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Ed Theory
Winter 1992
Vol. 42, No. 1

A.T. Nuyen
The Death of the Professor

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May 31, 2000
Lyotard on the Death of the Professor
A.T. Nuyen
Department of Philosophy
University of Queensland
Following upon Nietzsche's declaration of the death of God, postmodernists have declared the death of the subject, the death of the author, and recently, as we hear from Jean-François Lyotard, the death of the Professor.1 However, it would be wrong to think that the Professor has died from the same illness that has killed all the other entities. Thus, while God, the subject and the author all died of a metaphysical death, the reason for the Professor's demise, at least according to Lyotard, is largely epistemological and pedagogical. The Professor's death notice has been the subject of a rather heated debate among educational theorists. In the first section, I will give a brief summary of the various positions in this debate. It will be shown that while there is some support for Lyotard's epistemology and pedagogy, many educationists believe that Lyotard's suggestion for education is too anarchical. Among those of the latter opinion, some believe that Lyotard's epistemology is too radical, advocating instead something with many more cognitive constraints in place, while others reject the link between epistemology and pedagogy, calling it the "epistemological fallacy"2 (thus allowing the Professor to play a role even if one accepts Lyotard's epistemology). Wishing neither to defend nor to reject the "epistemological fallacy," I want to argue in this essay that, in so far as epistemology determines pedagogy, Lyotard's postmodernist epistemology (as outlined in the second section) does not require the educational model he is advocating. I argue, in other words, that Lyotard's postmodernism, far from leading to the death of the Professor, calls for a pedagogy in which the Professor has a crucial role to play (Section III).

Some Reactions to Lyotard's Pedagogy

There has been for some time now a perception that education is in a crisis. Those of this opinion point, as evidence, to declining standards of literacy and numeracy, disciplinary problems in school, conflicting educational theories and models, and so on. Some have claimed that the causes are external, such as government policies concerning funding, or poor teacher training. Others contend that the main cause is internal, having to do with the nature of education itself. The latter group has interpreted Lyotard's work as a vindication of its view. In fact, the diagnosis of the internal problem was made long ago by Hannah Arendt: "The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo either authority or tradition, and yet must proceed in a world that is neither structured by authority nor held together by tradition."3 The effect of Lyotard's "delegitimation" of metanarratives (see below) is to affirm the second half of Arendt's remark. If both Lyotard and Arendt are right then postmodernism can account for the crisis in education. For this reason, philosophers of education have begun to talk about the implications for education of the postmodernist discourse. The growing interest in postmodernism can be gauged from the frequency of articles appearing in journals devoted to the philosophy of education, such as Educational Theory, as well as from "the growing presence of this theme in educational conferences."4

As it turns out, many of the key participants in the postmodernist discourse, including Lyotard, Rorty, and Habermas, have made pronouncements on education. Their assessments of the state of education and their recommendations are being absorbed by educational theorists. There is a growing conversation within the educational circle about the questions of how to interpret the postmodernist message and whether such a message should be taken seriously in the formulation of educational policies. At the level of interpretation, there is a certain degree of confusion. For instance, John Murphy declares: "Clearly postmodernists [read Lyotard] oppose the computerization of information."5 By contrast, Carol Nicholson claims that Lyotard is "(n)ot at all disturbed by (the) prospect of the partial replacement of teachers by machines."6 On the whole, however, this kind of confusion is rare. At the policy level, it is to be expected that the matter is controversial. Thus, some theorists recommend acceptance of Lyotard's recommendations; some believe that they are too "anarchistic" and favor instead Habermas's or Rorty's, others reject the postmodernist diagnosis of the internal problem, preferring some other diagnosis.7 (Others still reject the view that there is any internal problem at all.)

