Geoff Shullenberger, How We Forgot Foucault, American Affairs, Vol V no.2, Summer 2021
Late last year, British trade minister Liz Truss caused a stir with a speech that pinned the failures of the British education system on “postmodernist philosophy,” which, she said, “puts societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours.” Due to the influence of such views, she went on, students learn about racism and sexism rather than being taught to read and write, and are instilled with a relativistic denial of objective truth. The progenitor of this baleful worldview, Truss told her audience, was the French philosopher Michel Foucault.
Truss’s rant seemed to embarrass the UK’s Conservative government, which removed the transcript from its website. But it’s unclear why it was seen as so scandalous: it was merely a variant of a story told time and again in recent decades by conservatives and centrist liberals alike across the anglophone world. According to this narrative, a cluster of ideas originating in continental Europe, especially France, has invaded educational institutions and undermined the values of Western culture and the pursuit of objective scientific truth. Under the sway of this “postmodern” worldview, we are told, students learn to fault the West for the sins of racism, sexism, and colonialism, and to embrace both moral and epistemological relativism.