The Retreat From Inquiry and Knowledge in Special Education

Gary M. Sasso

Postmodern and cultural relativist doctrines have long been a part of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. However, relatively little critical attention has been paid to postmodern intellectual currents in special education. This article describes postmodern and cultural relativist ideas in some of their forms, provides examples of how the adoption of these doctrines are dangerous and destructive to students with special needs, and explores possible resolutions.

There is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing

hostility to injustice and oppression, which is leftist, with hostility to

science and rationality, which is nonsense. (Albert, 1996, p. 69)

The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea

that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives

is–second only to American political campaigns–the most prominent and

pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time. (Laudan,

1990, p. x)

As educators of children and youth with disabilities, most of us spend our time trying to puzzle out the specific interventions, programs, school structures, and legal issues that have a positive effect on or impede the progress of the children we serve. Philosophical arguments have always been a part of the landscape; however, lot the most part, we left those discussions to the philosophers while we devised studies, collected data, worked with schools, and, for those in higher education, trained tour teachers. Meanwhile, a form of antirealist doctrine became firmly established in the humanities and social sciences. For many in education, this represented just the latest example of the Romantic animosity toward objectivity and knowledge, evidenced in our current age (since the early 1970s, at least) by feminist ideology, afrocentric epistemology, deep ecology, and a variety of other movements claiming recognition based on past wrongdoing. Because many of us agreed that injustice is inherent in oppression, discrimination, and the rapt (both literally and figuratively) of women and the environment, there was a general agreement that these were important issues that deserved attention.

These liberal (some would say leftist) movements were initially characterized by a faith that logical inquiry, reason, and knowledge would support their positions and bring about needed change in society. This was the liberal spirit that informed the 1960s and early 1970s and provided the energy and impetus for the civil rights and women’s movements, as well as the science of behaviorism in education and psychology. However, as time passed they have evolved into movements that espouse forms of cultural relativism, which, for want of a better term, can be called “postmodernism”: an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a “narration,” a myth or a social construction among many others (Sokal & Bricmont, 1998). This current found its way into psychology, education, and special education. Evidence of its influence can be seen in recovered memory therapy, whole language instruction, and the inclusion movement.

Although cultural relativism and postmodernism have received widespread attention in the humanities, social sciences, and lately the natural sciences, they have as yet received little critical attention in special education where their adoption has many real consequences. That may be because, as I have stated, we in special education have had other things to do and have been inclined to credit critics of logical inquiry with having reliable intellectual tools and a sense of responsibility in applying them. This has been the traditional attitude. Recently, however, I and others in special education who consider ourselves to be liberal advocates for children have become increasingly concerned with the outcome of adopting cultural relativism in special education (Kauffman, 1999a, 1999b: Simpson, 1999; Walker, in press). For some scholars, then, the attitude is changing to one of skepticism and even revulsion in the face of what special educators–at least those few who have so far taken a serious interest in the question–have come to see as a growing tendency among a particular breed of historians, sociologists, and educators to spin incongruous theories. These often seem to escape simple inaccuracy and rush hell-bent to a form of reasoning that disregards truth. genuine inquiry, and intellectual integrity (Gross & Levitt, 1998).

This article is an attempt to describe cultural relativity in at least some of its forms, provide examples of how the adoption of such a philosophy is dangerous and destructive to the education of the children we serve, and point toward a resolution to the problem. This is no easy task since this movement cannot be said to have a well-defined theoretical position. Additionally. I will attempt to show that the obscure jargon. the mistaking of technicality for rigor, and the almost obligatory use of scare quotes as a substitute tot logical argument provide a difficult target for criticism. This is, I suspect, intentional.

Postmodernism and Cultural Relativity

Perhaps the easiest entry into the body of ideas and prejudices of postmodernism is to understand that it is a negation–particularly the negation of themes that have been at the forefront of liberal intellectual life in the West since the Enlightenment (Wilson, 1998). If it can be accepted that the intellectual project of the Enlightenment is building a sound body of knowledge about the world we confront, then postmodernism defines itself, in large measure, as the antithetical doctrine. Such a project is inherently futile, self-deceptive, and worst of all, oppressive.

In contrast to the Enlightenment ideal of a unified epistemology that discovers the foundational truths of physical and biological phenomena and unites them with an accurate understanding of humanity in its psychological, social, political, and aesthetic aspects, postmodern skepticism rejects the possibility of enduring universal knowledge in any area (Koertge, 1998), it holds that all knowledge is local, the product of a social class, rigidly circumscribed by its interests and prejudices interacting with the historical conditions of its existence. There is no knowledge, then; there are merely stories–narratives–devised to satisfy the human need to make some sense of the world (Baudrillard, 1987; Derrida. 1992; Lyotard, 1984). Hence, they speak of “knowledges” as a way to give voice to people and groups who were previously ignored. Within this view, all knowledge projects are, like war, politics by other means (Gross & Levitt, 1998). This war is, in essence, against White, male, heterosexual, Eurocentric Western society (Boghossian, 1998; Gross & Levitt, 1998; Haack, 1998). Science, logical inquiry, and knowledge claims have been developed by men in power primarily to sustain their power and enhance their lives at the expense of the other gender and various cultural groups. Therefore, scientific endeavors, the argument goes, must be incorrect, and all form of mind-bending gymnastics are employed as proof that no truth is to be found using methods of logical inquiry. Given that highly questionable inference, there must emerge new forms of knowledge and truth that can be determined only by those who have been oppressed.

The form of postmodernism in the United States is often accused of being little more than mimicry of a few European thinkers who rose to prominence in the midst of the confusion that followed when the cultural upheaval in the late 1960s in France, Germany, and Italy abated without having produced any real impact on middle class society (Gross & Levitt, 1998). Two of the most cited names in current postmodernist writing in the United States are those of two French philosophers: Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Derrida was the founder of the deconstructionist school of textual analysis and has, through his writing style, fostered much of the stylistic posturing common in modern critical writing: the puns, coinages, words made ambiguous by internal parentheses and other whimsical punctuation–facing columns of apparently unrelated text–which, to the initiate, are supposed to comment on one another. Deconstruction holds that meaningful speech is impossible, that language is ultimately impotent, as are the mental operations conditioned by linguistic habit. The verbal means by which we seek to represent the world are incapable, it is taught, of doing any such thing. Strings of words, whether on the page or in our heads, have at best a nebulous and unstable relation to reality. In fact, reality is itself a mere construct, the persistent but illusory remnant of the Western metaphysical tradition. No reality exists outside the text, but texts themselves are unreliable, inherently self-contradictory, and self-canceling (Derrida, 1976; Ellis, 1997).

Foucault was, primarily, a philosopher of history whose work led him to more and more pessimistic considerations of the role of language and discourse in constructing the conditions of human existence. To Foucault, life is built around language, but language is not neutral, instead, the relation of power and domination in a society structures it. Thus, language itself creates power and social authority. It determines not only what we can say but also what we can conceive (Foucault, 1973). Foucault’s epistemological relativism arises from a study of the presumably exact facts of social history, which his work examines intensively. So, despite his claims, Foucault is ultimately tied to the postulate of a real world, definitely knowable in at least some of its aspects (Sokal & Bricmont, 1998).

Two other figures are key to an understanding of current postmodernist thought. One of these is Paul Feyerabend, who is the philosophical godfather of the “new” philosophy and sociology of science. As others have pointed out (Bunge, 1996: Gross & Levitt, 1998; Haack, 1996), Feyerabend has been listened to because he was wrongly believed to know some physics. But, in fact, his ignorance of this, the one science he tried to learn, was striking, and he misunderstood the only two formulas that appear in his Against Method (1978), the book that gained him instant celebrity. As Bunge (1996) noted,

The first formula, which he (Feyerabend) calls the “equipartition

principle,” is actually the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution function for a

system of particles in thermal equilibrium. (Incidentally, the constant

occurring in the correct formula is not R, the universal gas constant, but

Boltzmann’s far more universal K. This is no small mistake, because it

renders Feyerabend’s formula dimensionally wrong.) The second formula.

