John Leo

Postmodernists see individuals as products of a specific culture who must guard against the temptation to inflate their own norms into universal standards and dress up their own interests as objectivity. To claim knowledge as universal truth is impossible. There is no truth, just narratives and stories that "work" for particular communities. This belief has turned the study of history on campus into politically empowering, feel-good exercises and provided intellectual justification for the politicization of all studies on campus.

Since "truth" is an act of community empowerment, truth is whatever the tribe or the individual says it is. This is why debate and argument have disappeared from the modern campus -- to criticize anyone's ideas is a personal assault, like attacking someone for liking chocolate ice cream. This notion that disagreement is an assault helps explain the venomous treatment of dissenters on campus -- canceled speakers, stolen newspapers, ripped-down posters, implausible hate-speech violations, and many other hallmarks of the modern campus.

If all beliefs are equally valid, there is nothing to debate about. Nothing separates a personal "truth" from self-delusion. Cultures can't be criticized for what most of us consider horrendous acts, like the recent gang-rape in Pakistan of an 18-year-old girl as punishment for her brother's flirting with a woman of high status. Journalist Andrew Sullivan saw an opening to taunt postmodern guru Stanley Fish about this case. Is Fish willing to come out against gang-rape as punishment? Yes, he told me; he doesn't believe that any culture is above criticism.

Postmodernists are not consistent about their dogma that other cultures are not to be criticized. Particularly on issues of race and gender, postmodernists can be as judgmental as everyone else, particularly when discussions turn to genital mutilation, the jailing or execution of homosexuals, or the Taliban practice of beating women on the street. Similarly, the deeply held belief that all cultures are valid on their own terms is rarely applied to the United States. Perhaps inevitably, however, we have heard a lot of postmodern defenses of the validity of terrorist attacks on the West.

Do parents know what they are paying for when they ship their sons and daughters off to Postmodern U.? Probably not. But the notion that truth is simply a personal preference is often part of what they are buying.

NAS said this of its poll: If students leave college convinced that ethical standards are simply a matter of individual choice, they are less likely to be reliably ethical in their subsequent careers. This seems like understatement. The nation is currently outraged about the moral shenanigans of the tycoon class, but it's hard to see how things will improve if we teach the next generation that standards don't exist and moral debate is a personal violation and a sham.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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