Among those who support Lyotard's educational model is J.M. Fritzman. According to Fritzman, "Lyotardian paralogy ... may be read as overcoming the deficiencies of Rortyan pluralism."8 Fritzman's argument seems to be this: on the one hand, Rorty (and indirectly Habermas) is unduly optimistic about the prospect of consensus, and on the other his pursuit of consensus can be "terroristic" in the sense that certain views—regarded as "inconceivable" for whatever reason—will be excluded. For this reason Fritzman prefers Lyotard's paralogy which aims at constantly introducing new views into the discourse that disagree with the existing ones, in other words, at dissensus rather than consensus. Against Rorty, Fritzman accepts Lyotard's claim that unresolvable conflicts (called differends by Lyotard) are inevitable. This being the case, instead of constructing a curriculum based on the ideal of a social consensus, we should "teach students to be sensitive to the inevitable presence of differends."9 Rorty's suggestion that a university should have a place for every conceivable view, theory, or movement, is not enough for Fritzman: "what of those movements which are not conceivable—that is, those positions which now are not recognized as either minority views or legitimate—or those persons expressing unpopular thoughts who are not representatives of any recognized movement?"10

Fritzman seems to be advocating an educational principle of extreme pluralism. However, many other educational theorists have read Lyotard differently. John Murphy, for instance, has seized on Lyotard's claim that "order can always emerge ... from 'interlocutors involved in ethical, social, and political praxis.'"11 Murphy interprets Lyotard as saying that paralogy can lead to convergence. He agrees that while we should learn from Lyotard that "truth is not idiosyncratic," that "all knowledge is interpretive," and that "no information can be given automatically a seigneurial status," we must still conclude that "anarchy is not necessarily the outcome of postmodernism."12 This is so because of the tendency of public discourse to converge towards consensus, indeed, towards a certain set of enforceable rules. As Murphy reads Lyotard, "(p)ostmodernists have never stated that establishing norms is impossible, but only that they originate from language use.... Postmodernist education does not encourage normlessness, but, much more important, requires that persons assume responsibility for truth."13

At the other end of the spectrum, many theorists have argued against Lyotard's account. For instance, Carol Nicholson argues that the death of metanarratives means the "knell of the age of the Professor" only if one presupposes that "the sole purpose of the teaching game is to transmit information and the skills necessary to acquire it."14 If this presupposition is false then "the death of metanarratives will not prevent us from trying to develop students' abilities to read and interpret texts, think critically, and communicate effectively in natural as well as computer languages."15 Nicholson describes as an "anarchistic utopian vision" Lyotard's recommendation that we only teach students to play information games in isolation. She recommends instead that we teach students to make "informed judgment and commitment" and to play the language games with a sense of "solidarity with the human community or sensitivity to the natural environment."16 Nicholson believes that this is in line with the vision of education found in Rorty: "He [Rorty] sees the main educational problem as 'finding a way to guide students between the Scylla of Platonism and the Charybdis of vulgar relativism.'"17 In Nicholson's assessment, "Rorty's approach to education improves upon Lyotard's in that it avoids the epistemological fallacy and it emphasizes the importance of educating students into a sense of community."18 It goes almost without saying that Nicholson finds Rorty's educational program, though superior to Lyotard's, still lacking many desirable features, for instance, it does not suggest how critical studies of society—its political, economic, racial and sexual problems—could be introduced into the curriculum. In suggesting a remedy to Rorty's educational program, Nicholson effectively pushes it closer to what has been recommended by Habermas.

In what follows I shall give my own account of Lyotard's position and then provide a critique of it. It will be clear that my critique adds another angle to the general position taken by Nicholson.

Lyotard's Arguments

How does Lyotard reach the conclusion that "the process of delegitimation and the predominance of the performance criterion are sounding the knell of the age of the Professor"? Clearly, there are for Lyotard two factors contributing to the death of the Professor: delegitimation and the performance criterion. As it turns out, both of these result from Lyotard's postmodernist epistemology. Let us look first at delegitimation.