Lorentz’s does not give “the energy of an electron moving in a constant

magnetic field,” as Feyerabend claims. Instead, the formula gives the force

that an arbitrary electromagnetic field exerts on a particle with an

arbitrary electric charge. (Incidentally, the constant a is missing in

Feyerabend’s copy–which, again, makes his formula dimensionally

incorrect.) To top it all, Feyerabend substitutes the second formula into

the first; and, not surprisingly, he gets an odd result that, in a

mysterious way, leads him to speculate on the (nonexistent) magnetic

monopoles imagined by his teacher Felix Ehrenhaft. (p. 109)

I quote this decidedly nonspecial education argument (the intricacies of which, I admit, are unknown to me) to point out that we need to recognize two kinds of ignorance: natural and willful (i.e., traditional and postmodern). The former is unavoidable and natural, and its admission is mandatory; it is part of being a curious learner and an honest scholar. In contrast, willful or postmodern ignorance is the deliberate refusal to learn concepts relevant to one’s interests. Examples include the refusal of the psychotherapist to learn some experimental psychology and neuropsychology, the refusal of the literary critic with sociological interests to learn some sociology, and the refusal of the philosopher of science to learn a bit of the science he or she pontificates about. All of these are instances of willful ignorance, which is intolerable because it is a form of dishonesty.

One other important figure in postmodern thought is Richard Rorty, who might be characterized as master of the scare quote. Rorty espouses a literary conception of philosophy, which he has claimed is the conception of a new, enlightened brand of pragmatism that has thrown off the scientism of its precursor (Haack, 1998). He argues a central postmodernist claim: that there are other “ways of knowing” or truth that can be determined through means other than logical, rational inquiry. Rorty goes on to suggest that only a literary conception can acknowledge the importance of imagination, linguistic innovation, and metaphor in philosophy. He writes that he “views science as the genre of literature,” or “put the other way around, literature and the arts as inquiries, on the same footing as scientific inquiries” (Rorty, 1982, p. xliii). This interesting but convoluted assessment gives us two new ways to look al literature and inquiry. The first, of course, is that literature is a kind of logical inquiry, a claim that while lifting literary text to new heights of relevance is demonstrably incorrect. The second, if we follow his argument carefully, is that chemistry, physics, and group design research in education (any form of science) are genres of literature!

In essence, to summarize the diverse accounts of postmodernism as they relate to logical inquiry and science, there appears to be the general belief and several specific ones. The general belief is that what most of us in special education have taken to be ancillary to the process of logical inquiry is, to the postmodernist, central. That is, the Enlightenment notion of a reality existing outside of our belief is false according to postmodern thought (Wilson, 1998). Specific beliefs include nations that authority is always wrong and, consequently, so is hierarchy (Klehr, 1974): that populations should be represented in all discussions regarding truth and knowledge proportionately by race, sex, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, and so on (Lefkowitz, 1993); and that non-Western ways and nonmale ways exist to engage in science and logical inquiry that are just as capable of discovering new knowledge (Harding, 1986). Postmodernism is, therefore, a decidedly leftist phenomenon with its strongest supporters in fields such as literary criticism, social history, and a relatively new hybrid called cultural studies. Although this is the main strand, other notions, old and new, are incorporated. The traditional Marxist view of bourgeois science can at times be seen, sometimes renamed cultural constructivism (Ellis, 1997: Searle, 1995). There is a radical feminist element stressing that science and logical inquiry are corrupted by gender bias (Harding, 1991). Critical race theorists, working from Marcusean logic that is distinctly antidemocratic, forgo notions of free speech and insist that ideological indoctrination and intimidation be used to silence and re-educate our institutionally racist culture (Kors & Silverglate, 1998). Multiculturalists see Western culture and science as principally inaccurate and incomplete because of their failure to incorporate the full range of cultural perspectives (Webster, 1997).

These ideas appear to be the major elements that inform current progressive or postmodern thought. Postmodernist critiques of logical inquiry and science now exert an impressive influence in many areas. The major reason for this success, as Gross and Levitt (199g) pointed out, is not that they put forth sound arguments, but rather that they resort constantly and flagrantly to moral one-upmanship and ad hominem attacks. If you disagree with the feminist critique of science, you are guilty of trying to preserve science as an old-boy’s network (Alcoff & Potter, 1993). If you take exception to the more virulent of afrocentric claims that “the White race is the cancer of history,” you are a racist (Horowitz, 1999). If you regard as destructive the notion that use of logical inquiry to benefit individuals with disabilities is an empirical metaphor misapplied to a cultural cartography, you cannot be an “ally” of the “differently abled” (Smith, 1999a). Or, if you reject the convoluted reasoning of postmodernism, you are sneered at as a dullard and told that you are in the grip of a crumbling Western epistemology, linked to a failing White-male-European hegemony (Searle, 1993). These are decidedly unpleasant things to encounter in any debate. However, these ideas conceal fundamental weaknesses of fact and logic in the argument of the accuser.

If I have left out any important claims or ideas in this synthesis, I will not be surprised, given the varied and sometimes contradictory ideas that claim postmodernist underpinnings. However, I maintain that this is the general flavor of postmodern/cultural relativist discontent with the world.

The Fallacy of Postmodernism

in order to get at what is wrong with the logic behind the relativistic, postmodernist current, it is first necessary to make a distinction. Although postmodernism in all its uses (e.g., feminist and afrocentric epistemology) is primarily the concern of the left. I am not referring merely to those with leftist or progressive political views or to some of their basic assumptions. There are a number of academics who do very good work, in appropriate fields, from a progressive viewpoint. In addition, countless numbers of people in the fields of education. psychology, and medicine have progressive political views and engage in logical inquiry through experimentation. However, I contend that there is no such thing as progressive science and that what is at issue are those people whose doctrines sustain the misreading of logical inquiry and science, its methods, and the conceptual foundations that have led to what now passes for a politically progressive critique of it (Ellis, 1997: Goodstein, 1996: Koertge, 1998: Nanda, 1998). What these cultural relativists offer in place of argument or evidence for their surprising epistemological claims is an astonishing pastiche of confusion and rhetoric that discounts all of the generally accepted bases of substantiation. The problem is not intellectually very deep. However, it appears to be psychologically deep in at least two ways. First, those attracted to such modes of thinking are resolute, and no amount of argument or counterevidence is likely to result in cognitive dissonance. Second, antiauthoritarian, utopian, and magical modes of thought are perennial in Western history (Alcock, 1996).

As Haack (1996, 1998) pointed out the basic strategy is to shift attention from the normative notion of “warrant” (of how good the evidence is for this or that claim) to the descriptive notion of “acceptance” (the standing of a claim in the eyes of the relevant community). Some de-emphasize warrant and accentuate acceptance, insisting that social values are inseparable from evidence value. Others ignore warrant altogether and acknowledge only acceptance, conceiving of knowledge gained through logical inquiry as nothing more than the outcome of processes of social negotiation. Still others engage in a kind of conceptual theft, replacing the notion of warrant by a sociopolitical ersatz (e.g., “democratic epistemology”).

Many of these postmodern critics of logical inquiry are at pains to point out that they disdain notions of evidence and warrant because what has passed for relevant evidence, known fact, and objective truth has sometimes turned out to be no such thing. This is true, but it is banal. It is the job of logical inquiry to at times be wrong, to lead into blind alleys. That is one way we know it is science. The point that the knowledge gained through logical inquiry can be trivial is also beside the point. Out of that trivia some astonishing truths will emerge, often serendipitously, and because we don’t know in advance where or how they will emerge, we have to put up with the trivia in the meantime (Fox, 1996). The point that science can be used for evil purposes is beside the point. Art, music, and even child advocacy techniques can be used for evil purposes, but no one proposes abandoning any of these. Anything can be used for evil purposes. I am not going to stop using the principles of applied behavior analysis just because some have used it incorrectly or stop listening to the Beatles because Charles Manson likes the song “Helter Skelter.” Therefore, to conclude that because logical inquiry and science are not perfect, notions of evidence, truth, fact, reality, and knowledge are then ideologically indefensible does not follow.

