Four types of critique in modernity

Continuing the last post, education is clearly an area of social life where thing can easily go wrong, and thus efforts – institutionalized, stabilized, geographically invariant – are made to avoid this. I said that the discourse of learning and knowing is the way we moderns talk about this precariousness of education. Not only are measures in place serving to keep education ”on track”, this keeping also contains accounts of that which should be avoided, referring to examples, as often contemporary as historical. These account take the form of critiques. They move over the border line between desirable practices (and outcomes) and other practices that for various reasons tend to occur instead. They explain why the desirable is to be considered as such, and vice versa.

What I want to do here is to relate this form of critique, in a kind of ideal-typic fashion, to two other forms, and then draw some conclusions from the structure emerging from the comparison.
Perhaps one can describe modernist critique in terms of an opposition between stable tradition and progress. I think here of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the enlightenment project to transform culture so as to reflect the true nature of humankind, as rational. This is a critique with self confidence, aiming at a particular goal that it believes in.
Opposite to this kind of critique we have its traditionalist counterpart. It takes aim at the goal of modernity, a culture or a society reflecting what it takes to be essentially human, that is: rationality, claiming that such a culture is not a worthy goal of change; that it is better to keep that which is, for instance Christianity, certain traditional forms of morality, etc.
The thing now is that this simple opposition is insufficient for understanding the form of critique typical for modern education and – I think – more generally for present day modernity. The critique typical for education is neither modernist, nor traditionalist. It must rather be seen as a sort of compromise formation in the sense that Robert Pfaller characterizes religious rituals:
Schematically, I think what happens is that the ideal of rationality, in a wide sense of the word, were starting to become a cultural-transforming force in the 18th century. Or, from another perspective, enlightenment, modernity, process was at least the discourse connected to cultural transformation – nothing said about underlying causes. Western history, at this point in time, came to a state of cultural disorder – historians talk of an ”age of revolution” between 1775 and 1848. It is in this period that I think the ”compromise” took shape.

The emergence of this compromise is connected to the opposition between danger and safety or risk and security, as discussed by Ivan Illich in The Rivers North of the Future. Through mechanisms difficult to understand, as what was at the same time a reaction against and an affirmation of, the ideal of modern process, culture found a way to at the same time secure progress, and secure itself against disordering transformation.

It was at this juncture that education and research took shape. The crucial point I want to make here, is how it was at this point that what is recognized as the ”pedagogical paradox” became a prominent feature of modern culture, that is: the paradox of how it is possible to at the same time want the child to ”develop freely” and nevertheless impose external goals to this development. This pedagogical dilemma is just a particular instance of the more general problem, of how it is possible to have stable and invariant institutions, the purpose of which is cultural transformation. But that is what education and research purports to be.

It is in the formation of these institutionalized activities that ritual theory starts to become useful for understanding modernity, and it is no coincidence that it is exactly at this point that ”science” begins to replace ”religion” (see for instance the first part of Stephen Gaukroger’s The Emergence of a Scientific Culture) as what one could perhaps call the ”center of the imaginary”  (thinking of Cornelius Castoriadis) of modernity.
I contend that this ambivalence towards modernity is particularly visible in the formation of modern mathematics education, making mathematics education a paradigmatic case for understanding this crucial aspect (the ambivalence) of modernity.

Mathematics was introduced partly as opposed to the then prevalent school subjects of classical languages and christianity – as part of a new curriculum focused on science, also including modern languages.
But it was also introduced as a strictly christian subject – drawing on the central place of mathematics in theological discourse since the 17th century. For sure, this place of mathematics was always more or less contested within theology – but now, the theological interpretation of mathematics opened up for a compromise, sort of affirming christianity, through its potential antagonist, modernity and modern science and mathematics. While this needs further study, it seems very much like modern mathematics education – the characteristic classroom practice, its textbooks, its central doctrines concerning learning and knowing, took form, not as a part of secularizing progress, but to the contrary as part of the reactionary politics following the 1848 attempts at revolution. Mathematics education was established and used, quite consciously, as a means to ensure orderly conduct of the citizenry – as part of a christian curriculum.


What happened quite soon, as we know, and in the very process of establishing these conglomerates institutions of science and christianity, was that the christian part of the ”explanatory discourse” of education was dropped (see Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity). The form of the activities can nevertheless still be understood as compromise formations; as both stabilizing culture, and contributing to its transformation.
Typical for critique in education is thus on the one hand a belief or faith in modernity and progress, but on the other hand an often unarticulated ”faith” in the means by which this progress is to be achieved, severely limiting the range of options available for transformative action. It is a faith, one could say, in ”modern tradition”, where the education system has not replaced the church and Christianity as that which has been handed over to us by previous generations. The operations of the ”drop” of christian discourse has made it possible to see this institution as, in a way, in itself ”modern”, thus immune to modernist critique.

Given this characterization of the critique ”of education”, it is possible to point to some alternatives.

Firstly, a most important alternative to the education-immanent ”compromised” critique of tradition, is to (re)widen the scope of critique, to possibly include also those institutions that today purport to ”safeguard” progress – that is, education and (as I have not talked to much about in this post) research. This, I take to be a strategy in accordance with the analysis of modernity presented by Hans Blumenberg: essentially positive to progress, but not necessarily to how we try to realize this goal.

Secondly, it is of course possible to reject the compromise for the opposite reason, that is, for its partial affirmation of the modern ideal of progress driven by rationality. I take this to be the stance of for instance Nietzsche and Heidegger and their followers. But it seems also problematic, in a special way, because the very critical stance, the attempt to transcend the culture of which you are part, seems to be uniquely modern. Thus, as others have already observed of course, this ”breaking free” of the ”ideology” – as it would then be characterized – of rationality and progress, can also be seen as a logical step within the history of modernity. From this perspective, the only non-modern stance possible would be one of (possible ”seen-through” in Robert Pfaller’s sense) conformity, to modernity as it happens to be, in its constant process of self-transformation. And in that sense, most moderns would thus qualify as non-moderns, confirming the thesis of Bruno Latour.

Thirdly, I think it worth mentioning a strange version of the ritualization of the progressive stance, namely the ritualization of its opposite, critique of modernity. It is very popular, for the moment, to be critical of ”post-modernism”, but nonetheless, in a particular sense I will contribute to that critique. I think here of the production of variations on the themes set by philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Adorno from within the ”compromised” institutions of education and research. In the same sense sense and for the same reason that critique of ”tradition” expressed within education and research will never actually lead to substantial transformation of culture, the same goes for critique of ”rationality” (or modernity or progress), expressed within these same institutions: it will never make modernity any less modern.


Given this analysis – I welcome critique and comments – it seems to me that the most reasonable stance to take towards modernity – a modernity of which we are all already part and shaped by – is to affirm its basic stance of openness towards change to the better, and, perhaps even a certain ambition to participate in the achievement of such change. On the other hand, what must be rejected, is the idea that this ambition can be delegated to an institution, be that education, research or politics. Nothing can be excluded from critique beforehand. Faith must be put in something non-material, not existing, a sort of force, potentially present for any human being. This means that the forms of the project must be constantly renewed, always with the possibility of error and failure.

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