Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Architecture of the Post-Modern Mind, Part II

Pedagogy is by definition the art of teaching, and of course its master principles. I call it an art rather than a science because there are a plethora of factors that make it a moving target: 1) the cultural context in which it is done; 2) the previous education of the audience (and the learning and unlearning required of that audience); 3) the epistemic principles in play in that culture (that is the assumptions about how we know what we know in that setting); and 4) the actual way the brain of that setting, era, culture is wired to learn, the habits of the heart and mind that affect this matter.

The setting in which the teacher in the 21rst century finds herself or himself is one in which increasingly the audience is composed of persons primarily geared to and triggered by visual stimuli. This is not a matter of heredity but rather cultural patterning and conditioning. The computer generation, by which I mean most persons glued to a screen since about the mid 80s, present different challenges to the teacher than most of the pre-80s learners they face, and even with the latter, many of them have spent so many years now learning the computer that they too are hard-wired for visual stimuli. Without DVD clips and powerpoints, even the most dynamic lecturers have a hard time reaching these post-modern learners.

And sadly they are all too often lazy learners anyway—“just give me the powerpoints (instead of taking notes)” they say. Or “point me to a website” instead of send me to the library to do original source research on my own. It is a challenging environment for learners and teachers alike. This is especially evident when one is dealing with an online course.

For a visual learner who cannot see the teacher and pick up his or her vibes, signals, body language, or tone of voice nor be able to see how other learners are responding to a class, and when they are taking notes and when nodding off, taking an online course, while it has various advantages, is scary because it is like flying blind, especially if the online classroom does not involve web-cams.

As a result, online courses are far more labor intensive, involve far more explanation, require far more hand-holding because each learner feels alone, off on an island, and largely without viable support and resources, especially if online ones are largely disallowed.

In ever so many ways then the computer generation conditions persons to be very unlike the people Jesus and Paul confronted in the first century A.D. That culture was an oral culture, with only about 15% literacy rate at most. People actually preferred hearing things than seeing them on a page. Documents were secondary to the living voice. This in turn means the Bible is addressed to a radically different sort of audience than we face now, and it presented very different pedagogical challenges. Jesus’ “let those with two good ears” might be replaced by “let those with two good eyes….” today. But there is a further and deeper issue.

Many analysts have pin-pointed the Matrix movies as inaugural and quintessential expressions of post-modernism, not least because virtual reality is portrayed as the real and deeper reality that matters in those movies. And herein lies the problem. For many of the computer generation, there is a preference for virtual reality, to the really real. In other words, in post-modernity there is a tendency to retreat into a mental world of our own making, whether it be “World of War Craft’ or ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ or something else.

This is one reason why the remaining modernists amongst us find people who spend so much time playing video or X box games so annoying. Things are said like “they need to come back to reality” or “they need to get a life” or “they need to go out and play a real game and get some exercise”. Hand maneuvers and increased hand-eye coordination in itself is after all not a very potent form of physical exercise. From the modernist point of view, those glued to computer screens and immersed in computer games are attempting to escape from reality, whether the charge is fair or not.

One of the problems youth ministers have had in reaching youth who are immersed in the computer and gaming and texting culture is that it is hard to get them away from their electronic devices, so often youth ministers go the "if you can't beat them join them route" sponsoring gaming parties. It is hard to get the gamers to relate to people directly, rather than through the buffer of a game or a computer screen.

And unfortunately for Evangelical Christian apologists, most of their apologetical training is geared to dealing with rationalist and modern arguments against God and faith, but in fact the discussion has largely moved on. The post-modern person is less concerned with whether something is logically consistent, and more concerned with whether it is captivating, whether it moves them, whether it interests and entertains them, whether it presents them with an alternative vision of reality.

Virtual reality is seen as more interesting and engaging than reality, and plausible and provocative truthiness is often seen as more engaging than the actual truth about something. In the post-modern age the clear and analytical documentary is replaced by the docu-drama, for what matters is the engaging and moving story. In the post-modern age shock jocks replace NPR dialogue and discourse, and the airwaves are seen as avenues for venting rather than inventing, for pooling one’s ignorance and feelings, rather than pooling one’s knowledge. Or so it seems.

