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The Single Biggest Issue with Postmodernism

It’s interesting to note that, of all philosophical trends in history, only modernism was declared dead due to a failure of architecture.  The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis was hailed by everyone from serious sociologists to literary critics as the end of one era and the beginning of the next, which they imaginatively called “postmodernism”.

pruitt-igoe implosion

Pruitt-Igoe complex demolition – hailed as the end of Modernism.

Of course, the aspiring postmodernists had were simply using a fortuitous event to further their cause and ignoring inconvenient truths.  While it’s true that Pruitt-Igoe was undoubtedly designed on modernist principles, its failure had more to do with mismanagement and public policies than with modernism itself*.

In the long tradition of social reformers, however, the postmodernists ignored the facts and pushed their way of thinking forward – successfully.

In its original form, postmodernism was a typical adolescent rebellion by social theorists against what had come before, turning a skeptical eye towards both antique institutions and modernism itself.

So far, so good.  They say nothing is more predictable for intelligent people than the avant-garde, and postmodernism was living up to that truism from the outset, and would soon settle down to become the established norm with new rules and values.

They did this admirably.  Nowadays, if you know what is particular pet topic is, you can write a postmodernist scholar’s paper for him before he knows he is going to write it**.

And therein lies the problem, and ultimate barrenness of postmodern thought.  At some point, postmodernism began searching for tools with which to give form to what began as a rejection of what came before, and they seem to have taken a wrong turn.

The central tenet they ended up embracing is, in layman’s terms, that there is no such thing as a “big picture”, and that it is perfectly valid to analyze individual elements separately – and in a separate, but ultimately equally damaging turn, that the observer is a critical part of the analysis.

While subjectivists were alive in Ancient Greece, the idea that single-element analysis is valid it’s called deconstruction, BTW) has been particularly detrimental in combination with it, damaging fields as disparate as History and Architecture.

We can dispense with the architectural elements easily – all one needs to do is to envision a building where the elements are meant to be viewed individually with no concern for the whole.  There are some out there (you can see one below – and it isn’t even the ugliest), but most architects have a grounding in art history, and an appreciation for aesthetics, so they have, on the whole, rejected the idea that the big picture is irrelevant.


The K2 building is Pure postmodernism.

Where things do get unfortunate, however is in the softer sciences such as history or literary criticism (I won’t repeat the XKCD joke here – go find it yourself!).

History students suffering the postmodern wave of revisionism (every movement has its revisionist wave) are being taught that unimportant groups and people were just as important as the movers and shakers of their era.  That slaves were historically important in societies where they were just used as human cattle, or that minority groups were politically influential in ancient India, or whatever.  The justification seems to be that the history of anyone who ever existed is important, so it must be taught as important.

The reality is that the suffering of minorities, slaves, or any other disenfranchised group is only important in times when the group managed to get some kind of power… if not, their suffering actually was in vain.

And yet, historians today are telling a different story.  It’s all very democratic, but will ultimately prove as damaging to the science as any other philosophically-based prejudice (see Eugenics for another 20th century attempt to fit history to philosophy – that one didn’t turn out so well either).

Criticism is often a butt of jokes about the academic worth of its practitioners, but we have to admit that, lately, the discipline has earned the scorn.

The problem is that with deconstruction allowing one to choose the focus one wants, it becomes easy – nay, obligatory – to focus on a single dimension when evaluating a work of art.

Warhol Campbells Soup

Soup Can: very pretty, but how does it speak to animal rights?

So a novel that touches the human spirit can be attached for not being feminist enough, a beautiful sculpture is worthless because it doesn’t address the plight of oppressed minorities.  Postmodernism’s obsession with minutiae blinds it to everything other than minutiae, to its own detriment.  Political arguments in the early 21st century seem to be imbibed with the same kind of narrow-gauge thinking.

It ends up feeling like postmodernism is the whiny self-absorbed teenager of philosophical movements…  Even to the point where there are already rumblings of a post-postmodernism.

However, like whiny teenagers, it will be hard to steer this one to a good port.  You see, the death blow to postmodernist thought has already been dealt, nearly two decades ago.

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal submitted an intentionally flawed, parodical academic article to peer-reviewed postmodern journal Social Text.  Not only did the ridiculous piece pass the peer review process, but, after Sokal came forward to announce the hoax, some of the journals defenders actually said that (and I paraphrase) “Sokal didn’t understand the actual depth and significance of the piece he had written”.

Now that is more embarrassing than a simple demolition, don’t you think?




*Modernism clearly had its moronic moments, but Pruitt-Igoe wasn’t its fault.

**For example, that last sentence would be rewritten by a feminist post-modernist using “her” in place of “him” and “she” in place of “he”.  A multi-gender postmodernist will attempt to use an invented gender-neutral word in its place, etc.

