Lee Roy Beach: Blog, Art, and Publications about The Psychology of Narrative Thought
Welcome to my web site. It has three parts:
my blog, my theory, and my art. (1) My blog consists of periodic essays that expand upon my book, The Psychology
of Narrative Thought. (2) My theory consists of a guide to the contents of the narrative thought book as well
as manuscript copies of my recent and pending publications on the theory. (3) My art consists of examples of both
larger paintings and miniature landscapes.
(1) The blog is below on this page.
(2) Following the pages containing my academic record is
the table of contents for my book "The Psychology of Narrative Thought: How the Stories We Tell Ourselves
Shape Our Lives (2010). The book is a highly revised version of the monograph, "Narrative Thinking and
Decision Making" that previously was available for download from this site. It is available from Amazon, Barns
and Noble, and Xlibris in hardcover, paperback, or e-book. To purchase a copy, go to Contact Me. Following the table
of contents are manuscripts that are either pre-publication versions of articles I'm working on or manuscript
versions of articles that have been published. The two there now are "Cognitive Errors and the Nature of Epistemic
Thought" and "When a Difference Makes a Difference in the Screening of Decision Options."
My paintings represent work that is now in my posession, in galleries, or in private collections. If you are interested in
knowing more about a painting, or if you wish to order an available painting, go to Contact Me.
I have one paper in press, the topic
of which is how to build a science of psychology based on laws (American Journal of Psychology, January 2014) and have submitted
another (same journal) in which I account for some of the more notable cognitive errors as the by-product of narrative thinking.
If you are interested in seeing the ms. for either, please e-mail me. Because the journal will hold the copyright, I cannot
post the papers on the web.
Thanks, Lee Beach
INTRODUCTION TO MY BLOG
The purpose of this blog will be to expand upon ideas that space limitations
prevented me from exploring in The Psychology of Narrative Thought (Beach, 2010)---hereafter known as "The Book"
and "The Theory" that it contains. In addition, new ideas occur to me from time to time, sometimes because colleagues
ask questions or dispute various of my assertions in the book, and sometimes because I am stimulated by current events or
things I have read to expand the scope of the theory
.As I explain in the book, as well as
in the article on the narrative nature of epistemic thought (see manuscripts on this site), the theory owes its existence
to my dissatisfaction with an earlier theory, called Image Theory. The latter was a cognitive theory of decision making proposed
as a counter to theories based on economic models and probability theory. Because so much research shows that people
don't think like Economic Man and have little understanding of formal probability, it seemed silly to persist in (1) using
formal models as criteria against which to measure human cognitive abilities and (2) slandering those abilities when they
deviate from those criteria.
Although Image Theory was a success, in that it prompted discussion and research,
it actually wasn't well understood. I cringed when reading that this or that hypothesis was a test of the theory when it was
clear to me that the researcher's view of the theory was decidedly different from what the theory said--or at least what I
thought it said. As a result, I began to think about how to make it all clearer and a bit more commonsensical. However, in
the attempt to do this, the theory shifted and took on a decidedly different shape; and I liked the new shape much better
than the old one. The result was the Theory of Narrative Thought (TNT) and its decision component, Narrative-Based Decision
Making (N-BDM). Many of the concepts in the new theory have direct links to concepts in the old theory.
I want it to be absolutely clear that the foundation of the theory is not my own. It is the work of Walter Fisher,
who is a well-known communications theorist. I started with his ideas, elaborated them--primarily in light of views developed
while working on Image Theory--and added N-BDM, which also is from Image Theory. The result was a far broader theory than
Fisher's or Image Theory. To avoid undue repetition, all of the blogs I will write will assume that the reader is familiar
with the book and the theory.
Two nights ago, my wife and I were
having dinner with another couple, Ruth and Sam, whom we have known for years. In the course of the conversation, Ruth reacted
to something Sam said with a mixture of hurt and disbelief, as though he had betrayed some implicit agreement between them.
My first thought was that her reaction was both uncharacteristic and unwarranted. But, as I watched her lash out at Sam and
then sulkily withdraw into herself, I realized that I had seen her react this way before but had never given it much thought.