The good news about post-modernity and its educational schemes, is that at least with online courses you largely have disembodied minds interacting, not whole persons. This is a plus in the sense that when one is online bodies, racial features, gender, shyness, matter less, and if all are required to contribute to the class all are able to do so if they can type. I have found that people who would never say ‘boo’ in a traditional class are often barricudas online. It helps those who are challenged or disadvantaged in a normal classroom setting. It levels the playing field, so to speak. Its hard to snow, smooze, or suck up to the teacher when they are miles away and not subject to a certain glance, or certain kinds of flattery. The ethos factors that tend to turn certain students into teachers pets largely disappear online.

If I were to sum up what post-modernity has thus far done to education and pedagogy I would have to say it is a mixed blessing at best. There are times when virtual reality is in fact unreality, and it leads to unreal expectations on the part of those used to learning, gaming, living in a virtual environment.

The cost of accessibility without mobility (i.e. without leaving one’s home, town, state and traveling to get an education) is that one does not really become part of a worshipping community at the locale where the education is delivered, or only in a derived sense does one do so.

I once did an experiment with an on campus class. The class was taped in the TV studio on campus at Asbury, and the students were given the choice to attend the class live in the studio, or in a classroom on campus via Vtel hookup. Many of them chose the latter, particularly the younger members of the class. They liked virtual Ben more than real Ben, not least because he was much bigger up on the screen--- MORE VISIBLE FOR VISUAL LEARNERS. It was a nice humbling experience for me.

Whether we like it or not, education and so pedagogy is changing because our audience and delivery modes have to change to reach them. And when the philosophical underpinnings of post-modernity come with the changes, the teacher finds himself having to adapt and adopt new ways of doing things, virtually all the time.
One has to explain why buying books is required (for the life of me I can't figure out why anyone would prefer a book on Kindle, rather than a real book with cover illustration, actual pages etc.). One has to explain why note taking is important. One has to explain why visual stimuli whilst important are not the be all and end all of education. One has to work to build community in a diverse environment where the class may be meeting in more than one place, or all online virtually, but in reality in 30 different places.

And the ultimate elephant in the room problem is disembodiment of the education. But then disembodiment is one of the spiritual features of post-modernity--- the Gnostic severing of the spiritual from the religious, of the spiritual from the historical, of the spiritual from the traditional. This is what we must discuss in the next post.


Recovering Sociopath said...

As a Gen-Xer whose primary media input is the internet, and as a native introvert, my preferred means of interaction is mediated online.

BUT, as someone who is learning more every year to appreciate a strongly incarnational theology and its implications for embodied life in community, I have learned to choose face to face contact even when I might shrink from it initially.

This is a very interesting series-- thanks so much.

phil said...

Because the current generation is the way it is (would rather have virtual than face to face) do you see any negative implications for this spilling over into the missional fields of our neighborhoods? In other words, do you think our current generation is less likely to be “hands on Christians” because of their preference for virtual interaction rather than physical contact?

ahswan said...

Ben, this is very interesting. As a parent/teacher of teenagers as well as being involved in church leadership, this is a very pertinent topic. You have made some very good points, and I look forward to more from you on this topic.

However, I'm not sure that the postmoderns are the first to have adopted a virtual reality. At least in a church context, it could be argued that the church of modernism is also a virtual reality, which is why so many youth have found it wanting. I suspect that many postmoderns are really in search of reality, but they haven't seen it in modernism - so, they've just traded one virtual reality for another.

However, as you have pointed out, the impact of the New Media on how information is conveyed is certainly a challenge. I suspect that the changes brought by TV and the internet are not necessarily tied to worldview, but may simply be paralleling the p-m shift.

But, I could be wrong... ;-)

Vagabond Professor said...

I appreciated your presentation on teaching in the post-modern world. That is where I teach as well and I face all the dilemmas you mention. We just had Leonard Sweet on campus and his thoughts are echoed by what you wrote in this blog. Thanks for affirmation. We know the problem. I wish I also had a solution.

The Reverend of Rock and Roll said...

Hey hey hey...BW3 is tackling post-modernity...time to read and digest...will I end up agreeing with the last modernity-based theologian that I have respect for? Who knows...dun dun dunnnnnnnnnn (that was my "scary music") Perhaps BW3 shall show me the light...or maybe he will fall victim to what the modernists before him have succumbed to...sounding like the grumpy man across the street who doesn't like the kids accidentally letting their baseball land in his yard. Who knows.