Inquiry is the process of trying to get at the truth of some thing. It is the rational notion that some things are so, irrespective of your belief in them. Therefore, if you are not looking for truth, you are not really inquiring. The difference between pseudo-inquiry and the real thing lies, as Peirce (1878/1965) has pointed out, in the motive. The distinguishing feature of genuine inquiry is that what the “inquirer” wants is to find the truth of some question. Given that proximal motive, the inquiry is still genuine if some further considerations, such as ambition, motivate the inquirer to seek the truth (Haack, 1998). The distinguishing feature of pseudo-inquiry is that the inquirer does not want to discover the truth of some question but to make a case for some proposition determined in advance. One particular form of pseudo-inquiry relevant to postmodernism is making the case for the truth of some proposition to which your commitment is already evidence-and argument-proof, it is found in the advocacy research and politically motivated scholarship that is sc) prevalent today. The characteristic feature of this type of work, referred to by Peirce as “sham reasoning,” is a prior and unbudgeable commitment to the proposition for which the case is to be made.

One recent and illuminating example of such reasoning can be found in the profusion of research within the past decade on the topic of women’s issues, which has steadily moved toward cultural relativist reasoning over the past 20 years (Fox, 1996: Sommers, 1996). Much of this concerns “women’s ways of knowing” and the research that produced the startling finding that the nation’s adolescent girls are suffering a severe loss of self-esteem. The alarm over the allegedly diminishing self-esteem of U.S. school-age girls was created in large part by the credence given to the views of Carol Gilligan, who in 1983 wrote a controversial book called In a Different Voice. Gilligan’s claims caught the attention of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and in 1990, leaders of that organization commissioned a scientific study to prove that Gilligan was right.

Was the diminished self-esteem hypothesis actually confirmed by the AAUW study? The answer is, not at all. According to Sommers (2000), among the errors and data misinterpretations in the AAUW report of the survey results are the following:

1. Choosing Liken scale items in a way that supported the notion of girls’ unhappiness.

2. Misinterpreting or ignoring data that boys may be more insecure or lacking in self-esteem than are girls.

3. Failing to publicize or report the finding that African American boys (who are educationally most at risk) scored highest of all on the self-esteem question index, in addition, the AAUW failed to note that African American girls were well ahead of White boys on the self-esteem scale.

4. Although the AAUW study did find areas where girls showed similar or higher levels of self-confidence, these were not mentioned in their “short-changed girl” brochures.

Perhaps most telling was the AAUW finding that boys receive much more attention from teachers in school than do girls, contributing, they say, to this lack of self-esteem in girls. By providing only data on overall attention levels, they failed to note that the increased attention provided to boys was in the form of reprimands and criticism. When only positive forms of attention are examined, girls receive more than do boys. The scientific data that we have in this area, of course, supports this later analysis of the AAUW data. Far more boys than girls suffer from learning disabilities, delinquency and emotional/behavioral disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse; 5 times as many boys as girls commit suicide. Girls get better grades: more girls graduate from high school and college. Although boys outperform girls by 4 points in math and 10 points in science on achievement tests, girls more strikingly outperform boys by 12 points in reading and 17 points in writing/Pollack, 1998). However, the feminist establishment and many others embraced the notion of an endemic gender bias within the nation’s “patriarchal” school systems.

The unfortunate outcome is that everyone is hurt by this sort of advocacy research. The results of the AAUW study were used, in part, to push a Gender Equity Package as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It provided millions of dollars for gender equity programs, workshops, and materials. This money could have been used to address very real problems in education, such as countering the effects of poverty on learning and achievement or addressing the very real learning gap that separates White children and children of color (Berliner & Biddle, 1995). However, children are not the only ones who are hurt by this type of advocacy. Women are also damaged by adherence to indefensible notions such as “feminist epistemology” and sham inquiry, it has been persuasively argued that social constructions such as “feminist epistemology” and “afrocentric epistemology” will not lead to new knowledge (Dawkins, 1998: Howe, 1998: Kors & Silverglate, 1998: Nanda, 1998: Pinker, 1997: Richards, 1996: Roth, 1996: Ruskai, 1996: Scheurich & Young, 1997). Instead, they are tautologies that threaten to confine women and minorities to future minority status. These antirealist doctrines and pseudo-inquiry weaken the case for gender inequities established through logical inquiry. Women do earn less than men for equal work; they have been denied access to certain jobs because of sexism: violence toward women is a problem in this country. But, as Haack (1998) explains, it doesn’t follow that there is no objective truth, knowledge, or evidence or that the very notions of these concepts are ideologically indefensible. In fact, if the notions of knowledge, fact, relevant evidence, and so forth gained through logical inquiry were really indefensible, then it couldn’t be true, it couldn’t be fact, and it couldn’t be established by strong evidence that sexist theories have sometimes been accepted on inadequate or nonexistent evidence.

More often, however, postmodernists insist on the importance of the social character of logical inquiry and science. In fact, “science as social” may be the key ideal to antirealist, postmodernist doctrine. At its extreme, this doctrine has concluded that science is not a uniquely rational, cognitive enterprise with a special claim to epistemic authority, instead of an imperfect but thus far remarkably successful cognitive enterprise deserving epistemic respect. A number of basic misunderstandings lead postmodernists to a corruption by beliefs. These misunderstandings include the notions that logical inquiry is just a matter of social practice: truth claims can only be considered good relative to the standards of the community: science as a social enterprise means that scientific knowledge is “socially constructed”: and, because theories are underdetermined by data, social values have to “take up the slack” (Haack, 1998; Nanda, 1998).

Each of these claims should be examined individually. The first statement–that science is just a matter of social practice–reflects a misunderstanding of the process of logical inquiry. The belief that appears to support this statement is that a claim based on logical inquiry is dependent on the justification of the scientific community in accepting it or that researchers make the data say whatever they want it to say. In one sense, this contains an element of truth. Data can be manipulated to support different outcomes, as described earlier in the AAUW study. However, because the process of science and logical inquiry involves replication and falsifiability, there is a built-in process for discovering and weeding out poor and biased work (again, witness the timely refutation of the conclusions of the AAUW investigation). Therefore, in the end, justification does not depend on how justified researchers think they are but on how good their evidence is.

The second notion, that truth claims can only be considered right relative to the standards of the community, is so illogical that an argument should not be necessary, it is in this context that we get such monsters as “Eurocentric White male heterosexual bourgeois Protestant science” (Fox, 1996). However. because the notion of truth as relative is one of the primary beliefs of postmodernist thought, a brief disclaimer is provided here. At the risk of overstating the obvious, the truth value of a proposition, even a proposition about subjectivity, is not affected by context. This is the whole point of science and logical inquiry. A proposition, so long as it is in the form of a falsifiable hypothesis, is not invalidated by being placed in a different social context (Fox, 1996). The truth is, if you wish to be believed by others, you must accept the burden of falsifiability and replication.

The third notion, that science is socially constructed, moves from the true observation that logical inquiry is a social enterprise to the ambiguous conclusion that scientific know ledge is socially constructed. This is then given a false interpretation, that scientific knowledge is nothing more than the product of processes of social negotiation. This argument illustrates two central features of postmodernist logic that recur in many other contexts. As Ellis (1997) points out, these are, first, the fallacy of the single factor and, second, the reduction (if distinctions in kind to unimportant differences in degree (black and white becoming gray, and equally gray). Postmodernists extend this habit of mind starting with a pair of opposed concepts–say, knowledge for its own sake and politicized research. They examine the first of the two poles to show that it is not absolutely and completely flee of the other. So far, so good. At least some political implication exists in every piece of research, whether in the uses to which its results can be put, the motivation of the researcher, or any number of other factors. But having broken down what seemed a clear contrast between the two kinds of research, they believe they have shown that there is no real difference between them and that all research is equally political. However. as Ellis (1997) notes, we could have started with the other pole and reached the opposite conclusion: Because there is no such thing as politicized research that does not have at least a tiny component that is knowledge independent of political inspiration, there is really no such thing as politicized knowledge: therefore, all knowledge is knowledge for its own sake.