At that moment I experienced that familiar rush of feeling that signals a new insight; I suddenly realized that I knew more
about Ruth than I had previously thought I did and that her behavior revealed even more. This accompanied an immediate and
substantial revision of what I thought was happening at the dinner table as well as what I thought about Ruth. Startled by
my experience, I spent the remainder of the dinner half listening to the table talk and half musing on how The Theory could
account for my insight and insights in general.
In this instance it was clear that Ruth’s reaction, and my recollection of similar reactions, prompted revision of narratives
about what was going on at the table and about how I viewed Ruth in general. Further thought over the past couple of days
has resulted in the following….in terms of The Theory: Recall that The Theory posits two kinds of narratives, chronicular and paradigmatic
and that it further posits two kinds of paradigmatic narratives, explanatory and procedural. The current narrative, what is
currently happening, is a chronicular narrative. But, my private theory about someone’s personality is a private explanatory
paradigm—it tells me how the subject of the paradigm relates to other actors and, therefore, what to expect them to
do. My dinner table insight was the simultaneous revision of my current narrative about the evening and my private narrative
First, my current narrative: Ruth’s reaction to what her husband said caused
me to revise my interpretation about what was going on at the moment. I sensed an undercurrent of tension between Ruth and
her husband that had escaped me before. This resulted in a new narrative that possessed an acidic quality that my wife later
told me she too had sensed. We both came away with the impression that we had been involuntary participants in something unpleasant
and that Ruth, not her husband (well, maybe not so obviously her husband) was the source of the problem. The reason for this
conclusion was that we both had seen her react this way before to anything he or anyone said that she could interpret as criticism,
and she was adept at interpreting things as criticism. She seemed to think that anything less than full endorsement of her
opinions or actions demeaned her, and she reacted with aggression and then withdrawal. Second, my explanatory paradigmatic narrative about Ruth: In addition to prompting revision of
my current narrative, Ruth’s reaction and my recollections of previous instances provided new information for my private
theory of her personality. I already knew her background, how she had had to overcome considerable hardship to arrive at the
security and status she now enjoyed. I also knew that she was regarded by many as overly sensitive and controlling. Too, she
had divorced her first husband because she thought he was unambitious and boring. She apparently loved her second husband,
but she was both dependent on him and resentful about his greater status and verbal facility. My insight was that she was
considerably less certain that she had attained the security and status than her public persona suggested and that she was
far more sensitive to her husband’s supposed superiority than perhaps was realistic—he certainly didn’t
appear to see the disparity she saw. Warranted or not, the result was that criticism from any quarter, but especially from
her husband, fed her insecurity and resulted in immediate aggression followed by withdrawal.
My new explanatory paradigm for Ruth made me more sympathetic to her behavior while making me more uncomfortable around her;
it is so easy to inadvertently make her angry and sulky. But this isn’t the end of the story. Because the function of explanatory paradigms is to inform chronicular paradigms,
after Ruth’s outburst my revised current narrative about the evening was also influenced by my revised explanatory paradigm
about her. As a result, my revised current narrative was somewhat less negative than it might have been because the explanatory
paradigm provided sympathetic reasons for Ruth’s behavior. What at first appeared to be startling unwarranted aggressiveness
and petulant pouting withdrawal could now be seen as defensiveness and uncertainty about her husband’s regard for her.
This didn’t make the evening more enjoyable, but it made it less uncomfortable. It didn’t make Ruth an agreeable
person to be around, but it made her a bit more tolerable.
Even if we agree that insight occurs when information prompts revision of a chronicular or paradigmatic
narrative, there is still the issue of why some information results in revision and other information doesn’t. Recall
that a narrative is regarded as valid insofar as it is plausible and coherent. Revision is called for when a narrative is
confronted with new information that is so incompatible with it that the two cannot be conveniently acknowledged as both being
valid. However, whether or not the incompatible new information prompts revision depends upon both how incompatible it is
and how plausible and coherent the narrative is perceived to be. If plausibility and coherence are low, even mildly incompatible
information will prompt revision with little accompanying emotion. If plausibility and coherence are high—the narrative
is perceived to be highly valid as it is—it takes extremely incompatible information to prompt revision, with the strong
accompanying emotion that we call insight.
