year, teaching a seminar and being mainly connected as a fellow of the Center of Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences; and to give talks at more than 100 universities in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. I had many brilliant students who went on to do notable things, including becoming outstanding scholars and enjoying influential public careers. I enjoyed the benefits of excellent pedagogic facilities, and managed to produce a stream of books devoted to international law and world politics, most of which were published by highly regarded university presses. I took some controversial stands on foreign policy issues, and despite this, was able to have good access to mainstream media platforms in the pre-Internet world as long as I respected several prevailing taboos.

This is a prelude to saying that such educational environments did nothing whatsoever to prepare me, or those I taught, to understand the precariousness of the pillars upholding modernity, much less contribute to the Great Transition! Venturing a generalization, I have concluded that the better the university the more resistant it was to innovations along epistemological or ecological lines, and quite hostile to venturing beyond the views of prevailing orthodoxies. In my experience, intellectual departures from the academic consensus, including its most liberal variants, to the effect that incremental advances in understanding and pedagogic practice identify the outer limits of productive knowledge and creative research, especially on social, economic, and political issues. A narrow enclave of academic space was cleared in the last half century to accommodate environmental concerns, especially for the study of various types of pollution and toxic materials, but far less easily, except in the natural sciences, where there was a minimum of receptivity to ecology, much less to transformative visions of an ecological civilization.

I am relying on my personal experience because I believe them to be emblematic of cultural models derived from modern scientific methods, which do not fit the broader imperatives calling for a transformative pedagogy. I am primarily seen as a left academician who has taken controversial stands on foreign policy issues, and was subject to defamatory smears when holding a UN position involving reporting on Israeli violations of human rights. My views were not widely shared on the Princeton faculty, although not sharply criticized, while my activism created much more social distancing as unbecoming behavior for a professor, which for me was a matter of epistemological and pedagogic integrity, that is, acting upon my beliefs, a matter of engaged citizenship.

Worse for my standing within the Ivory Tower than the peace activism that led me to visit North Vietnam during the Vietnam War or Iran during its revolution, or identify with the Palestinian struggle for basic rights, was my work devoted to the future of world order, which was dismissed as ‘utopian’ and ‘normative’ (that is, not ‘scientific’), two epistemic taboos that constrained learning in the upper reaches of academic life. My views in such books as This Endangered Planet (1971), The Future of Worlds (1975), The End of World Order (1983), and On Humane Governance: Toward a New Global Politics (1993) were all ignored or outlawed as falling outside the paradigm of ‘political realism’ that accommodated policy controversy but not paradigm challenges based on values, qualitative analysis, and structural critique. My more recent writing has continued to defy canons of orthodoxy and has continued to be treated as marginal by the gatekeepers of academic excellence even in the face of rising public concerns about climate change, and its wide range of disruptive ecological effects.

I mention my bibliographic past only to reinforce my belief that it is wishful thinking to suppose that the educational establishment in the West or, as far as I know elsewhere, is ready for transformative changes in its treatment of useful knowledge. Given the urgency of the civilizational and epistemological challenges facing humanity we must look elsewhere. More pointedly, all the assessments of transformative potential of the great centers of learning in the world are and will remain resistant to the call for a Grand Transition Initiative. From this perspective, Stephen Sterling’s comprehensive vision of a transformed epistemology needs to be actualized along the lines he proposes, but such a possibility depends on the prior realization of a radical ‘institutional imaginary.’ Putting this observation differently, what is admired as valuable guidance for the promotion of a transforming world, with an ecological orientation, at Schumacher College will be dismissed as New Age musings at Princeton or Harvard.

Again, reverting to my own experience. My horizons of epistemic affinities were not altered by my long presence at Princeton but were changed in Sterling’s directions by years of involvement in unconventional ‘learning communities’ and eccentric projects that were funded by maverick funding sources. I took part in the Lindisfarne Fellowship (1975-2012) from its inception, founded by William Irwin Thompson, who sought fruitful fusions of the natural sciences, humanities, religion and spirituality, and indigenous wisdom with ambition to shape new knowledge paradigms. Thompson had a talent for gathering likeminded, innovative, and dissident scholars and thinkers. I found the annual gatherings of the 30 or so fellows intellectually exciting, imparting insight into the existence and relevance of postmodern and premodern pedagogies. It became obvious that such a group lacked the capabilities or credibility to have any substantial impact on orthodox ways of educating, mentoring, and learning which were increasingly focusing on comprehending, appropriating, applying, and regulating such new technologies in AI, robotics, genetics, and cybersecurity. In effect, the educational mainstream, with strong corporate and governmental encouragement was being influenced by money and public pressure to help win the technological race to the top, thereby likely determining the next phase of global ascendancy as world history unfolded.

In retrospect, I have come to realize that Lindisfarne perspectives, and to a lesser extent with Sterling, were somewhat reluctant to accept transformative critiques of the underlying economic and political structures of modernity: predatory capitalism, the fragmenting of human or species community by nationalist and statist ideologies, and inhumane governance mechanisms at all levels of societal complexity.

I did have the opportunity to participate in the World Order Models Project, which brought together normatively inclined experts and scholars from around the world, which manifested greater divergencies when it came to values and policies than with respect to the transformation of the pedagogic orientation toward learning. These intellectual mavericks tended to be preoccupied with equitable economic development if they came from the Global South and with the prevention of major wars if from the Global North. In this sense finding ways to cope with severe existential problems such as extreme poverty, famine threats, and political violence expressed their normative priorities about the future to hope for and work to construct.

In the end, I believe that social forces in the culture, including the humanities long sidelined as ‘useful knowledge’ in deference to the technocratic payoffs of natural science, will provide the needed energy and direction taken by emancipatory knowledge and wisdom. The struggles for transformative epistemologies and pedagogies that are motivated by the desperate need to move the peoples of the world toward an ecologically and ethically sustainable future. In delineating what is necessary and desirable, we should not forget that the established order, constructed by past knowledge empires will not give ground without an all-out fight. ‘Class struggles’ for the ‘cultural mind’ are underway, and the good news is that winds of change are blowing in directions congenial with the GTI imaginary.