This corruption by belief can be clarified by using the example of black and white. To repeal the steps of the argument. the first focus on the pole is whiteness, it can easily be proved that there is no such thing as pure white in nature; white always has a little black in it. Therefore, the argument continues, there is no such thing as white, and everything must really be black. No real difference exists between things that seem white or black. As before, the sequence can be reversed. with the conclusion that there is no such thing as black because there is no visually pure black in nature; everything is really white, and there is no such thing as black. This example demonstrates the fallacy of such logic. What is ignored here is that shades are important. This same structure is present in the attack on other distinctions that attempt to preserve the integrity of knowledge, for example, the distinction between true and false statements or between objectivity and subjectivity.

This is a desirable conclusion for postmodern cultural relativists because they think it protects them from being faulted for research that is blatantly subjective or politicized (see Danforth & Navarro, 1998) because both truth and knowledge for its own sake are delusions. However, the same logic starting at the other pole will prove the opposite conclusion: There is no such thing as subjectivity. Single-factor logic can be made to work backward, too. It is the failure to continue the process of finer distinctions that renders all-or-nothing arguments false and misleading. Once this corruption by belief becomes a habit of thought, the power to see what is really there is severely diminished. That is why advocacy research is not research al all: It is propaganda.

The fourth misunderstanding is that because theories are underdetermined by data, social values must be invoked to take up the slack. Evidence alone never obliges us to accept this claim rather than that claim, but we accept something. Therefore, acceptance is always affected by something besides the evidence. But, and this is especially relevant to a discussion regarding special education, we do not have to accept something. Not all scientific claims are accepted as definitely true or rejected as definitely false nor should they be. Keeping the notions of warrant and acceptance appropriately related requires that when the evidence is insufficient, we acknowledge that we don’t know for sure. Some postmodernists, committing the same kind of confusion twice over, maintain that the objects of scientific knowledge are socially constructed. Scientific theories are of course devised, articulated, and developed by experimenters: theoretical concepts like chromosome, evolutionary adaptation, and mental retardation are, if you like, their creation. And the entities posited in theories developed through logical inquiry are real. But it does not follow that chromosomes, evolutionary adaptation, mental retardation and the like are brought into existence by the intellectual activity of the people who create the theories that posit them.

As I have attempted to point out, in the last 2 decades a good deal of attention has been paid to postmodernism, an intellectual current that is supposed to have replaced modern rationalist thought. When postmodern ways of thinking have been adopted by specific political movements, this methodological relativism has often led, through confusion of thought and language, to a radical cognitive relativism: namely, the claim that assertions of fact can be considered true or false only relative to a particular culture. This thinking confuses the psychological and social functions of a system of thought with its cognitive value and ignores the strength of the empirical arguments that can be put forward in favor of one system of thought over another (Goldman, 1999; Searle, 1998: Sokal, 1998). Pointing this out has been a matter of showing how these forms of illogic are just that–illogical. However, I am not confident that this argument will change the thinking of those who hold relativist views. There are, I believe, a number of reasons why this is so. The most virulent of antirealists hold fast to the belief that only through use of such tactics as disinformation, speech codes, and the banning of nonprogressive research can our society achieve true liberty. This Marcusean philosophy explicitly espouses censorship in the name of equality and bears the strong taint of revenge and payback. It has provided moral justification for means/ends political ideology and the use of slanted and often false statements by critical race theorists and radical feminist ideologues. However, revenge is perhaps the least dependable motive on which to base notions of truth. For many others, a strong motivator is an antiauthoritarian mode of thinking, which is at the heart of the U.S. experience and has served us well in countless situations. Who can deny that it is a great deal of fun to sometimes go against the grain? The motivation for most adherents to postmodernist ideals, however, is a deeply held and honestly felt belief that what they are doing is for the good of the underclass. But, it is deeply ironic that the concept of racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality that drives the desire for cultural relativity is the very result of the exercise of free speech rights by civil rights activists, whose own ability to express themselves usually depended on equal protection before the law and the findings of logical inquiry to support their goals.

Recently, some members of the oppressed minority have begun to point out that the cultural relativist doctrines posited by postmodernists, when translated into direct action, have the opposite of the desired effect. Chatelle (cited in Kors & Silverglate, 1998, p. 205) argues. “Scratch a defender of `political correctness,’ and you’ll find some variety of bigot.” For Chatelle (co-chair of the Political Issues Committee of the National Writers Union and a self-described “democratic socialist.” “queer,” and “labor organizer”), so-called defenders of progressive ideology inadvertently subscribe to two myths that are damaging to the rights of minorities: vulnerability and interchangeability. The “myth of vulnerability” is based on the patronizing belief that members of minority groups are so damaged by discrimination that they become incapable of speaking for themselves. The fate of people patronized in this way is that they “lose agency and thus become something less than human … dependent upon the goodwill of benevolent protectors–usually upper middle-class white heterosexual `liberals'” (p. 205). The “myth of interchangeability” is equally dangerous. It holds that there is such a thing as the women’s viewpoint, the gay/lesbian viewpoint, or the African American viewpoint. Such a myth denies diversity within minority communities by stating that not only do they all look alike, they all think alike. This so-called progressive movement invites a demeaning and insulting tokenism.

A major problem with allowing a politically relativist ideology to dominate all discussion is that it has unintended consequences precisely because it begins with a moral and desirable premise (e.g., ending discrimination) and moves from that premise to illogical conclusions. It can be seen in the multicultural feminist who views every culture as equally relevant and is forced to choose between Middle Eastern cultural traditions of women’s servitude and obedience on the one hand and the rights of all women on the other hand. It is on view when African Americans denounce David Duke’s arguments for “racial purity” while at the same time supporting, even glorifying, the equally abhorrent beliefs of Louis Farrakhan. It is unmistakably evident when California and other states discontinue the use of whole language instruction in favor of more direct methods of teaching reading because whole language pedagogy has failed to address the needs of economically disadvantaged, minority, and disabled students. It is demonstrated clearly when the University of Delaware attempts to withdraw funding and ban research on gender and racial differences conducted by Linda Gottfredson (Kors & Silverglate, 1998). Finally, and sadly, the unfortunate effects of cultural relativity were visible in the beliefs of a number of general education teaching candidates in my spring semester class while discussing inclusion. They were dismayed when I pointed out a discrepancy between their support of “all girls” mathematics classes and recent events at The Citadel. The paradox should be clear, in scorning logical inquiry, science, and democratic habits of mind, the postmodern left is cutting away the emotional and intellectual roots that formed and sustained its most deeply held ideals (Koertge, 1998: Sokal & Bricmont, 1998), in embracing the brittle skepticism of postmodern thought, would-be progressives are never more than an inch away from ineffectuality and cynicism. Gross and Levitt (1998) note:

A criticism frequently advanced by opponents of postmodernism–justifiably,

in our view–is that the doctrine, at its most virulent, is hardly

distinguishable from the moral blankness, the Viva la muerte!, upon which

fascism was erected in the first half of this century. (p. 73)

Postmodernism in Special Education

Postmodernist/deconstructionist literature in special education echoes the singular concern of this doctrine: that the oppression of people with disabilities (or oppression of the “differently abled” by the “temporarily abled”) can be ended and the urgent need for fundamental change can be met only through revolutionary processes rooted in a wholesale revision of the field. The literature includes many of the staples of postmodernist thought, including the “new pragmatism” espoused by Rorty (Skrtic, 1995), democratic epistemology (Skrtic & Sailor. 1996), and rejection of a universal reality for the field (Danforth, 1997a). It also includes a belief that all methodological questions regarding disabilities are essentially political in nature (Smith, 1999a), that mental retardation is the creation of the logical positivists (Biklen & Duchan, 1994), that current special education represents binary logic that is faulty (Danforth, 1997b), and that the rightful ancestry of special education is in the realm of a hermeneutical framework (Gallagher, 1998). The overriding common purpose is to dismantle special education at any cost, to undermine the epistemic authority of a science of disability, and to valorize “ways of knowing” incompatible with it.