In the introduction to The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard indicates that he "will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse ... making explicit appeal to some grand narrative," and that he will "define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives."19 By legitimation Lyotard means the process by which it is judged whether something, a statement, is science, or more generally knowledge. A narrative in turn is an account of some fundamental values, or an account of some metaphysical entities or ideals that are the sources of fundamental values. It is by virtue of such values that a statement is legitimated as science, or knowledge. Examples of legitimation by appealing to a grand narrative range from Plato's appeal to the immutable Forms, Hegel's appeal to Spirit, and the modernist appeal to the "'people' (the nation, or even humanity)."20 Thus for Plato, only the Forms are real, and only statements about those Forms can be true and form part of knowledge. Statements about appearances are excluded, and likewise statements made by poets. The real and the true are the fundamental values. For Hegel, the only knowledge is the Spirit's self-knowledge, and something is knowledge only if it is perceived by the Spirit in the process of coming to know itself. The Spirit is the source of all fundamental values. Finally, it may be said that the advancement of "humanity" is the only fundamental value, and something is knowledge only insofar as it contributes to this value, for example, if it enhances the freedom and autonomy of the people.

According to Lyotard, there are two general ways of legitimating knowledge: the philosophical way which employs the "speculative apparatus" (such as Plato's Forms, or Hegel's Spirit), and the political way which employs the "emancipation apparatus" (such as the Enlightenment's freedom and autonomy of the people, or the nation). However, both ways lead the process of legitimation into self-destruction. Consider first the "speculative apparatus" according to which "knowledge is only worthy of that name to the extent that it reduplicates itself ... by citing its own statements in a second-level discourse (autonomy) that functions to legitimate them."21 This "test" is a crucial premise in Lyotard's argument. Now, apply the "test" to the following speculative statement: "A scientific statement is knowledge if and only if it can take its place in a universal process of engendering."22 This statement defines what it is for a statement to be knowledge. If this very statement "can take its place in a universal process of engendering" then it is knowledge by its own definition. Given the Hegelian narrative of a self-engendering Spirit, this statement can be taken as an expression of that process of engendering, thus fulfilling the requirement it itself makes for it to be knowledge. However, any scientific statement will fail this test because the discourse of science is denotative, that is, it employs declarative sentences referring to some object, a referent, for example, "This piece of copper conducts electricity." When we refer to such a denotative sentence in an attempt to legitimate it, we are no longer within the scientific discourse. A scientific, denotative, sentence cannot "reduplicate" itself in another discourse and remain scientific. We can paraphrase Lyotard by saying that scientific discourse is not self-referential. Any talk about science is itself not science. By contrast, any speculative, or philosophical, talk about philosophy is itself philosophy. This is why the attempt to legitimate science by the speculative apparatus ends up showing that "denotative discourse bearing on a certain referent (a living organism, a chemical property, or a physical phenomenon) does not really know what it thinks it knows [and that] positive science is not a form of knowledge."23 This process of legitimating science achieves the exact opposite, namely delegitimating science.

The political process of legitimation employing the "emancipation apparatus" fares no better. The "emancipation" of the people through science has the consequence of rendering the people autonomous from science, which in turn renders their political, social and ethical discourses also autonomous from science. Thus, instead of grounding science, the "emancipation apparatus" succeeds in making science just another discourse, another language game, "on par with the others."24 Once again, the attempt to legitimate science achieves the opposite effect, namely, "to attack the legitimacy of the discourse of science ... indirectly, by revealing that it is a language game with its own rules ... and that it has no special calling to supervise the game of praxis."25

The self-destructive nature of the process of legitimation calls for a postmodernist response, namely the abandonment of grand narratives and with it the delegitimation of knowledge. There is no longer any point in talking about God, Spirit, Form, humanity, ego cogito, other than in an attempt to achieve some local effects, with values confined to a localized context (such as God in the context of worship, Spirit in the context of dialectics, and so on). Instead of a grand narrative that can legitimate other discourses, we are faced with a series of petits récits, of local "perspectives," of diverse language games, each with its own set of rules. Such is the postmodern condition as far as Lyotard is concerned.

