Childhood Studies Post-Modernism
Fiachra Long
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0187


Jean Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, subtitled “A Report on Knowledge,” explores the changed status of knowledge in advanced economies. His insights have led to a focus on the problem of information overflow as made possible by multimedia and web-based knowledge environments. The consequent challenge posed by postmodernism to the stability of knowledge is still a shock to educators. Knowledge that originates in less traditional sources creates less traditional people, and traditionalists who might have hoped that authorized and pre-selected knowledge might serve to transform the young into mature citizens are liable to be disappointed. On the other hand, progressivists interested in developing the child’s skills for an unpredictable future might also feel frustrated. Where modernism might have easily focused on the child’s development, even inventing accelerated programs to promote the child’s learning, postmodernism offers no guarantee that the more highly child-adaptive curricula of progressivism will be any more successful in promoting coherency than traditional accounts. Apart from knowledge, postmodernism also challenges the issue of being or reality, by which is meant that postmodernism impacts on the way children imagine their own reality. The child, of course, is real in a biological sense but usually struggles with this reality for developmental reasons, looking to adult society for appropriate signals that they are okay. In contexts of traditional communication from one generation to the next, the adult group would normally tell children what sex, tribe, language group are normal for them, sometimes what future lies before them, and often what skill-set or trade they might need to acquire. As technology in the 1990s began to open quite young children to a set of influences bypassing parents, young populations felt exposed to social pressures sourced in global trends. Contact with wider society via social media brought about definitive changes in the lives of children, exposing them to competing ideologies at an earlier age and leading parents to a sense of less control, greater fragmentation, fears of radicalization, etc. Reality checks between generations that traditionalists could rely upon in the past became less reliable, with the result that a sense of unreality could prevail, arguably extending the magical phase of childhood into adult fictional forms. Postmodernism has thus tended to set stable presentations of knowledge and being in children. Instead, in the partial absence of parental guidance, a ludic attitude became more normal, taking the form of bodily experiments, or a tinkering with radical ideologies and the like, while in educational settings, the realignment of teaching and learning with machine input/output processes may have coincidentally implied the deferral of recognizable social value-sets.

General Overview

The most visible impact of postmodernism in education is the access children have to computers and uncontrolled information. And yet the modern mind-set is still evident in the behavior of many educational commentators and teachers. Most teachers believe in values and improvement. No matter how the headmaster frowned upon the humble biro because of its presumed negative impact on handwriting, everyone could accept its marked advance over chalk on a slate. Similarly, everyone could agree that well-heated classrooms in well-insulated buildings marked an improvement on the drafty cold places that sometimes greeted children in a Victorian past. Modernist attitudes tended to blindly accept that tomorrow would be better than today and so this has led many to broadly welcome technologically enhanced learning. Indeed, everyone could point to improvements in the enjoyment of learning once these new technologies had been used, so that once more primal underlying values of concern, care, love and support had been added, all seemed well. What else could educators need? In a postmodern context, however, such basic optimism retreats behind a sense of fragmentation and alarming patterns of disbelief and unreality. Indeed, the postmodern era is one in which confidence in the future has begun to erode. The result is a trend to relocate values in the private sphere alone and to allow the public sphere of society or even the classroom to be subjected to performative coding and machine-measurable outcomes. The post-modern era is therefore marked by the suspicion of a dystopian future for human society and a kind of automation that may take hold to signal a redefinition of the contours of education itself. Butler 2002 offers a very short introduction to the general thrust of postmodern thinking while Kellner 1991 offers a more expansive view with presentations on some leading luminaries. Lankshear, et al. 2000 highlights the doubt that has now entered educational practices as a result of a digital culture, and Livingstone 2012 echoes these words of warning, even speaking about a “fundamental transformation.” Although perhaps not recognized as such a threat in the past, it is worth reviewing Papert’s early enthusiasm for introducing children to computer programming at an early age (Papert 1980). The context of social media has perhaps thwarted these early optimistic accounts, hence Turkle, once an enthusiast, now sounds warning bells about the isolating effect on children of social media (Turkle 2011). Turning to more philosophical texts on the same issue, Dreyfus 2008 examines the isolation of Internet users in a manner that Burbules 2002 finds overdrawn.

  • Burbules, Nicholas. “Like a Version: Playing with Online Identities.” Educational Philosophy and Theory 34.4 (2002): 387–393.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2002.tb00512.xE-mail Citation »

    In the context of deliberate or nondeliberate writing experiments on body and identity and in response to Dreyfus’s mildly hysterical reaction to the Internet, Burbules prefers to stress the positive uses of the Internet including the advantages for some of not having to negotiate an infirm body in an online contact.

  • Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism—A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

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    Butler presents a readable account of postmodernism and uses frequent references to popular culture, film, art, architecture, literature, and thought frames to help the reader understand postmodernism as a general phenomenon. He notes the skepticism of postmodern approaches and the relativism of its results. Chapter 5 brings the writer’s doubts about postmodernism more plainly into the open, and many alternatives are announced. No reference to education per se but a good place to gain an overview.

  • Dreyfus, Hubert. On the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Points to the dangers of the Internet to human embodiment and argues that nothing can quite replace face-to-face learning contact. This book takes account of the isolation of many Internet users and points up the other elements missing from such communication such as the salience of moods of various kinds and shared perceptions of contexts in which humans find themselves.

  • Kellner, Douglas. Postmodern Theory. London: Macmillan, 1991.

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    This text takes the reader through some of the main philosophical protagonists of postmodernism. Beginning with the structural linguistics of Saussure, the authors present a careful account of Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Baudrillard, and Lyotard before an attempt is made to contrast these skeptical approaches with the critical theory approaches of the Frankfurt School, first Horkheimer and Adorno and then Habermas. This broad sweep offers the reader a welcome perspective on recent cultural theory.

  • Lankshear, Colin, Michael Peters, and Michele Knobel. “Information, Knowledge and Learning: Some Issues Facing Epistemology and Education in a Digital Age.” Journal of Philosophy of Education 34.1 (2000): 17−39.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9752.00153E-mail Citation »

    Offers a survey of some current views by Thagard, Weston, Gilster, Heim, and Goldhaber on epistemologial implications of information and communication technology (ICT) and takes up the view that the postmodern age is marked by instabilities. Problematizes the thought that the Internet is just another source of information and suggests that it is an entirely new context for learning, expressed in terms of generalized dystopia with no commonly shared aims.

  • Livingstone, Sonia. “Critical Reflections on the Benefits of ICT in Education.” Oxford Review of Education 38.1 (2012): 9–24.

    DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2011.577938E-mail Citation »

    Does ICT enhance traditional learning outcomes? The story is ambivalent. In keeping with the international Pisa survey, which found improvement only in some cases following ICT use, with more improvement paradoxically in English than in mathematics, it is the very variable combinations of factors, social and otherwise, that apparently continue to be central to achieving improved outcomes.

  • Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

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    By now this text is something of a classic. Seymour presents a neo-Piagetian approach to learning and advocates active ways for children to learn as computer programmers. As a mathematician and psychologist, Papert presents several examples of children’s use of the “computer-controlled cybernetic animal” called “Turtle.”

  • Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995.

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    In this early work Turkle follows Papert in endorsing new age technologies for education and encourages programming by children as a creative use of computers.

  • Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

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    In her later work, Turkle is more sanguine about the psychology of online life. Here she calls for reflection on the possibility that the connectivity of handheld devices may well simply camouflage loneliness.

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