Skrtic (1995) and his colleagues (Sailor & Skrtic. 1996: Skrtic. Sailor. & Gee, 1996) argue that we have moved beyond the modern era to a postmodern time of uncertainty brought about by dramatic socioeconomic and cultural transformations that have produced “increasing rates of poverty, homelessness, hunger, and crime in conjunction with decreasing fiscal and political support for the public services needed to address them” (Skrtic & Sailor. 1996, p. 272). The explosion of information technologies afforded by the computer anti the millennium marker on the Christian calendar have accelerated this postmodern era. Skrtic and colleagues highlight two forms of postmodernism: “radical continental,” which they claim rejects all forms of modern social knowledge outright and is skeptical of all paradigms, and “progressive liberal,” or new pragmatism, which contains elements of phenomenology and the ascendancy of literature to a form of truth as espoused by Rorty. Skrtic does not find particular aspects of the more radical form of postmodernism useful because it rejects both modern knowledge and values. According to Skrtic, the difference between the more radical and progressive (which he supports) forms of postmodernism is that the progressive form enthusiastically supports modern values and conditionally accepts modern knowledge as a “starting point for reconstructing new forms of emancipatory social knowledge through a critical and democratized form of dialogical social inquiry” (Skrtic & Sailor. 1996, p. 274). These values are the democratic notions of liberty, equality. and community (or voice, participation, and inclusion). However, because he also agrees with Foucault (who. 1 believe, is closely identified with the radical postmodern camp that Skrtic claims to reject) that power is at the heart of every truth claim, there are no objective criteria for making decisions regarding the lives of individuals with disabilities. This philosophical mix-and-match provides the rationale for Skrtic to posit a standard postmodern claim–that values supply the foundation, or truth, for making decisions. For Skrtic and his colleagues, these values translate into inclusive education. school restructuring, and school-linked services integration. Within this model, the inclusive programs shift the focus of education for persons with disabilities away from disability categories and toward problem solving by a broader group of stakeholders at the school who use team processes to support the particular student’s participation in the general education program. Thus, general education teachers require more knowledge of students with disabilities, and special education teachers require more broadly based competencies reflective of greater diversity among students.

Danforth and his colleagues (Danforth. 1997a. 1997b: Danforth & Navarro. 1998: Danforth & Rhodes. 1997), on the other hand are more closely associated with European philosophers, such as Foucault and Derrida. This European emphasis does not, apparently, include social critics from the Frankfurt School, such as Habermas (1987), who characterized Foucault as a “young conservative” who views all aspects of modernity as disciplinary and ignores the progressive aspects of modern social and political forms in terms of advances in liberty, law, and equality. Using the doctrine of deconstruction. Danforth and Rhodes (1997) attempt to pry “open the binary logic that supports the daily sorting of children into moral and political categories based on `ability’ and `disability'” (p. 3581. They maintain that it’ our society and the profession of special education surrendered the vocabulary of mental retardation, the construction of the disability would cease to exist. They then suggest that this change to new terms could be for the better (both politically and morally), allowing these previously labeled persons to be respected more than under the previous paradigm. Thus, to Danforth, disabilities are political and social artifacts, realities that have been created by professionals.

Danforth (1997a), favors the work of Foucault and Rorty instead of Derrida in his “deep analysis” of the myth of disability and the futility of a science of disability. In this view. privileged U.S. citizens (White. European American, male, heterosexual, nondisabled) developed institutions of social control to benefit themselves at the expense of women, the poor. African Americans, children (!), people with disabilities. and new immigrants. According to Danforth, these groups have not had access to the benefits of U.S. culture but instead have acted as fodder for sacrifice and control at the hands of the privileged class of men. He then states that “scientific truth (in special education) is in trouble” because of the enlightening work of Skrtic and himself (p. 100).

Although I recognize that employing an il-then logical description of the views of postmodernists is anathema to them, Danforth nonetheless uses this type of reasoning in his article to propose an alternative to the “myth of scientific knowledge.” It goes something like this: if it is true that privileged special educators have created mental retardation to oppress and deny people with disabilities their voice (and it must be true), then what is needed is to elevate the views of those with mental disabilities to an equal (or dominant) status, to include “contributions” made through facilitated communication (Danforth, 1997a). To attain this goal, the logic of science and truth, the language of science, and the epistemic respect accorded logical inquiry must be dismantled and discarded. The illogic, inconsistency, and intellectual dishonesty of these claims is captured in a subsequent article, in which Danforth collaborated with Navarro (1998) to undertake a study designed to “sample evidence of the construction of mental retardation in everyday social discourse” (p. 32). This investigation (I will call it ethnographic because it follows at least some of the precepts of that form of reasoning) includes diffuse elements of the logic of science and uses the language of science: a methods section, an account of data collection procedures, research assistants used to obtain these data (all White, 85% women by the way, with no reported disabilities), and instructions for interpretation of data once obtained. These instructions, essentially consisting of conversations between the authors and assistants, were designed to guide their interpretation along proper postmodernist lines. The “startling” conclusion that follows this “investigation” is that all terms/labels used to describe persons who differ in mental capacity from the population ultimately take on negative connotations and become an insult.

Biklen and his colleagues (Biklen, 1997: Biklen & Cardinal, 1997: Biklen & Duchan. 1994) assert another standard postmodernist claim: that there exist multiple truths or “ways of knowing.” Biklen proposes research with an “experiencing view” or a phenomenological perspective to provide multiple sources of data, allowing subjective information an equal status with so-called objectivity. Additionally, he views issues related to authorship in facilitated communication (see Note) as a cultural construction rather than as a fact. A frequent practice in many of the published reports of facilitated communication by Biklen and his colleagues is the use of facilitated comments, poems, and thoughts by children with autism and other disabilities. For example, Haskew and Donnellan (1992) relay the message of an anonymous communicator:

Before Facilitated Communication my life was colorless, dead. Now it has

taken on a colorful glow. Still many shadows, but now I am really alive.

(p. 3)

To rebut criticisms leveled at facilitated communication and overwhelming evidence that facilitator influence and overt construction of messages by the facilitator is rampant, Haskew and Donnellan (1992) employ a novel counterargument. The key to understanding the uncanny ability of individuals with autism to know apparently unknowable details about their facilitators’ lives is, according to these scholars, that persons with autism have mind-reading abilities. That’s right, mind reading. Haskew and Donnellan maintain that their research reveals communicators with a well developed “sixth sense” that allows them both to understand what others think, feel, or know and to transmit their own thoughts to other nonverbal acquaintances and sometimes to their facilitators. Can we safely assume, then, that this is one of the “ways of knowing” referred to by Biklen in his support of qualitative, phenomenological forms of inquiry?

Two other figures should be mentioned as contributors to the postmodern current in special education. One is Smith (1999a), who uses every postmodern argument at his disposal: a little of Derrida’s deconstruction, a bit of critical theory emanating from (mainly) the postmodern trend in the United Kingdom, just enough Rorty to suggest, “Philosophers have shown that words and sentences do not represent ideas or objects” (p. 131), and a good deal of moral one-upmanship in an attempt to forge an us-versus-them dichotomy between professionals in special education on the one hand and labeled persons and their allies (the postmodernists) on the other hand. Thus, having properly anointed himself and other postmodernists, he suggests that cultural relativists and those with disabilities speak with the same voice–an enabling, empowering voice of liberation that will shake off the grip of the oppressive proponents of logical inquiry (Smith, 1999b). The other figure contributing to postmodernism in special education is Gallagher (1998), who questions the knowledge base in special education and its ability to be predictive and prescriptive. However, she undermines her argument by citing several scientific investigations in order to support her claim that the use of science in special education is inappropriate and harmful. Apparently undaunted by or unaware of this contradiction, Gallagher then assails those who have critiqued postmodern positions, such as Carnine (1987), Kauffman (1994), and Lloyd (1987), as uninformed and misguided assaults on the philosophically aware and sophisticated postmodern educator:

In some ways, these types of responses are understandable, given the dearth

of academic background in philosophy (especially philosophy of science)

provided in most professional schools of education…. Too, developing a

conceptual grasp equal to the task of seriously engaging these issues

requires a great deal of time and strenuous intellectual work [italics

added]. (pp. 499-500)

Gallagher goes on to suggest that the rightful ancestry of special education is not empiricism, but instead an interpretive, hermeneutical framework. However, this intellectual posturing is exposed by the recent work of Alan Sokal. Sokal, a professor of physics at New York University, had become increasingly distressed that the once-vigorous intellectual tradition of radical dissent was slipping into irrationality and decided to try an unorthodox and uncontrolled experiment: submit to a fashionable postmodern U.S. cultural-studies journal, Social Text, a parody of the type of work that has proliferated in recent years, to see whether they would publish his article (Sokal & Briemont, 1998). By his reckoning, Sokal devoted a bit less than two months to becoming familiar with postmodern jargon and arguments and wrote an article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The article was full of absurdities and blatant nonsequiturs and asserted an extreme form of cognitive relativism: that physical reality is a social and linguistic construct. The article was published with no major revisions in Social Text in 1996. Worse, it was published in a special issue devoted to rebutting the criticisms leveled against postmodernism and social constructivism by several distinguished scientists (Boghossian, 1998; Sokal, 1998).