Given your past performance Mr. Witherington, I trust I am in good hands.

For your consideration, given the subject matter of this blog, I submit an article I wrote for Relevant Magazine a couple of years ago...

Maybe this is applicable here...maybe not. After all, a true post-modernist would never allow himself to speak in definitives.



Jc_Freak: said...

I have seen this kind of discussion before, and I agree with it a lot.

What do you think the ultimate ramifications are for preaching? Do you believe preachers should use more powerpoint? Or maybe props? I've found the only preacher to be able to do this effectively is Rob Bell, but does that mean every pastor must possess that level of creativity?

Rob Penn said...

Could a teacher not find a way to make the best of both worlds?

I'm 22, and I find that I personally learn best when there's aspects of many of those things. I've never liked the idea of an online course, but I am still a very visual learner, and I can't focus on a teacher that I can't see.

I learn best with some kind of power point, visual aids, and other similar things, but they CAN'T be scripts. If it's an outline, with object lessons interspersed, then I'm great. If it's a script and the teacher is pretty much reading the power point to me, then I'm asleep.

Also, if the students like the "Big Ben" on the screen, why not have a screen and a volunteer camera man in the live classes that have a large number of students?

The campus ministry I'm in used to do Halo LAN parties all the time. But it wasn't just video games, there was almost always a way to turn it into something bigger.

For instance, if a sniper knows how to super bounce and gets up to an impossibly high and unsee-able position, and he's killing every one and racking up a score, but he's the only one having fun, that usually spawns some level of discussion about ethics.

Ryan said...

Thanks for this terrific series.

Ben Witherington said...

Well Rob I have to say, it certainly ought to raise ethical questions when a person is 'rewarded' for killing as many people or creatures as he possibly can. This is in no way consistent with what a Christian should want to teach our children.


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rev Rock/Roll: Since I am an equal opportunity critiquer of modernity and post-modernity, neither of which are terrible Christian in character, the label modernist doesn't much suit me.


wabbott said...

And unfortunately for Evangelical Christian apologists, most of their apologetical training is geared to dealing with rationalist and modern arguments against God and faith, but in fact the discussion has largely moved on. The post-modern person is less concerned with whether something is logically consistent, and more concerned with whether it is captivating, whether it moves them, whether it interests and entertains them, whether it presents them with an alternative vision of reality.

I must say that I find this paragraph true to my experience. I'm not an Evangelical Apologist, but I feel their pain, because the same applies to other spheres of dialogue, most notably politics. The days of talking about politics in terms of rationality and history have largely past. It is the candidate who captivates, who causes a certain feeling in his audience who is more often the victor, not the one with better ideas. This may be bad for thoughtful politicians and Christian apologists, but it has worked out well for both charismatic politicians and preachers.

The Reverend of Rock and Roll said...


I did not mean to unfairly stereotype you. My bad. I really do always appreciate your critiques. (though I prefer your comic book critiques to modernity/post modernity since I'm a fan of comics and not of either of the two paradigms mentioned)

I think that instead of post-modernity, I am going to begin calling myself a pre-futurist...that sounds kind of catchy. I'd better hurry up and trademark it before someone else writes a book about it...

andy stenz said...

I'm enjoying this series of posts Ben. I had to laugh though, because I was reading this post on my Kindle? No kidding.

Unknown said...

Jacques Ellul saw a distinction between "truth" and "reality" and says that the former is inherently auditory while the latter is inherently visual. He liked "truth" alot better, and was afraid it was being eclipsed in our minds by "reality." Just wondered if you had come across this and if it had influenced any of your thinking on the matter.

Julie Glavic said...

Lots of thougths here - but unfortunately very little time...

It seems to me (23, recent graduate and now working at a college) that the current "post-modern" college student could be "post-modern" in different ways. Namely, does "post-modern" mean "beyond-modern," "anti-modern," or "hyper-modern"? I see all three things going on in my generation, and it's probably the variety of these views which makes teaching difficult!