Signs of the times – stamp edition

The World's Most Expensive Stamp - the 1 cent British Guiana Black on Magenta

Like many of the traditional hobbies, I’m certain that if you ask most westerners about stamp collecting, most will probably say it was something their parents or grandparents did.  They’d probably follow up with “There are more compelling new ways of spending time, including Facebook games… why would anyone spend a long winter afternoon sorting stamps?”  This is a genuine question

If you happen to ask one of the small percentage of people who actually take their noses out of Candy Crush long enough to know what’s going on around them, they might be aware that a stamp from British Guiana recently sold for around $10 million – but like most pastimes of the super-rich, this will also feel like something that doesn’t apply to them.  Telling them that, by weight, it’s the most expensive object known, probably won’t help.  The yellow stamp below probably wouldn’t be far behind if offered for sale.

Treskilling Banco Yellow

So what?  Isn’t it dying?

Well, that depends.  While it’s obvious that no one sends letters anymore, and most packages don’t have stamps applied to them, so stamp production isn’t what it was.  It’s also pretty clear that school-age children don’t see collecting bits of paper as much of a competitor to their iPads… so, yeah, it seems that the hobby (like a lot of others) is disappearing.

But that is only if you filter your perception of the world through Western eyes. Two countries in which stamp collecting has taken off in recent years are China and India.  It has happened in different ways and with different dynamics, but in both places, the hobby has become extremely widespread among the emerging middle classes.

Now, this just illustrates, once again, how most Westerners – whether they are from Canada, Belgium, South Africa or Paraguay – have a huge blind spot when it comes to just how many things, important things, are happening in Asia right now (note I don’t include Australians on that list – they know it very well).  

Most people sense that the future of the world is slowly moving East, but they can’t seem to grasp the concept in a “so how does this affect me?” way.

Well, one way it affects you is that if your grandfather had an old collection of stamps, I’d look at the asian ones carefully…  You never know.

But more importantly, it’s interesting to see how they are collecting in the East.  

Expensive Monkey Stamp

As mentioned, China and India have different philosophies.  The Chinese concentrate on their own heritage, so stamps from classic eras are of little interest due to the Colonial ties.  PLus, they are often non-traditional investors, so stamps often go into their portfolios.  The innocent-looking monkey stamp illustrated is not that old…  But is worth $1500 (full sheets can be worth $150K).

Indian stamp collectors, on the other hand, are a more varied lot… because many of them are children.  The reason for this is that the hobby is actively encouraged in schools.  I assume I don’t have to spell out for you how popular anything that Indian youth is interested will become when that generation grows up (if I do, you’re reading the wrong blog).  Indian’s are also understandably fond of the post-independence stamps, especially anything showing Gandhi (stamp below was record at over $200K)!

200K Gandhi stamp

So, we can confidently assert that the stamp collecting hobby is actually growing… So that should give you a nice fact that no one knows at your next party.  Even better, everyone will say “no way” and make you look good if you quote the above.

We know our readers don’t need this help… but we’re happy to offer it anyway – we don’t want you looking like Dilbert:

Philately will get you nowhere

On Hunters, Farmers and ADD

11th Century Chinese Warrior

Earlier this morning, I was thinking how much easier (yes, easier) life was in the 11th century.  Essentially, if someone was irritating you, you rode out (or walked out, depending on your level of income) armed with as many instruments of mayhem as you could take with you, and resolved the issue.  I am not a particularly violent person, but sometimes, when modern life gets political, whiny and just plain moronic, I do envy those inhabitants of simpler times (although the lack of bidets is always “problematic”, as the PC crowd likes to say) when society wasn’t as apt to frown upon occasional major bloodshed in the course of friendly arguments.

And now, it seems that this may be linked to the fact that I am easily distracted.  Hmm…

Research into Attention Deficit Disorder has led to any number of avenues, most of them focused on getting hyperactive children to be able to focus and learn at the same rate as other kids (drugs, mainly). While your attitude towards this might vary, there is little question that the drugs make these children nice little zombies who can actually stay awake through boring history classes without distracting those around them who are more teachable and focused.

hunting a wooly mammoth

However, another current believes that there is little wrong with these children psychologically, but that their minds have a preponderance of hunter-type characteristics – a genetic remnant of less civilized past. As you can imagine, most elementary schools on the planet are not equipped to train children to hunt mammoths, something in which this kind of child would probably excel as they are generally better at improvisation and real-time problem-solving than they are at concentrating on something they don’t need at the moment. They aren’t necessarily bad students, but they are the type which will toss things together at the last moment. In modern life, they tend to be the brilliant thinkers who put the great ideas out there and let others take care of the details.