As with much postmodern literature, the initial claims of these special education critics are enticing. Who could possibly be against democratic notions such as liberty, equality, and community? In addition, the field has long debated how parents and others who care about individuals with disabilities can be brought in as active partners in the education and care of these students (Hunt, 1961: Simpson, 1982; Simpson & Kamps, 1996). Postmodern critics of special education can also be acknowledged for pointing out that much of the early treatment of individuals with disabilities was abominable, although these postmodern accounts appear to be incomplete, recycled, and revisionist.

For example, the single most important influence on the development of social constructivism was the classic book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), which both Skrtic and Danforth cite extensively (Danforth, 1997a, 1997b: Danforth & Rhodes, 1997; Sailor & Skrtic, 1996: Skrtic, 1995: Skrtic & Sailor, 1996), in fact, both Danforth (1997b) and Skrtic (1991) credit Kuhn’s book as responsible for initiating a “crisis of legitimacy” in special education. However, their analysis of Kuhn’s work is incomplete and selective: it is excessively simple, consisting only in a denunciation of objectivity; it is uninformed because they appear to be unaware of more complex prior analysis and of the commonplace nature of their own contributions; and it is inconsistent, in that social activism requires a suspension of skepticism if a social goal is to be pursued with the necessary conviction that that goal is desirable. Long before Kuhn, Peirce (1878/1965) looked at Descartes’s deductive view of scientific knowledge, with its assumption that we proceed from the known to the unknown, and saw that it contained a major error: New knowledge is not simply added to old knowledge but can profoundly change our understanding of what we thought we knew. For this reason. Peirce saw the impossibility of producing a final test of the truth of any proposition and concluded that all knowledge is in the nature of a hypothesis with the only test of the validity of a scientific proposition being provisional assent of the scientific community. This view of science was in fact older than Peirce: Goethe first set it out nearly two hundred years ago. Thus, attitudes such as these have been part of the basic framework of the philosophy of science for some time, but when Kuhn popularized them in 1962, they finally reached scholars in the humanities, with strange results. The humanist scholars who took up these ideas knew nothing of their context and development and therefore did not realize that they had long since become familiar to researchers and philosophers of science. Instead, they thought something cataclysmic had happened. For humanists, the nature of scientific truth itself seemed to have been undermined. Yet all that had really happened was that some scholars in the humanities had finally made contact with what modern science had to say about scientific objectivity. In tact, Kuhn rejected postmodernists’ analysis of his work, was embarrassed by their assumed affiliation, wondered why they were so late in coming to the party, and marveled at why, once they got to the party, they did not bother to conduct a proper historical analysis (Cole, 1996).

it is also clear that one of the central tenets of the postmodernist argument–that objective knowledge is unreliable and, therefore, values must be used to determine truth–is fundamentally and hopelessly flawed, as I have attempted to explain in a previous section of this article, but will now address in more detail. For example, in some forms of experimental research, a test of statistical significance does not prove anything conclusively, and educational researchers consistently and properly point this out. The best this test can do is place the observed result on a par with a specified amount of “luck.” This luck is specified by a p value, the probability that a purely random process would have generated a result at least as impressive as the actual result. A probability value of 2 in 10,000 is pretty impressive, but it is still possible that there is no genuine pattern (or truth) there. That is the beauty and elegance of doing a correct statistical test: that we know how probable it is that there is no genuine pattern there. What p value you accept depends on how important the result is and what decisions might follow from it.

So, we never can know for sure, it is absurd, however, to suggest that this statistical uncertainty (or the acknowledged uncertainty of any true inquiry) leads to the assumption that we should throw out knowledge gained through a process that controls for, as best we can, extraneous variables to favor a process (essentially political in nature) that is rile with contradictions, includes common but banal facts, and is dogmatic. In large measure, politics is the process of creating reality, even when overwhelming logical evidence suggests an opposite factual basis. Logical inquiry, on the other hand, has been developed since the Enlightenment as a process that attempts to discover reality. The knowledge that we can never be completely sure that something is true does not negate the fact that, thus far, this process of logical inquiry has been remarkably effective at getting closer to the truth than any other process of reasoning. A scientific claim is either true or false objectively (i.e., independent of what anybody believes). The evidence for a scientific claim is either strong or weak objectively (i.e., independent of how anybody judges it). There is no guarantee that every researcher is fully objective and is an absolutely disinterested truthseeker, nor is there any guarantee that as science proceeds, it invariably adds to its accumulation of truths, replaces false theories with true ones, or gets nearer the truth. However, even though (like all other human enterprises) science is far from perfect, it has been an impressively successful human cognitive enterprise.

if you are really interested in the truth, then you must use the scientific processes of logical inquiry, at however low a level, to arrive at it, in our daily lives we are constantly testing, confirming, and falsifying hypotheses, and we function as natural scientists because we have no other choice. Special educators are held accountable for what they say and do in a way that journalists, novelists, and postmodern critics are not. And that is how it should be. Applications of logical inquiry to the needs of people with disabilities is tough, incredibly complex, and time consuming, but no one said it was going to be easy. As Fox (1996) has stated, “If you want it easy, then be honest: join the creative writing program” (p. 341). The logical inquirer wants and needs the true answer to a question. If he or she is inquiring into whether a child’s problem behavior is maintained by negative reinforcement, he or she wants to ultimately believe that negative reinforcement maintains the behavior if the behavior is maintained by negative reinforcement and that it isn’t if it isn’t (and that it’s a lot more complicated than that if it’s a lot more complicated than that).

Instead, what postmodern critics of special education appear to favor is ethnomethodology, which can be characterized as the offspring of the union of phenomenology with symbolic interactionism (Bunge, 1996). Ethnomethodologists observe firsthand and record trivial events in everyday life. locus on symbols and communication, and skirt any important activities, processes, and issues, particularly large-scale social conflicts and changes. They engage in participant (short-range) observation but shun experimentation, which they disapprove of on philosophical grounds. Lacking theories of their own, the ethnomethodologist invokes the arcane pronouncements of hermeneutics, phenomenology, and even existentialism–all of them antithetical to science. Obviously an antirealist philosophy that opposes the search for objective truth could hardly inspire scientific research. Mercifully, the ethnomethodologists make no use of these doctrines in their empirical work (see Danforth & Navarro. 1998). In fact, in field work they behave as positivists (even while vehemently denouncing positivism)inasmuch, as they spend most of their time collecting data, which they are unable to interpret correctly for want of theory. In short, they behave (superficially) like behaviorists even while engaging in the bashing of behaviorism.

This is not to deny the value of observing everyday life occurrences, such as casual encounters and conversations, which are the favorite material of ethnomethodologists. Such observation, a common practice of anthropologists, yields raw material for the researcher to process in the light of hypotheses and with a view to coming up with new hypotheses. But that empirical material is of limited use unless it is accompanied by reliable information concerning the role that the observed subject enacts. This fact, combined with the absence of tests of the proposed “interpretations” and the lack of theory, explains the paucity of findings of ethnomethodology. As Dawkins (1998) has noted, a minimal test that any reputable method of inquiry must pass is that of reliability. This is not a test of whether something actually works, merely a test of whether different practitioners confronted with the same evidence for the same practitioner confronted with the same evidence twice) agree. Ethnomethodological research fails even this minimal test. Ethnomethodological interpretation relies instead on vague and often banal pronouncements couched in obscurantist language. However, as Wilson (1998) has noted, sometimes a method or concept is baffling not because it is profound but because it is wrong. It does not accord with what we know about the world or about behavior and learning.

