Professing Education
A publication of the Society of Professors of Education
June, 2006. Vol.5 No.1

Editorial: Normal Nihilism
Ken McClelland

Welcome to this issue of Professing Education. In his 1997 book The Plain Sense of Things: The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism, James Edwards outlines what he intends by his notion of "normal nihilism." Nihilism is most commonly understood as one of two things _ it is a pathological condition of individual or society, or it is understood as a philosophical synonym for sociopathy; the brutal individual who is without a controlling conscience and who coolly does whatever he or she wishes. Contrary to these more common understandings of nihilism, Edwards offers a more pragmatic, though no less stunning interpretation that outlines his particular notion of normal nihilism. He says:

To be a nihilist is not (necessarily) either to be hopeless and inert (like the catatonic) or to operate brutally and without effective restraint (like Ted Bundy or the Nazi Gauleiter); on the contrary, all of us now are nihilists, even those among us who are most energetic and most scrupulous. To say that we are normal nihilists is just to say that our lives are constituted by self-devaluating values. What makes these values values is that we normally recognize, as our ancestors normally did not, their reality as pragmatically posited filters through which experience must be passed to become manageable; what makes them self-devaluating is that we also recognize _ and only with their help, of course _ their contingency, their subjection to history understood as the Mendelian evolution of life-forms. (p. 46)

Clearly, such a philosophical insight must send ripples across the education professoriate, if not across the professoriate generally. But as intellectuals, is this not an insight we have been grappling with for a long time now, if not explicitly in our teaching and learning environments then at least tacitly so? We are all now nihilists in Edwards' sense of the term. This Nietzschean notion of self-devaluating values, though tending to trigger vitriolic attacks against the general denigration of Truth and an otherwise happy cohabitation with relativism, nonetheless bears profound implications for the education professoriate, particularly as they retain pluralistic cross-disciplinary affiliations.

There seems to me no way of avoiding in these late modern times the implications of what Edwards highlights. To the extent that within such an environment Truth loses its absolutist, representationalist pretensions, we feel perhaps more than ever the necessity of some notion of truthfulness that comports in humane ways with the necessary fallout that comes by way of our self-devaluating values _ namely, that we are the creative crafters and ongoing re-constructors of our values. As educators we are imaginatively called forth to developing attitudes of truthfulness that at once forego absolutist notions of Truth while avoiding the amoral traps of arbitrary, anything-goes relativism. The normal nihilism that imbues our present late modern trajectory can be faced courageously only by the discipline of imagination, but an imagination tethered by a fidelity to one's enculturation. The modern imagination once disciplined by Truth has now itself become the disciplinarian. Truthfulness, a drive that we cannot existentially forgo, at the risk of falling into chaos, must now be disciplined by imagination. The future is never born ex nihilo, it is always the result of established conditions that hopefully entail some element of propriety _ the propriety of getting it right, of imagining well, of being truthful and offering a sincere account. These are some bright (though imperfect) lights of our Western Enlightenment enculturation, parts of what make us us. This is why the charge that such represents an abandoning of truth altogether is a silly one.

The intrepid explorer (and the responsible educator) is always experimenting, always trying for new and better ways of doing things, always searching for better modes of communication. It is never a matter of riding roughshod over past modes, but nor is it a matter of blind or unthinking allegiance. Dogmatism is the enemy of novelty and growth. Truthfulness is thus a part of the eros of living well, disciplined by the ameliorative hope brought on by our ability to always imagine a different and hopefully better future. Such a turn to the future, then, is finally an aesthetic turn, the substance of which infuses the very best elements of educational living.

 

 

Editors: John M. Novak & Kenneth A. McClelland
Associate Editors: Dirk Windhorst & Rahul Kumar
Publisher Coordinator: Robert C. Morris
Web Publishing by: Rahul Kumar & Herman Yu
Webmaster of the Society of Professing Education: Jan Armstrong

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