On the other hand, ”normal” children are those in which the ”farmer” brain type is dominant: meticulous, detail-oriented, planners. They are generally a teacher’s dream, and are the ones who can turn the great ideas into working systems, which they then enjoy refining and refining some more. They are the ones who will give us a working highway system, but also the ones that give us 65 mile-per-hour speed limits because their nature is to plough the furrow again and again, as far as they can. Most overdone social trends (see helmets on ski slopes) have to do with farmers going a little too far into the details, into places where people outside the extremely specialized clique can no longer communicate effectively with them. Most people have a little of both, with one side predominating, while some – very few – are able to balance both sides, and can be Farming Hunters or Hunting Farmers.

Of course, all of this is extremely relevant to the business world, on two fronts: marketing and recruiting. Marketing because it is important to remember that you can’t sell things to farmers the way you would to hunters, and recruiting because, for technical reasons I won’t go into here, it is important to have a good balance of both personality types on your sales force (and I assume you would want your accounting department to be composed exclusively of farmers). Internet entrepreneurs tend to be hunters (which explains why they break the mold, and also why their long-range planning is sometimes… questionable).

So how does all of the above relate to this blog?


detail oriented

Simple. Polymaths seem to be Hunter-type personalities, while specialists, those men and women who are completely absorbed in one topic, seem to be farmers (remember that ADD research?), which is what makes academia so frustrating for so many.  The plodding, bureaucratic specialist is prevalent – and that means that the maverick needs to either learn to accept that or to ply his trade elsewhere.  That may be the reason that the less detail oriented personality types tend to find their way into business or the military as opposed to academia.  Hell, even in these fields, detail orientation is often praised, while big-picture thinking is suppressed.

Which begs the question: How much are we losing because of this?  Is over-specialization driving us to a dead end?  We at Classically Educated think so – which is why these posts are so eclectic…  But, ask around, you’ll find that most people disagree with us!

Classically Educated Looks Forward and the Result is… A Coffee* Mug

Garden of Eternla Delights

Here at Classically Educated, we love to look into the past.  Parting the mists of time is not just educational, and it doesn’t just keep humanity from repeating the past’s errors (although, it doesn’t seem like we’re very good at that), but it’s also fun.  We know we definitely enjoyed the series of articles on the Bismarck – and we are always looking for interesting takes on history.

The present, too, is fascinating, as long as it involves travel to new places or experiences with new groups of people who have interesting, thoughtful takes on life – or who simply cross the street very differently from what you and I might be accustomed to.  Romance is also interesting

But we don’t often look into the future all that much, which is kind of ironic considering that Classically Educated is a blog, with contributors from all over the world, most of whom have never spoken, much less met face to face.  Most have never even been in the same country as the rest.

So let’s look forward – specifically, let’s try to guess what will change people’s lives the most.

It has been said that new communications were going to change our lives fundamentally, and it’s indisputable that they have… except not fundamentally.  Having fingertip access to information and entertainment has created changes that range from the way people learn, to the way people date.  But it hasn’t really changed the fundamental way people interact with each other.  We still make friends with the people we have physical contact with, mainly.  We still – despite Google having the answer to everything – ask ourselves why we’re here, and where we’re going.  We go through teenage angst (and read Stepanie Meyer books), fall in love, get married, get jobs, some people get divorced, and then we die.

We could posit that immortality would be a big-and fundamental-change, but I sincerely doubt that it’s the next one coming down the pipeline.

So we’ll look into the one thing that has been – and will probably continue to be the biggest motor to social change since the Industrial Revolution: production methodology.

Wait, what?

Industrial Revolution London

Bear with me.  Factories were the innovation that began the migration of people from the country to the production centers in a major way.  Factories needed workers, the population was growing, and there was really no need for more mouths to feed in most peasant hovels (yes, this is an insensitive oversimplification, but it is still accurate).

Ford Production Line

Then came Henry Ford, and his production line.  While the clear, obvious consequence of this is that distances for the common man suddenly became much shorter in practice, mass production also meant that people could have stuff, lots of stuff, for reasonable prices – and they could have the same stuff as their neighbors.  This actually did change the way people interacted, and we’ve been living in the automobile age ever since.  Computers are a byproduct of this age, but have served to accelerate it and make it more efficient as opposed to shaking the foundations.  Ditto the internet and smartphones – refinements on the social structures of the industrial/automotive age, not really a huge change except in efficiency (even the supposedly doomed music industry is still around, it seems).

Perhaps the single biggest missed opportunity to really change things so far has been space exploration, but the imbecilic insistence on solving Earth’s problems first has scuttled that until private industry can afford to take humanity’s next step (so, despite his electric cars, I find myself rooting for Elon Musk…).  The gentler, kinder world we live in means that the timid rule the public budgets.  Too bad.