Postmodern critics of special education are also fond of democratic characterizations of their ideas (Skrtic, 1995). Democratic values such as freedom, equality, and community are valuable notions, and i would wager that they hold more value for most educational researchers than they do for those postmodernists who hold to a Marxian view of society. Democracy is a political value, and the use of its principles would be appropriate if the choice of a theory or method were simply a matter of social negotiation. But it isn’t; logical inquiry is a matter of seeking out, checking, and assessing the worth of evidence. Likewise, I would argue that a translation of “community” to mean “inclusion” is based on faulty reasoning. A sense of community is best achieved by people with disabilities through the development of the skills that allow them to partake in the freedoms available in our society, not by an enforced merger that leaves them to languish in an inclusive setting where these skills are less likely to be learned (Iowa Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 1987). Like Feyerabend, postmodern critics of special education want to subordinate science but to a more severe agenda of democratic epistemology, whereby the scientific acceptability of a claim would be contingent on its perceived political expediency (Goldman, 1999). History should have taught us by now the futility of such a strategy–the act of banning Copernicanism hurt the Catholic Church much more than heliocentrism could ever have done. Lysenkoism did nothing to help peasants improve their agricultural practices while it delayed the adoption of hybrids developed in the West. The Moral Movement of the late 1700s and early 1800s, in which people with mental illness were released from jails and poorhouses and treated as responsible citizens, was followed by perhaps the most demeaning era of institutionalization of people with disabilities, in large measure because a science sufficiently advanced to successfully treat them did not exist. Self-appointed allies of people with disabilities will not benefit in the long run from attempts to block the value of logical inquiry undertaken on their behalf. To violate a person’s ability to distinguish fact from fantasy is a demeaning and narcissistic exercise in epistemological hocus-pocus.

In many ways, postmodern critics of special education appear to have given up on children with disabilities. Their recommendations suggest they no longer believe (if they ever did) that children can learn the skills necessary lot increasing levels of competence and independence. They act as il’ it is too hard a task. And, if a person feels that it is too hard to deal with real problems, there are many ways to avoid doing so. One of them is to go off on wild-goose chases that don’t matter. Another is to get involved in academic cults that are very divorced from any reality and that provide a ready defense against dealing with the world of people with disabilities as it actually is. An analysis of the actions of postmodernist critics of special education suggests that they are not concerned with the central premise and promise of special education.

What is it, exactly, that postmodern critics of special education are engaged in? For the most part, it is an attitude change program. Having apparently decided that teaching competency skills to children with disabilities is too difficult, they have decided that instead of changing children with disabilities. they will change everyone else. Thus, their reasoning goes, schools, the community, courts of law, the government, indeed all of society must be made to change to accommodate and accept individuals with disabilities. As with most initial claims of postmodernists, the basic goal of attitude change appears reasonable. When translated to practice, the illogic of these critics becomes apparent.

For example, much of the literature related to facilitated communication appears designed to change how the reader thinks and reels about people with autism and other disabilities, as much as to convince us that facilitated communication is appropriate, effective practice. As previously noted, proponents of facilitated communication quote the typed messages of individuals, and the quotations chosen are most often those with high emotional value. In addition, these authors posit a view of persons with mental disabilities as competent rather than within the social construction of mental retardation. In large measure, then, a primary goal of facilitated communication is attitude change, and the facilitated messages of people with disabilities, who voice their concern over how they are perceived, are used as a component in the attitude change process.

Throughout the 1980s, there was a popular program designed to change the attitudes of nondisabled children toward those with disabilities called Kids on the Block (KOB: Atello, 1980). KOB is a puppet show designed to provide positive information about persons with disabilities (Baker, Rude, Sasso, & Weishahn, 1994). The scripted KOB program lasts about I hour, during which time the puppets “speak” to children about what life is like with disabilities. Limited research lends to support the notion that KOB can be effective in changing the attitudes of typical children as measured by paper-and-pencil attitude scales. Research on facilitated communication, however. overwhelmingly suggests that, in almost every study, children with autism and other disabilities are not the ones who are authoring the messages that communicate the hopes, fears, and dreams about their lives. Instead, it is the adult facilitator who is constructing the message (Greene & Shane, 1994). Therefore. KOB and facilitated communication appear to have at least this feature in common: They use props in an effort to change the way people think and feel about disabilities. However, in the case of facilitated communication, the prop (or puppet) being used for this purpose is a human being.

Inclusion is another practice that is supported by postmodern critics of special education, in fact, in some instances they refer to inclusion as “their” program, although I would argue thai a process and rationale for moving from more to less segregated settings for individuals with disabilities was articulated before these critics became interested in cultural relativity (Kauffman, Lloyd, Baker, & Riedel, 1995: Simpson & Sasso. 1992). Proponents of inclusion insist that the rightful place for individuals with disabilities is the general education classroom. They invoke the 14th amendment of the Constitution (education as a property right) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; the general education classroom should be considered first), as well as various moral and ethical claims, to support the notion that children with disabilities should receive all of their education with typically developing peers. It is only through inclusion, these proponents maintain, that the social goals of education can be met. However, one of the major problems with this argument is that these proponents’ interpretation of inclusion confuses independent and dependent variables. Having convinced themselves that all children should be housed in regular education, they treat inclusion as an outcome, when it would be more logical and helpful to view inclusion as a treatment variable. in other words, inclusion has an effect on the child. The overall effect can be positive, negative, or somewhere in between. Therefore, does it not make sense to measure these effects in a way that allows us to determine whether the child is progressing at a rate that supports the inclusive placement and the instruction received in that setting? in addition, although social interaction is undeniably important to the lives of individuals with disabilities, it is not the only (or perhaps even most important) variable related to their success. What proponents of inclusion continue to do, even after all this time. is play down the importance of academic and functional skills in favor of a vague notion of friendship.

In addition, and on a larger scale, they are committed to the notion that the general education classroom is an inherently better learning environment for children. This claim should be examined more carefully. The ascendant philosophy of mathematics education in our country is constructivism, a mixture of Piagetian stage theory with postmodernist ideology. Children must actively construct mathematical knowledge for themselves in a social enterprise driven by disagreements about the meanings of concepts. The teacher provides the materials and the social milieu but does not directly teach skills or guide the discussion. Direct instruction and practice, the clearest and most empirically validated routes to acquisition and automaticity, are called “mechanistic” and viewed as detrimental to understanding. This constructivist pedagogy has merit when it comes to the intuitions of small numbers and simple arithmetic that arise naturally in all children. But it ignores critical facts concerning neurology and learning. The mental concepts of mathematics are difficult, and children do not spontaneously see a string of beads, for example, as elements in a set or points on a line as numbers. In addition, without the practice that compiles a halting sequence of steps into a mental reflex, a learner will always be building mathematical structures out of the smallest nuts and bolts, like the watchmaker who never made subassemblies and had to start from scratch every time he put down a watch to answer the phone. This same story is being played out in our country’s reading instruction. In the dominant technique, whole language, the theory that language may be a naturally developing human instinct has been garbled into the improbable claim that reading is a naturally developing human instinct. Direct instruction and practice at connecting letters to sounds is replaced in general education settings by immersion in a text-rich social environment, and the children don’t learn to read (Dawkins, 1998). That is why, in recent years, several states no longer recommend whole language instruction for their children.

Yet this is the environment that postmodern critics of special education insist is the best for children with disabilities. Perhaps they favor this setting because constructivist instructional models contain elements of postmodern doctrine. However, this meeting of two cultural relativist beliefs (constructivism and inclusion) does not appear to be compatible. Children with special needs fail miserably in whole language classrooms, and it may be that this is one of the reasons they are in special education in the first place.