Returning to science, it is clear that it has to legitimate itself by its own rules. But even here, we cannot expect to have a set of rules that can legitimate all scientific statements. Not only is there no grand narrative for all human intellectual activities, scientific as well as nonscientific—the breakdown of the grand narrative goes much deeper—there is no grand narrative governing scientific activities. Lyotard's argument for this phase of the breakdown of the grand narrative is as follows. A scientific statement has to be validated in a second-level discourse, an axiomatic metalanguage with logical rules linking the axioms to other statements. But there cannot be a universal axiomatic metalanguage capable of validating all branches of science due to the inevitable incompleteness of any such metalanguage (a theorem established by Gödel). As a result, there is a plurality of languages defining and legitimating a plurality of sciences. A scientist can progress by making a new move within the established rules, or by inventing new rules that define a new game, a new science (a process described by Thomas Kuhn as a "paradigm shift").

It is inevitable, then, that each scientific game, each branch of science, has to legitimate itself by its own rules. Yet, despite the plurality of games, the process of legitimation seems to be common to all branches of science, namely providing a proof for a scientific claim. This observation allows Lyotard to conclude that the postmodern criterion of legitimation in science is performativity. His argument is as follows. The construction of a proof requires the description, or observation, of certain phenomena, which requires in turn the use of sophisticated instruments. A good instrument is one that performs this function well. Now, the more access one has to "good" technology, the more information one can gather, which in turn enables one to prove more, and hence better to legitimate one's activity. One's legitimated scientific activity in turn justifies greater expenditure on the technology that helped with the legitimation in the first place. Thus, technology in the scientific context is all about performance. This is how legitimation is reduced to performativity. Since the amount of information is the key (in the sense that more information means more can be proved, hence a greater degree of legitimation), the computerization of the society goes hand-in-hand with the process of legitimation, insofar as the computer is the most efficient instrument for information processing.

Now that delegitimation and the performativity criterion have been explicated, how do they contribute to the death of the Professor? Lyotard writes: "In the context of delegitimation, universities and the institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills, and no longer ideals.... The transmission of knowledge is no longer designed to train an elite capable of guiding the nation towards its emancipation."26 Nor, one might add, in case the "speculative apparatus" is considered in the process of legitimation, toward some metaphysical terminus ad quem (such as the Hegelian Absolute). I take it that Lyotard's argument is that one of the functions of the Professor is to provide a theoretical (political or speculative) narrative capable of serving the legitimating function. In other words, Lyotard's assumption is that it takes a Professor to come up with a political, or speculative, theory, and to transmit his or her theoretical views to the students who need them to see why something is, or is not, science, or knowledge. However, if there is no longer any need for such a narrative (as the argument for delegitimation above has shown), this function of the Professor disappears. If a university continues to produce graduates trained in theoretical narratives, they will quickly find themselves unemployed. Here, the performativity criterion comes into effect: either students will no longer be attracted to the prospect of being unemployable or funds will not be allocated to institutions that produce unemployable graduates. Thus, the training of graduates in theoretical matters (no matter how "desirable" they are on their own), will no longer take place, and no professors will be required to perform this function. Indeed, the university need not be the only place where knowledge, in the sense of skills, is transmitted. For, "(i)t does not seem necessary that the medium [of teaching] be a lecture delivered in person by a teacher in front of silent students."27 The computer with its data banks can now perform this function. All that students need to be taught is "how to use terminals ... where should the question be addressed, in other words, what is the relevant memory bank for what needs to be known? How should the question be formulated to avoid misunderstanding?"28

In summary, Lyotard's argument is this. Any attempt to legitimate science, or knowledge, by grounding it in a grand narrative will achieve the exact opposite effect, namely delegitimation. What we have is a plurality of branches of science, or fields of knowledge, functioning like language games, each with its own set of rules, and a statement has to be legitimated in the same way as a move is in a game, that is, by the rules internal to the game. In science, what matters is how much can be proved, which is the function of the speed and amount of information processed. The Professor is no longer required to spin narratives to legitimate knowledge claims. Those narratives have zero performativity when it comes to proving knowledge claims. All the knowledge there is is contained in data banks, and education amounts to teaching students how to retrieve it. If Lyotard is right, the implications for education are immense. However, there are reasons to believe that Lyotard's pedagogy does not follow from his epistemology.

