The Modern, Postmodern University, part 2

Rick Mattson Uncategorized 2 Comments

See last week’s post for part 1 of this series.

“Postmodernism” (PM) took American universities by storm in the 1980s and 90s. When I arrived at Macalester College (St. Paul, MN) as the InterVarsity campus staff in 1992, PM hit me full in the face.

Gone were objective truth, autonomous reason, caucasian triumph.

Present were subjective truths, politicized reason, and cultural diversity.

Last week I mentioned how it has taken evangelicals 20 years to come to grips with this sea change. We’re finally getting it.

Alas, think again.

The most prevalent type of undergrad student (by far) I encounter in my many travels is not the truly PM person, but this:

Student profile #3: PM veneer, modern underneath.

Yeah, it’s complicated. By bathing in the direct PM sunlight their entire formative years, students absorb much from their environment.

But it’s only skin deep, a suntan. When you get past the outer layer, they seem to bear a striking resemblance to moderns of the past. They want rational answers to their questions.

Careful, though. Don’t assume you can skip past that tawny exterior. Failure to account for it will crash the conversation.

Student profile #4: Modern exterior, PM underneath.

Rare, but it’s out there. This student appears at first to engage in rational discussion of a reality to which we both subscribe. But soon, squishy PM stuff derails the conversation into troubled waters — or quicksand; pick your image.

Next week: We’ll begin connecting the gospel message with the four profiles.

Note that definitions of PM and Modernism vary. My use of “Modernism” is rather generic and is probably more in line with the word “Enlightenment.” Wikipedia has some nice articles on Postmodernism and the Enlightenment. In old fashion hard copy, I’d suggest Stan Grenz’s A Primer on Postmodernism.

Comments 2

  1. Rick,

    Nice posts. For what it's worth, I agree: I see #3 all over the place, including (at least a bit) in the mirror.

    I look forward to your next post, as personally, I get easily frustrated with the self-contradictory position of holding to relative truth (PM exterior) as an absolute (“Modern” interior). Teach me, wise one!

    P

  2. Behold, Grasshopper! I don't think they actually hold to relative truth in the PM exterior–at least not in a deep way.

    Rather, they maintain the trappings of PM culture: oriented toward personal experience, suspicious of the motives of authority figures and institutions, attracted more to stories than bare propositions, short attention spans, internationalized, green, etc.

    That's all part of the suntan.

    Underneath, not much has changed–except maybe a few tweaks here and there.

    I suspect the profiles might look a little different from the perspective of ministry to grad students and/or faculty.

    I'm still figuring it out myself, Pat. And every time I settle on something, the game changes.

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