So, what’s next?

We believe that the next big change will be atomized production.  Not just decentralized, but atomized.  Yes, we are still some years from the home nano-factory, but it will get here sooner rather than later, though hopefully not as described in Nancy Kress’ story “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” (you can read the first part of the story here).  The first steps – Print on Demand and 3-D printing are already here, refinement will take things to another level, as it always has.

But back to nano.  Just think about it for a second.  When you can produce anything you want at home (or in a communal nano-factory a few blocks away), limited only by the availability of plans and the cost of materials, factories will disappear.  So will the factory worker…  A lot of literature which talks about the proletariat will be tossed out (or more likely, subjected to obvious revisionism), as that word will cease to have its original meaning, at least as regards to the productive part of the value chain.

I actually believe that this will be better in the long run, but a LOT of governments are going to try to block it, especially those that produce tons of stuff…  And if it isn’t the government, it will be the unions.  Countries will suffer revolutions because of this, but at the end of it, humanity will have taken a huge step forward.

Are you ready for that change?

Classically Educated is.  In fact, we’re so enthusiastic about it (assuming most of us survive the cannibalism while we work out the implications) that we have joined the first wave.  We have created a Classically Educated Mug on Zazzle, and anyone else who loves the site, or just the concept of a classical education can buy it here (all photos of you – or your cat – posing with the mug that you send our way will be included on future posts)!

The Completely Awesome Classically Educated Coffee Mug

*We recommend you fill it with tea, which is the correct beverage for reading the classics…  But this, of course, is a strictly non-commercial exercise done for scientific reasons 😉




Urban Planning for Gypsies*

Pruett-Igoe - social housing being demolished

Whenever I hear the words “sociology” and “science” used in the same sentence, I know that I am about to be sucked into an argument.  The sticking point here is what, exactly constitutes science, and what makes someone a scientist.

If you ask a sociologist, they will say that sociology is a science, just like physics.  If you ask a physicist, they will ask you what the sociologist was smoking when he made that statement.  You see, the physicist knows that science is built by hypothesis and logic, but is only validated through empirical verification. A sociologist, on the other hand, might say that the hypothesis and the theory are enough (I say might, because some sociologists are true to the scientific method, and I don’t want to generalize excessively).

There are both practical and philosophical reasons for the sociologists’ position.  Practical, in the sense that doing science with large groups of people can be difficult, and is understandable to a certain degree.  The philosophical is more insidious, as it involves the sociologists’ belief that as a scientist his theories are valid, and can be built upon with no experimental confirmation, which leads to houses of cards that seem incredible (through the lens of observation of actual human behavior) to anyone but another sociologist.

Hence, the title of this post, oxymoronic as it is.


I don’t really mean to imply that all sociologists are pseudoscientists, of course.  Many of them do keep their scientific training in mind and don’t fall into the trap of believing that well-constructed philosophy is in any way related to good science.  The bad ones, of course, become social engineers.

Social Engineers seem to commit the classic logical error of taking something particular and generalizing it.  The upside is that when they present a solution to this “problem”, they immediately have a compelling argument that shows that what they are proposing is important.  Typically however, social engineers (especially amateur ones) create more problems than they solve, simply by trying to do good.  Paving stones on the road to hell…

the reality of social engineers

They spend all their time trying to cure symptoms as opposed to studying the numbers and making decisions based on what is really going on, and seem to think that a small amount of sacrifice from everyone seems to be justified, if that can keep an individual or small group from suffering a little bit more.  Essentially, they are against any form of privilege and rile at anyone enjoying life when others can’t.  They seem to feel that we all have to be in the same boat – despite the fact that history teaches us that that’s not the case.  When, I ask of them, has everyone really been in the same boat?

prohibition - most people didn't want it

So we end up with things like Prohibition, Political Correctness, the Hays Code, Library book banning, gender/race quotas in companies and universities, protests against genetically modified foods, and countless others.  My favorite example is how many of the people involved in the anti-tobacco movement seem to be the same people pushing for the legalization of marijuana – despite the fact that a lot of the pulmonary health issues are the same!

To summarize, Social Engineering seems to be all about using small data sets to make generalizations about the whole of society, and to use anecdotal evidence (as opposed to statistically relevant evidence) and moral outrage when challenged.  Then, using nothing but these arguments, they force everyone into doing what they want (helmets on $%&!! motorcycles, for christs sake!) Seeing the state of the world, it seems to be a surprisingly effective way of doing things…

To quote longtime Road and Track Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis:

Social Engineering is to Engineering what Social Disease is to disease.  Both involve he hypocritical screwing of other people.

Yep, that’s precisely it.  Sad that we still have to say it twenty years after he did!

*MAJOR Brownie points if you can tell me where this phrase came from initially –  book and author.