An Assessment of Lyotard's Arguments

Lyotard's claims are so startling that one's initial reaction is to want to challenge them, and yet one feels powerless to challenge the description of the postmodern condition that gives him the initial set of premises, a description that has an undeniable, initial, plausibility. For instance, the claim that not only truth but justice as well, is a function of information processing sounds counterintuitive until one realizes that a greater access to legal precedents will lead to a greater success in proving a legal point, hence in winning a legal argument. Lyotard's claims present us with a mixture of plausibility and incredulity. However, once the effects of the initial plausibility have been absorbed, one feels inclined to ask a large number of questions. For instance: What about the old distinction between techne and episteme? What about fields of knowledge (such as abstract algebra) where "proof" is a theoretical process rather than an empirical one involving observations? What notion of "truth" does Lyotard have in mind when he separates the question "Is it true?" from questions such as "What use is it?" "Is it saleable?" and "Is it efficient?" However, I want to set these issues aside, and concentrate on the pedagogical implications of Lyotard's epistemology. The following points can be made.

The Demand for Narratives

Suppose we accept the following premises: (i) The role of the Professor is to educate students in the understanding of narratives, and (ii) Narratives have zero performativity in proving scientific claims. How do they result in the death of the Professor? Lyotard seems to think that (i) and (ii) are sufficient for the elimination of any demand for the Professor's services, and the Professor will go out of business as a result. However, there is no evidence for this. Narratives have a fascination of their own, which continues to excite the curiosity of a large number of people. Rightly or wrongly, many people believe that one is not "educated" until one has an understanding of and appreciation for narratives. Many people just want to know what "great thinkers" through the ages—Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and indeed Lyotard—have had to say. It could well be true that those trained in theoretical matters will be unemployable, but they are unemployable only as persons trained in theoretical matters (ignoring the very small market for academics). The point is that the demand for understanding in narratives is not a market-related demand, hence it is unlikely to be affected by the performativity criterion. It is also true that there was a relative decline in enrollments in humanities in the seventies and the eighties. However, such a decline is hardly evidence for the claim that the Professor's death knell is sounding. Indeed, enrollments in the humanities have steadied, and in some institutions have shown a significant increase. Given the fascination for narratives, one can predict that as working hours are reduced, or leisure time increased, and as Lyotard's performativity criterion bears fruit in increased prosperity, the demand for the teaching of narratives will increase, insuring a bright future for the Professor.

The Logical Necessity for at Least One Narrative.

Suppose that we accept all of Lyotard's epistemological premises as well as his accounts of delegitimation and performativity; we are still left with the questions: Who is to spread the message about delegitimation itself? Who is to present the argument for the collapse of grand narratives? Not any technocrat or computer programmer; it will have to be a professor, someone like Lyotard himself. Since the collapse of grand narratives is itself a grand narrative, there is a logical necessity for at least one grand narrative. It follows that there is a necessity (though not a logical one) for at least one kind of professor, namely the Lyotardian kind. Lyotard has said that we should "wage a war on totality,"29 in other words, a war on grand narratives. Even if this is a war to end all wars, it still has to be fought, and by Lyotard's own account, it cannot be fought with computers, but rather with the resources possessed by the Professor. Unlike a conventional war, this intellectual war will be a never-ending one, and so if the Professor is dying, he or she had better be resuscitated to fight Lyotard's war. In other words, if Lyotard is right, we still need the Professor to teach students the reason why performativity is now the criterion rather than human emancipation or some other ideal, to reassure students that all they need to know is how to use computer terminals. If Lyotard is right, grand narratives are like stories about ghosts. There are no ghosts, but children still have to be reassured that it is so, and taught not to be afraid. The postmodernist framework has to be maintained because it does not maintain itself. This is the job for the Professor.

Who Is Dead?

