Outdoor Education Philosophy

Post-modernism &
Outdoor Education

James Neill
Last updated:
07 Dec 2005

The very nature of post-modernism is that anything written about post-modernism is problematised and naturally then is to be deconstructed and found to be an arbitrary, relativistic construction of meaning.  This ultimately seems to imply an inherent meaninglessness in postmodern debate, although in becoming meaningless itself it also seeks to bring down with it the constructed meanings of everything else.

To write about postmodernism is also to be prepared to be totally wrong and infinitely vulnerable.  But there is  freedom here too, to see meaning fractionated into new forms.

An illustration of erudite meaninglessness that can appear in postmodernism (and elsewhere) comes from this opening to Tilton and la Tournier's essay entitled "Feminism, subcapitalist theory and the cultural paradigm of expression, in which they write describe "contexts of meaninglessness": 

""Sexual identity is fundamentally impossible," says Bataille. A number of narratives concerning textual precultural theory may be found.  In the works of Burroughs, a predominant concept is the concept of textual reality. In a sense, the within/without distinction prevalent in Burroughs's Port of Saints is also evident in The Soft Machine. The subject is interpolated into a semiotic postdeconstructivist theory that includes consciousness as a whole....It could be said that if preconceptualist discourse holds, we have to choose between dialectic capitalism and posttextual appropriation. Lyotard promotes the use of the cultural paradigm of expression to modify and analyse class."


The problem here is that as erudite as this sounds, it is a fictitious essay that was randomly generated by a computer programmed with post-modern phraseologies.  Thus it can been how easily meaning is constructed through interpretation.  W we may also recognized in here an inherent  meaningless to much similar postmodern jargonesque text that gets thrown out under the guise of real debate. 

Personally, I'm not sure of the history or origins of post-modern thinking except that I gather it is loose and involves many who don't agree and the so-called key figures of post-modernism themselves usually question or deny being labeled as anything to do with what others have called post-modernism.  So its bloody hard to even get started with postmodernism, let alone possible connections between postmodernism and other fields of inquiry, such as outdoor education.

My sense of postmodernism is that there is logical historical connection with existentialism which essentially brought to light in literature and philosophy a realization of the meaningfulness of modern life.  This came to fruition in literature and thinking emerging from Europe in the post-industrial wake and during and immediately post World War II (e.g., Sartre and Camus).  The disconnection of human living from the natural elements, from religious structure, from lived-in-communities, from traditional human values, and so on, had become stark, as had the ready destructibility of human live and civilization.  So, it was natural to see a philosophical orientation emerge which essential question the value of human existence. 

My interpretation of the existentialists is that they were the litmus paper of society, realizing that one of the final results of the grand human experiment in civilization in the 20th century, in leading life stripped of the earlier structures for human living, that the human being really struggled to find meaning and to make sense of his/her world.  For a while during industrialization it had  seemed that the new answers could come from the  sciences which had created comforts and conveniences of physical living -- why, indeed, should these sciences not also produce wonders for education and human well being?  A reasonable expectation, it might seem.  However, the sciences of the physical elements have had difficulty in their application to the social sciences (but not a complete lack of success).  And this is a point of criticism from postmodernism, which extents the existentialists' concern with the meaning and meaningfulness of life, that this efforts to produce scientific 'happiness' are, in essence, rather idiotic and fake.

Whilst I've focused here on possible historical connection between postmodernism and existentialism, I suspect postmodern can be seen as a meeting point, into which many  rivers flow, willingly or not so willings.  Postmodernism is a nexus of energies, from sociology, philosophy, education, psychology, in which wildly different theoretical points of view get tossed around and severely critiqued, with tweaks of literary and political passion.  It is important to add, though, that it is not the only such nexus into which these various rivers flow - there are also attempts such as Ken Wilber's 'Theory of Everything' which is arguably the greatest attempt in the twentieth century to pull it all together, arguably going beyond the problematic and critical nature of postmodernism to find the answers via science, ancient and Eastern knowledge, and proposing a new evolutionary psychology). 

So, as I understand it, the postmodern take on things is that all 'certain' meaning which can be proposed from history, or science or other methods of knowledge, can be shown to not be 'certain', but instead to have come about through the biased construction of certain individuals, groups, governments, etc.  Thus postmodern may seem scary to people who feel like their sense of certainty is built on concrete, but philosophically that may turn into quicksand.  Thus, few people are able to retain a high level of consciousness in postmodern thinking because to do essentially rots away held meaning.  If this is not paired with a strength of will for constructing new meaning that goes beyond the corrosive power of postmodernism, then an individual can be left rather lost and confused, but perhaps content that he/she has avoided subscribing to false meanings. 

Interestingly, detaching one's constant habitual attribution of meaning to objects in the mind is one of the key initial lessons in the "Course in Miracles" program.  Indeed, once one realizes this awareness, amazing things do become possible, but achievement of new levels of consciousness usually involve some form of guidance for building new structures of meaning.  In this sense, outdoor education could be seen as a possible format and structure for both the deconstruction of individual's past meaning and the reconstruction of new forms of meaning.  But to do so requires that the many implicit assumptions within outdoor education programs are made more explicit so that we can then go about creating programs which help participants to realize their assumptions and to adopt beliefs that may better meet with their needs/goals which, of course, themselves may need to be questioned.

So the essential value, in a pragmatic sense, of postmodernism is that it can help us to develop a functional  realism by questioning available information and knowledge, instead of just swallowing it.  There is however a huge emptiness in postmodernism, just as there is a huge emptiness in existentialism - at the end of the day, what is left?  What is to be done?  If human knowledge and knowing is so entirely constructed, then what are we to do?  And this is where I think postmodernism struggles and largely fails to emerge from its own self-reflective prison and here is where we need other methods of thinking and action, particularly the possibilities of a field based on dynamic 'doing', such as outdoor education.  It is critical and healthy to have questioning, deconstruction, etc. taking place, but it is perhaps even more critical and healthy to be actively involved in experimenting with the construction of new ways experiencing, challenging and growing as a human species and a global ecosystem. 

In my opinion, a well-rounded outdoor educator would embrace the power of critical questioning probably (but not essentially) by using some of the approaches of postmodernism, and on the other hand would just as much involved in construction of new meanings, new words, new language, new programs, new research, new theory, new action, new groups, and so on.  Otherwise outdoor education deserves to become extinct; it must keep pace with social change.

So be warned in discussing postmodernism about the dangers of getting lost in a recursive, rather than discursive, paradigm.  There are labyrinths of mirrors which one can wander for hours, days, even lifetimes.  We need to do more than that.

What's New?

  • Re/de/signing the world: Poststructuralism, deconstruction and ‘reality’ in outdoor education research
    (Noel Gough & Warren Sellars, 2004, International Outdoor Education Research Conference, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia; .pdf; 1.4 MB)
    Abstract: This paper examines rhetorical constructions of ‘reality’ in selected outdoor/environmental education discourses-practices. Many outdoor/environmental educators privilege philosophical realism coupled with suspicion towards poststructuralism(s) and deconstruction.  From a postlogographic position on language, we argue that producing texts is a method of inquiry, an experience and performance of semiosis-in-use as we sign (and de/sign) the world into existence. This re/de/signed world never represents the ‘real’ world precisely or completely, and in this paper we explore and enact modes of textual (and extratextual>) production that struggle to retain a poststructuralist skepticism towards representational claims without falling into antirealist language games. We focus in particular on Deleuzean concepts of ‘rhizomatic’ inquiry and nomadic textuality as enabling dispositions for re/de/signing worlds in which realities and representations are mutually constitutive (rather than dialectically related).