The Desired Future (4/11)
Our topic today is an aspect of The Theory that many people seem to find a bit mysterious, the desired future. Recall that
the desired future is the criterion for deciding whether the forecasted future is good enough, either an extrapolated future
is good enough to let things proceed without an effort to change them or an action forecasts is good enough to implement a
plan to secure it. “Good enough” is determined by how closely your forecasted future meets your primary and secondary
values; primary being enduring standards about how things should be and secondary being more transient and less important
standards—primarily your preferences.
There four sources for the desired future. One is when the future is imposed on you, usually by someone who
has some sort of power over you. You may find it violates your personal values, but you are not in a position to reject it
and therefore end up working toward it because you must. For example, if your boss tells you to cut corners on some aspect
of product production, you pretty much have to do it or suffer the consequences; that’s what “boss” means.
Or, if a teacher tells you there is to be an exam, you may not want to take it, but you must if you are to pass the course. The process
involved in an imposed future is fairly straightforward. First, your instructions often prescribe particular actions and required
outcomes. Together this information allows you to generate an action forecast that you can evaluate in terms of your values.
If the discrepancy between the forecast and your values is small, there is no problem; you happily do as you are told. On
the other hand, if the discrepancy is large, you probably would look for another job. If you can’t quit, you may begin
to hedge—the infamous “I was just following orders”—to mitigate the stress of violating your values.
A second source for a desired future is an envisioning, which results from
your ability to imagine alternative futures (we’ll discuss imagination, fantasy, and reality in a future blog). For
example, envisioning being a circus clown involves imagining the life you’d have if you strived to be one and the life
you’d have if you were a success. If what you imagine (an action forecast) fits your values you may adopt being a clown
as your desired future. Then, when you compare your extrapolated forecast with your envisioned future as a clown, the discrepancies
between them leads you to intervene in ways that, hopefully, will lead you increasingly closer to your goal of being a clown.
On a more mundane level, if your envisioned future is to advance in your job, the discrepancy between what will happen if
you continue doing what you presently are doing and what you want to happen will trigger action to move you closer to the
latter. A third source for a desired
future is suggestion by someone else. For example, if your physician says you are verging on having diabetes and
suggests that you lose weight and avoid “white food,” the suggested future is pretty clearly laid out for you.
It isn’t an imposed future because you have a choice about pursuing it. When you to compare the extrapolated forecast
of what you can anticipate if you don’t do anything with the suggested future of being healthy, presuming you believe
your physician and that you understand the implications of developing diabetes, you will be prompted to adopt a plan that
will move you toward the suggested future.
The fourth source for a desired future is the most common one—the one that keeps us moving from moment to moment
and that usually results in only minor, corrective changes in our behavior. This is called the repaired future, and
it’s primary role is as a feedback mechanism that allows us to keep things on track in the face of failed efforts, minor
miscalculations, and unanticipated changes in the environment. The basis for the repaired future is the extrapolated forecast
itself. When there are significant disparities between the features of the forecast and your relevant values, you can imagine
what the future would look like if the discrepancies were repaired. To the degree that your actions can reduce disparities,
you adjust your behavior (intervene) to do so. Presuming that your values are reasonably stable, this mechanism keeps you
on the straight and narrow—keeps you behaving in a way that keeps your life congruent with your values. Of course, there
is no assurance that what you value would be endorsed by other people, so your version of the straight and narrow may differ
substantially from someone else’s version. But, pursuit of the repaired future results in a high degree of consistency
in how you act over time—in what you do to make yourself happy (congruent with your values). This consistency is what
other people think of as your personality (see endnote 1).
A curious side effect of creating
the desired future from the extrapolated forecast is that it results in a tendency to stick close to the status quo. Call
it risk aversion or a status quo bias or whatever you want, the fastest and easiest path is to avoid envisioning a wholly
new future or adopting someone’s radical suggestion and sticking with the ongoing flow of events, making small adjustments
to keep things comfortable. This isn’t very adventurous, but adventurous can be wearing; calm is more palatable for
daily fare. Moreover, when the mainstream of our lives can be dealt with calmly and incrementally it requires less careful
monitoring, leaving spare mental capacity for dealing with other areas of our lives for which calm and incrementalism aren’t
options. In my other life, I am a professional artist and a co-owner of an art gallery. Today a man who came to the gallery
told me that he is now retired and trying to learn about art, particularly modern art, which he had never understood. He said
that all the years he worked he ran large parts of his private life by rote—the same kind of car each time he bought,
the same restaurants, the same way of dressing and getting his hair cut, etc.—so that he could concentrate on the demands
of his job and dealing with his children as they grew up. Now that his children are gone and he is retired, he has the spare
capacity (not his words) to focus on new things and to have a few adventures, which has made his life much richer. (But, he
didn’t buy a painting.)