The point above can be put in another way. If the Professor is dead then Lyotard cannot be speaking as a professor, and if so then what is he speaking as? The logic of this question is as follows. Either Lyotard's account is a narrative about narratives, or it is not. If it is not then Lyotard must be speaking in another forum and in another idiom, in which what appears to be a narrative is in fact not so. But what forum and what idiom? While it is difficult to guess what the answer could be, we are not obliged to find out. For whatever it is, Lyotard's account is not supposed to tell us anything we should know about narratives. That leaves the other alternative, namely, his account is a narrative about narratives, in which case we are supposed to be instructed by it about narratives, about their role and function. But if we are instructed by Lyotard's narrative then he is by definition a professor. So either he is inconsistent in declaring the death of the Professor, or his victim is not the real Professor, who is not dead after all, but someone else whose identity is confused by Lyotard's ruse. Given the more charitable interpretation, which saves Lyotard from inconsistency, the question that has to be asked is "Who is dead?" "Who is Lyotard's victim?" It is plausible to suggest that Lyotard's victim is really the Hegelian Professor, the guardian of Truth, the one who knows about the Absolute and who can profess about the system that leads to it, that is, one who can tell us with absolute authority that such-and-such is legitimate knowledge and so-and-so is not.

If I am right in interpreting Lyotard charitably, and right about the real identity of his victim, then there is no mystery about the nature of Lyotard's narrative and no puzzle about his own role. But if I am wrong, not only will we have to live with the mystery and the puzzle, we also will have no way of knowing what to make of the faculty currently working in colleges and universities, how to treat their narratives (such as publications) or how to decide on hiring new ones and promoting existing ones. This point is meant to be a reductio ad absurdum of Lyotard's position, should my charitable interpretation is rejected. On balance, it seems preferable to be charitable, in which case there must be professors whose tasks include the championing of the canon by constructing narratives (petits récits) that are instructive about the canon. Lyotard himself is one such professor, there to champion the postmodernist narrative.

A Grand Narrative Could Cause the Death of the Professor

We can now turn Lyotard's argument on its head. In so far as the chief role of a grand narrative is legitimation, we can claim that it is precisely the predominance of grand narratives that corresponds to the diminution in the role of the Professor, and that it is precisely the coming into dominance of one single grand narrative that sounds the knell of the Professor. Conversely, we can claim that the collapse of grand narratives, or the postmodern condition, means that the Professor's role is more crucial than ever. The first claim can be argued for from Lyotard's own premise that grand narratives tend to be terroristic and totalitarian. A grand narrative is meant to provide the grounding for, and legitimate, other discourses. It does not allow for the questioning of its role and its nature, for to do so is to engage in another narrative. Thus, a grand narrative requires imposition and demands obedience, leaving no room for teaching and learning. To play a game, a player just has to know (in the sense of absorb) the rules of the game and play within them. What can be taught and learned are the skills of the game, not the rules, as there is no room for questioning the rules. Of course, rules can be questioned, but that would be a different game. It follows that when a single grand narrative gains dominance, terrorism becomes extreme, and there will be no room for the Professor to teach or for the students to learn. This is dramatically demonstrated by that period in Chinese history known as the Cultural Revolution. In this period, there was only one grand narrative: the Maoist doctrine. As a result, teachers of all kinds were purged from the classroom, and the Red Guards took over. Had the Chinese society been computerized, the "Red Computers" would have taken over. Notice that something like Maoism is not like Lyotard's grand narrative about the collapse of grand narratives. The latter is a negative narrative, which is not terroristic, and hence can be taught and learned as we saw above. Something like Maoism needs only an initial "professor," Mao himself, to propagate it, and once propagated, it will be imposed rather than taught, because it requires obedience rather than understanding.

