The Postmodern Paradox

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Here’s a paradox: Grade inflation among American universities is at an all-time high; college classes are becoming easier and goofier with every passing year; yet, students are currently more stressed-out than ever before. How is this possible?

The answer is simple. Creating the world in your own image is stressful.

Indulge me for a moment. When Aristotle investigates in his Categories the ways in which we can understand natural things, he does so in the pure pursuit of an objective account of reality. He is not seeking any kind of power over nature; he does not try to impress his own subjective imaginations upon the things in question. Rather, he observes natural substances as they are in themselves, regardless of how he may wish or expect them to behave. This becomes the basis not only for natural science but also for every successful mode of natural philosophic and scientific inquiry.

That is, until modern philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche boldly asserts that we cannot observe reality and then make judgments on it, because reality itself is unintelligible. This is largely due to Nietzsche’s rejection of “opposite values.” According to Nietzsche, once we realize that opposites such as good and evil and truth and falsehood are illusions, we are free to take our own subjective interpretations and project them onto the world. This new way of thinking becomes the inciting action for the philosophy that dominates the majority of academic institutions today: Postmodernism.

If we return to our original paradox, we can start to see how a kind of unexpected angst will inevitably creep up in our postmodern souls. If we are no longer bound by certain virtues and moral authority, then of course we can permanently replace the course English 101 with “#SelfieClass.” If the most basic male-female distinction is suddenly a lie, then it makes perfect sense to offer a major in Gender and Women’s Studies while also banning single-sex organizations. Who cares if Socrates proves in Plato’s Theatetus that there can be no such thing as true or false opinion? I create the world in my own image, so if I find your joke offensive, I will have you expelled.

We like to think this kind of power also comes with a level of responsibility. However, it was the Nietzsche’s promise of answering only to ourselves and acting as our own moral authorities that led us here in the first place.

This leads us to the mental puzzle coined by psychologist Barry Schwartz as “The Paradox of Choice.” Schwartz analyzes psychological modes of happiness to discover that eliminating gratuitous choices can greatly reduce anxiety. He maintains that it is a kind of tunnel vision toward fulfilling each and every last one of our desires that creates this problem in the first place. He writes, “We have too many choices, too many decisions, too little time to do what is really important. Taking care of our own “wants” and focusing on what we “want” to do does not strike me as a solution to the problem of too much choice.”

Indeed, it is not despite the ever-increasing permissiveness of universities that students’ heads are filled with anxiety, but because of it. Freedom to do whatever we want with no one to judge its goodness or truth is not actually freedom at all, but slavery to our own transient desires and infinite number of morally relative choices. The stress incurred by this paradox can only be relieved once we accept that we are not designed to create the world in our own image. Until then, we can expect to see student anxiety continue to increase.

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