I cannot overemphasize how central and compelling our values
are to our behavior, to both the mundane things we do as well as the big things. Social scientists tend to give lip service
to values, perhaps because they don’t seem particularly scientific. Certainly there are individual differences, but
I think they are less pronounced than it might at first appear. Insofar as one buys into the cultures of the groups of which
one is a member, one’s values are pretty much prescribed. We all have idiosyncrasies, but they are minor when compared
to the similarities between our own values and those of the people with whom we share our lives.
Emergent Systems (4/11)
In The Book, I explained how meaning accrues to cognitive narratives by using an analogy with language.
In language, sentences are composed of words but have an emergent meaning that goes beyond the specific meanings of those
component words. In turn, paragraphs are composed of sentences and have emergent meaning that goes beyond the meanings of
the component sentences. And, the stories (narratives, texts) that are composed of those paragraphs have even more emergent
meaning. The analogy is not completely apt because narratives are enriched by emotions, memories, and visual, auditory, olfactory
and other cognitive images in addition to language, but the point is that narratives’ emergent meaning is far more than
the mere sum of their individual components. In short, narratives are emergent systems.
A system is said
to be weakly emergent if its properties are directly traceable (e.g., the sum) to its component’s properties
because the components operate independently of one another so there are no interactions to cloud the picture. Conversely,
a system is called strongly emergent when few or none of its properties are directly traceable to its component’s properties
due to interactions. Attempts to impose reductionist, weak emergence, research methods, models, and theories on strong systems
can never be more than partially successful (see endnotes 1, 2). On the continuum from weak to strong, I would argue that
narratives are strongly emergent systems.
Strong emergence means more than that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
First of all, knowledge about a strongly emergent system isn’t reflexive—that is, you may be
able to identify the system’s components, and their properties, but because of the complexity of the interactions you
could not reliably use this knowledge to predict the system’s properties. That is, you could not start with what you
know about the component’s properties to deduce the system’s properties. Second, a strongly emergent system isn’t
closed—that is, the system’s properties result from more than its components’ properties, they also reflect
the properties of the internal and external environments in which the system functions. Even if these latter properties exert
their influence through the functioning of the system’s components, which would usually be the case, the result is not
straightforward because the same environmental properties may uniquely influence the interactions of those components’
functions on each encounter. This is because the system has a history such that the environmental properties and their impacts
are never quite the same on successive encounters (3),
The understanding of emergence has led to replacement of reductionist, mechanistic models of complex systems throughout science
and philosophy. Although this may not have realized it at the time, cognitive scientists’ adoption of the computer as
a metaphor for cognitive function in the 1960’s was a step in this direction. Many areas of cognitive research and theory
have now become sophisticated enough to abandon dependency on the rather limiting computer metaphor. But other areas have
been rather slow to understand the implications of emergence, especially strong emergence. In decision making, for example,
the idea that decisions are determined solely by the balance between potential gains and losses, sometimes referred to as
the economic view of decision making, while strongly under assault, retains its appeal. If it had no other faults, which it
does (the gamble analogy, for example), the economic view fails to adequately address the question of what determines the
desirability of outcomes and thus defines gains and losses—resorting to the concept of utility simply finesses. The
only way to answer the question is by recourse to the decision maker’s values, which surely reflect strong emergence
Let’s take a moment to wonder at human narrative ability (5). Calling narrative
a strongly emergent system merely says that the narrative process is subtle and complex. But that isn’t the wonder,
at least not the most significant one. The big wonder is the proficiency that humans exhibit in the use of this complex system.
Every elaborated internal dialogue, every statement—whether uttered or written, every conversation reveals proficiency
in the use of a complex system. Internal dialogue is perhaps the richest, because it allows inclusion of emotions and images
and all the things that are so hard to express to others. But, statements to others routinely employ nuance and shading that
reflects, and attests to, the emergent quality of what is being expressed. And, conversations quite frequently are exercises
in cooperative narrative construction—and the fact that much that goes unsaid but is mutually understood emerges from
merging the proficiencies of the participants.