Information and Understanding

According to Lyotard, the postmodern condition is characterized by the plurality of petits récits. However, in the postmodern age, the problem of legitimation has not been eliminated. Rather, each language game, each petit récit, legitimates itself. For this to happen, each language game must have two separate concerns: the playing of the game according to its rules, and the justification of moves made within the game. The question is whether the justificatory concern can be met by the computer and its data banks. Clearly, justification is itself a narrative, albeit a "small narrative" (petit récit). If, as Lyotard says, the "replacement of teachers by machines may seem inadequate or even intolerable" in "the context of the grand narratives of legitimation,"30 I do not see why it can be adequate or tolerable in the context of the small narratives of justification. If the Professor is needed in one case, he or she will be needed in the other case. In a game of sport, the coach is concerned with developing playing skills (and here performativity is important and technology is crucial), but it is the umpire or the referee who is concerned with the legitimation of any move made. In the context of education, what students need to know is why a certain move, a statement, is legitimate within some field of knowledge. This is a problem of understanding. To know how to make a move is one thing, to understand why in terms of the governing rules is another. Each move, each statement, has to be placed in a context for it to be understood. It is here that the Professor is required, because a computer cannot perform this task. The data banks only make the information available, they do not make sense of the information. As Heraclitus once said, "(i)nformation about many things does not teach understanding; if it did, it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus."31 A postmodern Heraclitus would have said: "Information does not teach understanding; if it did, the computer would have replaced the Professor." As it does not, students have to be taught not just how to retrieve information but also what it means.

Imagination

Lyotard acknowledges that performativity requires more than just the retrieval of information. It is also a function of how bits of information are put together in a new way to create a new move. When a new move comes up against the rules of the game, what can be done is to create new rules and thereby define a new game. This is the way new sciences develop, the postmodern way of progress. The creation of new games and new moves within an existing game requires more than the transmission of information; it requires imagination. Strangely, Lyotard does not think that this aspect of his analysis affects his pedagogical model. The need for imagination, for Lyotard, does not justify the existence of a university and its professors: "It matters little whether [the conditions for "the promotion and 'stimulation' of 'imaginative' minds"] are officially a part of the university."32 Lyotard offers no argument for this conclusion. I fail to see how it can be argued that machines are adequate to the task of promoting and stimulating imaginative minds. On the contrary, it seems clear that this is the Professor's job. To be sure, imagination cannot be taught. The role of the Professor is not so much to teach creative skills as to set examples and to inspire. Imagination needs inspiration, and the computer does not inspire.

Understanding, Imagination and Teaching Machines

These points are not entirely new. Indeed, Lyotard's reference to the "replacement of teachers by machines" rekindles the debate in the sixties about teaching machines.33 There was then talk of the death of the teacher too. However, it is important to notice that in the earlier debate, teaching machines were thought (by some) to be the cause of the teacher's demise, whereas for Lyotard, the Professor dies as a result of his epistemology, and the teaching machines only happen to be there, conveniently filling the gap. Despite this difference, the various arguments raised in the earlier debate remain instructive. I shall try to show that many such arguments can be interpreted in such a way as to illustrate the nature and role of understanding and imagination in pedagogy.

According to H.S. Broudy, the answer to the question "Can or will the teaching machine displace the live teacher?" has to be "yes" because the idea of such a machine is to do "what a live teacher might be doing."34 Broudy adds: "There would be no profit in machines if they did not somehow replace human labor." This may sound as though Broudy agrees with the view that the teaching machine will replace the teacher. However, this is not his view. To begin with, notice that he says that the machine is expected to replace human labor, not human intellect. He then goes on to state:

In attitude formation human models and the value climate of the school as a whole are important, perhaps crucially so. Clearly the machine cannot serve as such a model, and if it displaces teachers who could serve as models, a serious gap in the educative experience of the learner could ensue. Or if the time for model and pupil to spend together is drastically reduced the effect would also be deplorable.35

The argument here is that we need the teacher as a "human model" for "attitude formation" which is an indispensable element in the "educative experience" of the learner. Notice that this view fits well with Rorty's idea of the role of the Professor as someone to interact with the learner so that the latter may expand his or her experience and imagination. (Presumably the Professor will benefit from the process too.) In a book written with John R. Palmer, Broudy distinguishes four kinds of learning: (1) "learning how to do this or that (skills)," (2) "learning that this or that is the case (information)," (3) "learning why such and such is the case (explanations)," and (4) "learning to be a certain kind of person."36 Teaching machines are eminently suited to (1) and (2), less suited to (3), and totally unsuitable as far as (4) is concerned.

