Well, the 1960s weren’t all that long ago for some of us. That’s when Harvard University counselor William Perry (not the football player!) led researchers who interviewed college students and looked for patterns in how they changed over time.
The investigators did discover a pattern. The pattern wasn’t in what students said but in how they said it – in their worldviews.
As I oversimplify Perry’s “scheme,” try to imagine how it applies to the state of our society today.
Many students began college thinking of the world in right-wrong terms. All questions have right and wrong answers. Those who know the right answers are good people, and the others are bad. Perry called this worldview “Dualism.”
• After living awhile with people who were different from them, students swung to the opposite extreme. There are no right and wrong answers at all! Everybody has both good and bad aspects. All opinions are equally valid! Perry labeled this perspective “Multiplicity.”
• Students grew into a more balanced point of view. Opinions that are contradicted by facts are not valid. But some valid opinions contradict each other. A person can never really say that one is best. This viewpoint Perry called “Contextual Relativism.”
Most students moved on from this unstable position to choose some beliefs, while recognizing that conflicting commitments would be equally valid.
But a few retreated to Dualism. They were too uncomfortable with the chaos of Contextual Relativism and unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of ideas that contradicted their own.
What did you find relevant in that description? I certainly have formed some opinions about Perry’s observations.
I believe, for example, that people who have developed into and beyond Contextual Relativism are more mature and make better citizens. The Dualistic intolerance being exhibited daily — on the political left and right, but most loudly right now in Minnesota on the right — makes me sad.
It also makes me wonder: Why do so many people hold opinions that are contradicted by evidence? And why do they believe that those who disagree with them are bad people?
Could it be that only folks without much schooling show this Dualistic intolerance and lack of self awareness? Well, no. Certainly most politicians are college graduates. And many members of the Tea Party — as well as many of their detractors — have spent plenty of time in schools.
So I conclude that schools and colleges have not been promoting the intellectual and ethical development that Perry observed.
Could it be that schools other than Harvard have never actually encouraged development on the Perry scheme? Research at other places has found otherwise. In fact, very few freshmen today have led such limited lives that they remain Dualistic.
Why this change?
So why do have many college students or graduates retreated into Dualism? I think it’s because Dualism is all that they see in schools. Let’s consider only two of the forces operating on schools and teachers:
• The only objective way teachers and students are evaluated is on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized tests. By the very nature of standardization, these tests are Dualistic. So teachers and schools, to survive, must do all they can to train students to mark the “right answers” on the test form.
• For teachers to maintain order in large classes, they must keep students passive and conforming. And these traits are the opposite of the challenging and questioning needed to develop toward and beyond Contextual Relativism.
The next generation
Is there any hope? I believe so. Young people interact with us older folks, both in person and online, outside as well as within school settings. If we can consciously model more tolerance for valid opinions that we don’t agree with, then the society of the next generation might be more mature than our own.
As an example, we can say to a young person, “That is a worthy point of view, but I disagree with it.” Could you say that about, say, a different economic system from what you believe in? A different political structure? A different religion?
Yes, this modeling can take place in schools. But in general schools are not educating, in Perry’s sense. It’s inaccurate to call schools the “educational system.”
Our society must find other ways of educating itself.
Larry Copes, of Inver Grove Heights, is a former mathematics professor who now educates through game development, academic editing and adjunct teaching.