This brings us to the celebrated “bottom line.” Identifying narrative
and narrative production as a strongly emergent system bestows no particular merit on it. Rather, it tells us that the research
methods required to study it must be suited to its complexity. We cannot expect to understand it, even imperfectly, if we
insist on using methods that are appropriate to weakly emergent systems. Heisenberg aside, our methods are intrusive and reductive.
In the interests of control, we overly constrict that which we would study and trivialize it when we try to build theories
on the results such research provides. I am not suggesting that research not be done, but perhaps it is past time to give
up much of our agricultural heritage, to look anew at how we investigate psychological phenomena and what we mean by theory
testing and empiricism. I weaken my argument, I know, when I admit that I lack the capacity to prescribe new methods, but
that doesn’t invalidate my point. Strongly emergent systems require different research methods and different evidentiary
criteria than weak systems require. It is high time we stop trying to investigate the former with techniques that are only
appropriate to the latter.
(1) This is one reason for the relative underdevelopment of much of social science—lots
of factoids, few robust theories. Social science research with a claim to scientific respectability relies on rather outmoded
experimental and statistical methods. These methods can comfortably cope with first, second, and sometimes third order interactions,
but not the multiplicity and subtlety of the interactions involved in even the medium and strong emergence that characterizes
behavior. To a large degree, this incapacity to deal with complexity results from a reliance on a superannuated experimental
methodology which (as Egon Brunswik tried to tell us 70 years ago) relies on manipulation of an artificially small number
of relevant independent variables, measurement of a limited number of dependent variables, and averages data in an effort
to increase statistical power. These methods were originally adopted to promote objectivity, as a way of removing experimenter
bias, in a belief that a viable science can be constructed from a multitude of small experimental results. The past 50 years
has seen a gradual evolution toward more complex modeling and more sophisticated research, from simple correlations to analysis
of variance to structural analysis and beyond, but they don’t address the underlying flaw, the belief in a bottom up
construction of science. The result of this flawed belief has been a multitude of experimental factoids, of simplistic theories
for small phenomena, and an abandonment of the search for broader unifying theories that are the hallmark of more advanced
sciences. I will expand on this point in a future blog.
(2) Psychologists of my generation (old) may recognize
Behaviorist, S→R, psychology as a weak emergent system. Behaviorism dominated psychology in the English speaking academic
world for the first half of the 20th century. It was an attempt to account for behavior without recourse to the
soul, the psyche, or “the little voice in your head,” using instead only two mechanisms, classical and operant
conditioning. It ultimately failed because it assumed that all behavior could, in principle, be broken down into its component
conditioned reflexes, a weak emergent system, when, in fact, behavior is a strong emergent system. The failure of the Behaviorist
experiment dates from the moment researchers tried to account for conscious experience and social behavior in terms of S→R
conditioning. The elaborate circumlocutions this required exposed the implausibility of the entire effort, but it was not
without value. As misguided as Behaviorism seemed to its critics, it taught psychologists that they could study cognition
without recourse or deference to mystical concepts of mind, which set the stage for the development of modern cognitive science.
(3) This doesn’t necessarily mean that the system learns, in any intentional
sense. It merely means that the system is changed by its reactions to the environmental properties it encounters so that it
is not precisely the same on each encounter. This learning by evolution may look like learning by intention, but it is more
mechanical than is implied by intention.
(4) This also dooms the idea of optimal decision aids, no reductionist
system for decomposing decisions into components, evaluating each component separately, and then recomposing the whole in
order to derive the best decision can hope to capture the richness of unaided decision making—with the result that decision
makers are uncomfortable with and distrust the aids. This is why I insist that the decision aids in the latter chapters of
The Book are merely approximations—merely advisory to the decision maker’s own decision processes, something to
get things started in the right direction but soon to be overwhelmed by events that may lead in other directions. It is the
search for a weak emergence system for decision making that led both economics and behavioral decision research into the thicket
instead of to the Promised Land. The focus on computational models, which usually requires weak emergence to make them tractable,
led to an underappreciation and deprecation of human decision processes and, for that matter, of human cognition in general.