It is interesting to note that in the debate in the sixties, those most enthusiastic about teaching machines never argued for doing away with the teacher. Indeed, the strongest argument for machines is that they free the teacher from repetitive tasks, enabling him or her to do what he or she does best, namely to assist in the learning of (3) and (4) in terms of the Broudy-Palmer account. Thus, Lee Sechrest and R. Wray Strowig argue that teaching machines allow the teacher to "become a valuable partner in the learning process."37 They identify one factor in the learning process that machines cannot take into account: "concern for the identity and integrity of the individual."38 This is similar to the fourth kind of learning identified by Broudy and Palmer, for which the teacher is indispensable as a "human model." It also illustrates the sense of my claim earlier, namely that "Imagination needs inspiration, and the computer does not inspire."

I conclude that far from "sounding the knell of the age of the Professor," the postmodern condition as described by Lyotard defines a new and much more vigorous role for the Professor. Certainly, there is a case for removing many functions presently performed by universities, particularly those associated with training in routine skills. This change would return the university to the model of the Academy in ancient Greece, where the Professor, from his chair, inspired receptive minds to rise to ever-higher levels of creativity and imagination.


A.T. NUYEN is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia 4072. Recent publications include "Sense, Passions and Morals in Hume and Kant" and "Postmodern Theology and Postmodern Philosophy."

1. On God, the subject and the author, see my The Philosophy of Postmodernism (Cambridge: Polity Press, forthcoming). On the death of the Professor, see Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), particularly pp. 47-53.

2. This term was coined by Jane Roland Martin, see "Needed: A Paradigm for Liberal Education," in Philosophy and Education, Eightieth Yearbook of the National Society for Study of Education, Part I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

3. Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education," in Between Past and Future (New York: Viking Press, 1961), 195.

4. Mustafa U. Kiziltan, William J. Bain, and Anita Canizares M., "Postmodern Conditions: Rethinking Public Education," Educational Theory 40 (1990): 355.

5. John W. Murphy, "Computerization, Postmodern Epistemology, and Reading in the Postmodern Era," Educational Theory, 38 (1988): 179.

6. Carol Nicholson, "Postmodernism, Feminism, and Education: The Need for Solidarity," Educational Theory 39 (1989): 199.

7. See for instance E.D. Hirsch, "The Primal Scene of Education," New York Book Review (March 1989): 29-35.

8. J.M. Fritzman, "Lyotard's Paralogy and Rorty's Pluralism: Their Differences and Pedagogical Implications," Educational Theory 40 (1990): 371.

9. Ibid., 379.

10. Ibid., 380.

11. Murphy, "Computerization, Postmodern Epistemology, and Reading," 180.

12. Ibid., 181-82.

13. Ibid., 182.

14. Nicholson, "Postmodernism, Feminism, and Education," 199.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 200.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., 201.

19. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, xxiii, xxiv.

20. Ibid., 31.

21. Ibid., 38.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., 40.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid., 48.

27. Ibid., 50.

28. Ibid., 50-51.

29. Ibid., 82.

30. Ibid., 51.

31. The first sentence of this fragment is often translated as "Much learning does not teach understanding." The key word is polymathie which can be rendered as the learning of, or the gathering of information about, many things. The translation I use here is Martha Nussbaum's in The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 123.

32. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 53.

33. See for instance A.A. Lumsdaine and R. Glaser, eds., Teaching Machines and Programmed Learning (Washington, D.C.: National Education Assocation, 1960), and E. Galanter, ed., Automatic Teaching: The State of the Art (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1959). See also notes 34 and 36.

34. H.S. Broudy, "Teaching Machines: Threats and Promise," Educational Theory 12, no. 3 (1962): 152.

35. Ibid., 153.

36. Harry S. Broudy and John R. Palmer, Examplars of Teaching Methods (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1965), 5.

37. Lee Sechrest and R. Wray Strowig, "Teaching Machines and the Individual Learner," Educational Theory 12, no. 3 (1962): 164.

38. Ibid., 167.



EDUCATIONAL THEORY / Winter 1992 / Volume 42 / Number 1
© 1992 Board of Trustees / University of Illinois