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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 205-225

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Postpositivist Realism in the Multicultural Writing Classroom:
Beyond the Paralysis of Cultural Relativism

Laurie Grobman

According to William G. Perry Jr.'s widely known Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, students are first characterized by "duality"; that is, they see the world and knowledge in binaries: good and bad, right and wrong. As they develop, however, they take more relativistic views of knowledge. In the last of Perry's nine stages, "commitment," they understand relativism but commit to acting on their beliefs: "The assumption is established that man's knowing and valuing are relative in time and circumstance, and that in such a world the individual is faced with the responsibility for choice and affirmation in his life" (Perry 1999 [1968]: 170). In this stage, students "must both believe in one's commitments and somehow acknowledge others' even when they contravene one's principles" (180). Students who face these challenges and develop commitments engage in "act[s] of moral courage" (197).

Many compositionists have applied Perry's scheme to student writing, holding up his final position, "committed relativism" (Anson 1989: 337), as a goal for students even as they acknowledge the limits of his study (see also Dinitz and Kiedaisch 1990; Tedesco 1991). 1 Patricia Bizzell (1992 [1984]: 161), while wary of applying his scheme rigidly to student writing, argues that Perry demonstrates that as teachers of writing we try to instruct students to [End Page 205] "think in a certain way" and "become adults with a certain set of intellectual habits and ethical predilections." Chris M. Anson (1989: 337-38), who focuses on how teachers might respond to student writing, given Perry's developmental scheme, sustains the notion that mature students are committed relativists, "reflective" writers who find "stability and resolution in the chaos of diversity" even when addressing the most challenging moral and intellectual questions. Janice N. Hays and Kathleen Brandt (1992: 204) employ Perry's scheme to examine the relationship among students' sociocognitive development, adaptation to their audience, and general argumentative abilities. They conclude that students need to take account of opposing points of view in their reasoning and arguments (219), implying a move on Hays and Brandt's part toward accepting committed relativism as a final stage in students' development. Finally, Phyllis Mentzell Ryder (1995: 512) sustains committed relativism as a goal for students even though she doubts that Perry's and others' theories of intellectual development sufficiently explain how students will dodge the "epistemological snare" of relativism that silences her students and undermines their action. Ryder does not believe that students simply "grow out of" their relativistic views and "mature into an awareness of social construction," as Perry's pluralist pedagogy suggests.

Questions of ethical and cultural relativism and how they affect first-year composition students have been made even more complex and far-reaching by multiculturalism and its association with cultural and ethical relativism. The problem of relativism in composition stems from the antifoundational critique of Enlightenment ideas about objectivity, reason, science, and progress and, subsequently, about whether the concepts of oppression, racism, sexism, liberty, compassion, and justice lose their ethical force if they are nothing more than the constructions of a particular individual, community, or culture's contingent belief system (see Grobman forthcoming). I acknowledge the significant work that postmodern and antifoundational theories have accomplished, especially the challenge they have posed to hegemonic knowledge, perspectives, and voices. Similarly, I recognize the legitimate, necessary concern over imposing one culture's will on a less privileged other. Yet I worry that epistemological subjectivity has led to the general consensus that no culture can make value judgments of others, for there are no transcultural, universal standards by which to judge cultural practices, beliefs, or values. For many students, this lack leads to a paralyzing relativism that discourages genuine cross-cultural understanding and ethical decision making.

In my view, therefore, committed relativism is no longer a goal for [End Page 206] which composition instructors should strive, although I agree with Gary Olson (1999: 102) that...


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