Postmodern critics also insist that the way to make inclusion work is to provide more knowledge about students with disabilities to general educators and more knowledge about general education children to special educators (Skrtic, Sailor, & Gee, 1996). What, exactly, does this mean? In most states and school districts that have adopted a version of this plan, it has meant that general educators receive a bit more training in how to work with special needs children (perhaps just enough to be dangerous), while university special education programs are encouraged, even directed, to provide less specialized training regarding various disabling conditions to special education teachers (a jack-of-all-trades conceptualization). It is unclear to me how knowing less about children with disabilities will lead to greater effectiveness as a teacher. Special educators must know everything there is to know about learning, how it can go wrong, and what to do about it when it does, it also requires that we know these things about specific students and problems because the reason a child with a severe behavior disorder is not learning is different from the reason a child with severe/profound mental disabilities is not learning. For example, the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 included a mandate to conduct functional assessments for students under various conditions. Functional assessment and analysis is a complex and complicated process that, when completed carefully, can lead to more effective and efficient interventions for students with behavior problems (Carr & Durand, 1985: Derby et al., 1992; Iwata, Dorsey, Slifer, Bauman, & Richman, 1994; Sasso et al., 1992). In order to do it effectively, however, a special educator must know something about setting events, second order conditioned establishing operations, preference analysis, matching law, and stimulus equivalence. If teachers come to the classroom with only a copy of Foucault under one arm and a copy of Alfie Kohn under the other arm, they will find that they are able to engage in only the most cursory and superficial analysis of the students they are charged to assist.

The spell of postmodern theory has apparently lured these special education critics to embrace a bizarre philosophical tautology, where reality is effaced as a meaningful term and where representation, rhetoric, and discourse are the only allowable phenomenological categories. Confronted by complex disabling conditions that are all too real, these critics have been driven full circle into a giddy doctrine asserting that control over representation and rhetoric, over language and imagery will, of itself, dispel disabilities. This, beneath its ostensibly up-to-date skeptical veneer, is purely magical thinking, it recurs to the ancient confusion between names and things, between mention and use. In a nearly literal sense, it encodes a faith in charms and magic words. It is, moreover, an approach that offers immediate satisfactions, beyond the imponderable hope that disabilities will eventually yield to it.


I have not been arguing in this article for science as the only way of getting answers to questions about special education. And I don’t think I need to defend scientific objectivism as the single admissible philosophical standpoint. However, it is clear that the logical form of inquiry inherent in science is, as all the world’s experience clearly tells us, overwhelmingly the best trick we know so far for solving our most pressing problems. And, it is clear that the politicized, overtheorized polemic that is postmodernism offers nothing at all in that direction. Its main effect has been to reassure aspiring cultural critics that they can play a significant role in the treatment of disabilities without having to do anything so tiresome as, for instance, work directly with children to obtain the relevant data necessary to help them become more functionally independent.

The harm antirealist doctrines have already done and may yet do is difficult to measure. We can, however, assume that once a field such as special education loses its conception of truth and begins to look on reasoning as mainly decorative, the result is a deterioration of intellectual energy. This is currently taking place before our eyes in the form of research bought and paid for by bodies with an interest in its turning out this way rather than that or motivated by political conviction or by scholarship better characterized as a kind of self-promotion (Sokal, 1998). Kauffman’s (1994) admonition that we currently have many tools that are effective for our children but have chosen shortcuts that render those interventions ineffective, is substantially true.

In an excellent examination of the current state of the field of emotional and behavioral disorders, Simpson (1999) suggested that there are numerous explanations as to why special education tails to carry out processes and procedures that are most beneficial to students. Simpson suggested that there are obvious criteria for judging what is best practice for children and youth with behavioral disorders. These include a logical theoretical foundation based on existing scientific literature, empirical research based on accepted scientific methodology and design, scientifically valid demonstrations in which use of a particular method is directly associated with achievement of meaningful outcomes, and social validity. Current postmodern recommendations such as inclusion, Freudian-based therapies, and facilitated communication meet none of these criteria.

Education for our children must be constantly adapting it’ it is to be successful, and there is evidence that U.S. schools do change over time to meet the needs of a changing population. As Berliner and Biddle (1995) have noted, school reform proposals are more likely to succeed il’ they reflect genuine problems faced by schools, are based on attainable goals, involve plans for both starting and maintaining the program, and enlarge rather than restrict the lives of children. However, as Berliner and Biddle point out, a critical criterion must be met if any of our proposed improvements for education are to have a chance to be successful. That is, efforts to change schools, to be effective, must be based on knowledge generated by research rather than unsubstantiated beliefs or feelings. Whether it is a call for proportional representation of African American children in special education (Townsend, 2000) or claims that children with autism communicate with the deceased through facilitated communication (Emery, 1997: Spitz, 1997), relativist proposals that lack basic empirical verification are more likely to be ineffective or, worse, countertherapeutic.

So, what is to be done? I have argued throughout this article that matters of great importance are at stake when postmodernist doctrine is applied to special education, l have also argued that the effect of this antirealist doctrine is harmful to the lives of the children we serve. If it is indeed true, as Gross and Levitt (1998) claim, that the health of a culture is measured in part by the vigor with which its immune system responds to nonsense, then it is time for special educators to become more alert to the fabrications of postmodern critics. In addition, we must insist that our teachers receive the instruction necessary for them to both choose and employ educational practices that have received at least some empirical attention. Our teachers must also be given the tools to be successful consumers of research, and the critical ability to identify spurious claims and practices.

Finally, we should insist that fashionable postmodern critics of special education be called into account for their actions. As professionals across disciplines become aware of the harmful effects of postmodern doctrine, they are accusing what is now a powerful faction in modern academic life of intellectual dereliction (Dawkins, 1998; Ellis, 1997: Gross & Levitt, 1998: Haack, 1998: Koertge, 1998: Pinker, 1997; Wilson, 1998). This accusation has nothing to do with political correctness, subversion, or conservative political views. It has to do, instead, with the craft of scholarship–a craft that has consequences independent of the behavior of individual scholars. Postmodern eagerness to praise a certain spectrum of work has disarmed skepticism and careful critical attention. Political sympathy has combined with professional vanity to give undue weight, prestige, and influence to a decidedly slender and questionable body of work.

In recent years, there have been signals from once-adamant adherents to science-as-social doctrine that the time has come to back away from what is an increasingly blunt cutting edge (Dawkins, 1998; Ellis, 1997; Wilson, 1998). Rorty and Feyerabend are at least in partial retreat, and Foucault, in his later writings, embraced the Enlightenment “historicocritical attitude” and its discourse of autonomy (Best & Kellner, 1991). Feyerabend, in 1992, wrote, “How can an enterprise (science) depend on culture in so many ways, and yet produce such solid results?” (p. 29). In Love and Money, Rorty, perhaps the most cited author by postmodern critics of special education, said,

All the talk in the world about the need to abandon “technological

rationality” and to stop “commodifying,” about the need for”new values” or

for “non-Western ways of thinking,” is not going to bring more money to the

Indian villages…. All the love in the world, all the attempts to abandon

“Eurocentrism” or “liberal individualism,” all the “politics of diversity,”

all the talk about cuddling up to the natural environment, will not help.

Maybe technology and centralized planning will not work. But they are all

we have got. We should not try to pull the blanket over our heads by saying

that technology was a big mistake, and that planning, topdown initiatives,

and “Western ways of thinking” must be abandoned. (cited in Gross & Levitt,

1998, pp. 270-271)

The idea of knowledge for its own sake, of letting an argument go wherever the logic leads, without fear or favor, and using that knowledge to guide us in the education of children with disabilities, is an extraordinarily valuable part of our heritage. The confusion of a science of learning with moral and political goals, and the resulting pressure to believe in a structureless mind, will not lead to better lives for children. At some point postmodernists may recognize the illogic and danger of a political might is right mindset. The mindset of a postmodern social activist is worlds apart from that of a special education researcher and scholar. Analysis follows where the argument leads, but activism wants only support for a predetermined direction. Researchers are intrigued by the structure of arguments, while postmodernists only want to win them. Postmodernists underestimate the power of ideas to move the world and try to impose them through political power, but the pursuit of power corrupts ideas just as it corrupts people.


Authorship research is designed to allow determination of whether the facilitator or person with disabilities is responsible for typed messages.


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Address: Gary M. Sasso, College of Education, N277 Lindquist Center, The University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA52242


COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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