I think most people think "anti-modern" when they hear the phrase "post-modern." They think that a "post-modern" person rejects everything about modernity: logic, sequence, classroom-based education, etc. And it's true - these folks are out there. They call everything into question, they deconstruct their world, and nothing ever gets constructed in the remaining void. To over-generalize, I think you often see this in "Generation X" - the folks who are just a bit older than myself. And I think that it's probably a necessary mindset, historically - someone needs to criticize what is broken about modernity. Unfortunately, at many college campuses, these individuals end up not caring about anything - or they care passionately, but they don't believe they can make a difference in the world.

But I'm now looking around me and I see all sorts of "hyper-modern" kids, especially in "Generation Y" and the "Millenials" (my age and my younger siblings' age). Yes, these students and kids operate much differently than their baby-boomer modernist parents. They're texting more than talking (something even I find incredible - just two years ago when I was still in college, texting was not a big deal!), their social lives are lived online, and they're incredibly knowledgeable about technological devices. (Much of this, though, has less to do with a change of thinking and more to do with a change in the world. See But what I see in these students' thinking is hyper-modernism - that is, they've completely embraced individualism, entitlement, ownership, individualism - and did I mention individualism? They are the product of a world that has told them that they can do anything and be anything. They are driven by a sort of Protestant work ethic which pushes them into twenty different extracurricular activities. (Or they are so wrapped up in their own heads that they move to Dungeons and Dragons.)

But then there are the "beyond-modern" thinkers. For them the "post" in "post-modern" might mean "moving on - taking the good parts and leaving the bad behind." And I think that this is very exciting. Because I think that a lot of these folks are asking the questions that Generation X asked and doing a lot of the same deconstruction, but they're more optimistic about building something after deconstructing something else. They're looking for answers, not just questions. At the same time, they're rejecting the rampant individualism of their modernist upbringing. You see this in Christian circles in the New Monasticism and other similar movements. They're realizing the pain that the de-localized modernist world has created - separating families and friends who used to live together for generations. They're craving community. Even the introverts of this group spend their introverted time in public - in coffee shops. Now, this group uses technology just as much as the others of their generation. But their motivation for this is to counter the de-community of the modern world. They long to keep in touch. And many of them are choosing online classes not because they want to live in their own little bubble, like their "hyper-modern" peers, but because they want to start building communal life - they want to start working for social justice or family and in-person college classes take them away from the relationships that are most important. It's interesting that Generation Y is even marrying (slightly) younger than Generation X - Gen X got terrified of marriage, seeing so many divorces and so many broken lives. Generation Y craves initimacy and is recognizing that the way to "fix" broken marriages is not to disown marriage, but to model good marriage.

I absolutely agree with you that ALL "post-moderns" are more visual than their predecessors. But I question whether that has much to do with the philosophy of "post-modernism" - I think that it's just a cultural shift. Just like the world became much more text-based after Gutenberg, of course the world will become more visual-based after television and the internet. But I think this can probably be a very good thing - Gutenberg opened up information to people who previously couldn't own it. The internet and visual communication opens up information to those who previously couldn't learn in a text-based system. (I think of stories of autistic children who are able to communicate through pictures but not words.) Leonard Sweet has written quite a bit about the ways that this shift to visual learning might be quite helpful.

This was longer than expected. Sorry!

Thanks for all your thougths. So fascinating!

Sam Riffell said...

"Could a teacher not find a way to make the best of both worlds?"

Yes, it's called hybrid instruction or blended instruction (part online & part face-to-face), and it's often better than strictly traditional or strictly online methods. There is a lot of research about hyrbrids to support this, but I'll shamelessly plug my own -

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bob and Julie: Thanks for these thoughts, which are valuable. I like what Ellul says on this point, and think I mostly agree. And yes Julie you are right, post-modern means different things to different people.


Ben W.

Ashley Biermann said...

Julie and insightful post from someone who is in a difficult age group to understand for someone who is born in the 60's like myself.

However, having just experienced a time where our youth pastor was non existent at church, and so the pastoral carer extended to the Gen Y's I found something that just amazed me.

The desire for community and intimacy is stronger than my own peer age group. So what you say just resonates with what I have found in interacting with the Gen y's.

These are such biblical core values, that while technology has indeed caused a change, the need for community is strong.

I realise that there may be a great tidal wave of true revival about to happen where again faith will be focussed on relationships and not form and programs.

I will watch with interest in the coming years, as this desire for intimacy and community moves into the next generation of leaders in the secular and religious world...