“Competing Contemporary Values: Traditional, Modern, Radical Postmodern and Transmodern”

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Jim Norwine1
Regents Professor of Geography
Texas A&M University-Kingsville


Since 1990, through five distinct phases, my research team has surveyed and assessed the values and worldviews of undergraduates around the world (but primarily in the United States).  Each phase has keyed on a specific theme, including the self or personhood.  The overall objective has been to determine the extent, character and implications of a “postmodern turn”–i.e., a worldview-shift away from both traditional and modern assumptions/values-among tertiary-level students.  Secondary questions explored included, a) whether undergraduates at public universities are “more postmodern” than those who attend private, church-affiliated colleges; and, b) to the degree that a postmodern turn is found, whether undergraduates are in general more inclined to a worldview of extreme self-referentiality (here characterized as “radical postmodern”) on the one hand, or a tested or “anchored” self-referentiality, here termed “transmodern,” on the other. The background, rational and methodology of the work are summarized, as are key concepts such as worldviews and the nature of postmodernity.  Principal findings are reported, including the following:

  1. The worldviews of most undergraduates at most tertiary educational institutions around the world remain partly traditional (e.g., family values) and partly modern (e.g., values associated with technology and individuality).  Interestingly, only the Palestinian students in Gaza were found to be consistently traditional in outlook (e.g., ‘I am willing to die for my country”).
  2. Contemporary student worldviews are now commonly partly postmodern, i.e., do generally reflect a varying degree of a postmodern turn as seen in the fact that majorities to significant minorities identify with and affirm values such as choice, toleration, diversity and the equality of all ideas.
  3. Undergraduates at parochial or church-affiliated colleges are typically more traditional and less postmodern than those at state universities.  However, postmodern values have made inroads even at the most “orthodox” (conservative) Christian colleges.  E.g., forty percent of such students agree that “human and environmental well-being are equally important”; over 20% agree that “heaven is the here and now”; 23% “oppose any limits on my personal freedom/choice” (another 21% was undecided); 26% affirm that “humanity is the center of things”; and nearly as many of these students agree as disagree (39-47%) that every point of view is equally valid.
  4. Students tend to reject most exclusively self-referential (radical postmodern) value-statements (e.g., “I oppose any limits on personal freedom”) but tend to affirm many “transmodern”  (Vitz 2006) values (e.g, “True freedom is freely choosing to be a loving servant”).
  5. Strongly self-referential or “radical postmodern” student worldviews (extant mainly at public universities) tend to a “soft” nihilism (Rorty).  However, while “privileged” values are assumed to be illegitimate, the same undergrads often in fact privilege the necessity of environmental well-being.   Thus, a form of higher or “special significance” (Kolakowski) meaning, albeit perhaps one of “immanent transcendence” (Taylor), is acknowledged.  This implicit recognition, however incoherent, inchoate and intuitive, of a value beyond human flourishing is encouraging.  After all,  “imagination is the organ of meaning” (Lewis).

“…meaning has been in decline for a very long time, almost since the start of civilization…The past five hundred years have elevated us to the status of individuals and reduced us to the status of individuals…vulnerable to meaninglessness-to a world where consumption is all that happens…(we) traded context for individual freedom…We have to, somehow, produce (context) for ourselves; that’s what a modern life is about.”

B. McKibben