(5) I really think that we’d all be better scientists if we more greatly
admired—and were more humbled by—the phenomena we attempt to understand. Perhaps we should begin by rejecting
the arrogant assumption that they are necessarily understandable, acknowledging instead that even our best efforts will yield
only pale approximations to the phenomena themselves.
Culture and Paradigm Availability (4/11)
Recall that narrative thinking serves well for much moment to moment, day to day thinking, but it doesn’t do
well when complex, detailed thinking is required. Over the eons, humans have devised cognitive tools, called paradigms, for
overcoming these limits. Some paradigms are trivial; how to flush a toilet or tie your shoes. Some are intimidatingly complicated;
subatomic physics or musicology. Most require instruction and practice in order to be used effectively.
It is reasonable to
assume that each of these paradigms had its origins in the efforts of one person trying to solve a problem or just observing
something that led him or her to think about things in a new way. It may have resulted from need; perhaps for ways to more
effectively kill dangerous prey, eventuating in techniques for making spear points, in the course of time others built upon
this to produce arrows, eventuating in all manner of weapons. It may have resulted from curiosity; perhaps from following
the movement of celestial bodies night after night, eventuating in theories about the heavens and celestial navigation. It
may have resulted from a happy accident; perhaps inadvertent drooling into a bowl of cactus juice and discovering the joys
of fermentation, eventuating in tequila and Scotch whiskey. Similarly, accidentally dropping a hunk of newly killed prey into
the fire and discovering the benefits of cooked meat eventuated in haut cuisine and pre-game barbeques.
primordial personal paradigms may have solved the individual’s immediate problem, but their development usually began
in earnest when they were taken up by others, thus becoming public paradigms. Even then the course of their development has
often been slow and sporadic; the classic cases took centuries to evolve into the paradigms that constitute the curricula
of modern schools. Of course, not all public paradigms ended up in textbooks, usually only the most general
and more broadly applicable are included—like algebra or anatomy or sociology. The greater number by far, like how to
open an oyster or pluck a chicken or tie a bow, are passed on from one person to another and are available to everyone.
The paradigms that make
the textbooks are frequently too esoteric for everyday use and are in some sense “owned” by specialists. Mathematicians
own algebra, biologists own anatomy, social scientists own sociology; students may use them but they can’t tamper with
them. Some non-curricular paradigms, and paradigms that derive from those in the curriculum, are quite literally the property
of specialists. Even before the advent of patent and copyright laws, people have struggled to maintain hegemony over paradigms.
Like medieval guilds before them, modern professions require lengthy apprenticeships and some form of licensing before one
can legitimately use their paradigms. Hegemony is financially and socially beneficial to the initiates, but it isn’t
necessarily sinister; you wouldn’t want just anyone claiming to be a surgeon or a civil engineer. Perhaps the oldest
and most ubiquitous of such guilds/professions is the priesthood—the professionals, in any religion, who control paradigms
for appeasing the gods and ensuring a comfortable afterlife.
My friend, Earl Hunt (University of Washington, Seattle) studies human cognitive abilities, primarily intelligence.
The thesis of his recent work is that societies differ in the access to training and knowledge that they provide (or permit)
their members and that this reflects itself in both the average measured intelligence of the members of that society and the
quality of life for the society as a whole. In Narrative Theory terms, societies differ in the access they provide (or permit)
to paradigms. For example, in many societies, women are not educated or, if they are, they are only taught paradigms that
are useful for maintaining a house and raising children. Even for men in these societies, education may consist primarily
of religious paradigms; occupational paradigms are learned through apprenticeships and informal means.
Societies that hobble
themselves in this way can be viewed as wasting the potential of their members, although they would, no doubt, cite other
values that justify such practices and argue that those values are being fulfilled. Nonetheless, from our Western viewpoint,
the waste seems wrong because it clearly thwarts economic development. Lest we condemn ourselves for our materialistic viewpoint,
we should note that many members of the societies of which we speak, particularly the young, share our conclusion, if not
our premise. Unrest about joblessness and economic stagnation is common in second and third world countries, and many of these
countries are examples of restricted access to paradigms, intentional or otherwise.
Erosion of restrictions is unlikely to be as rapid as popular unrest would suggest. This is because many people fail
to see the connection between the benefits that they want and the paradigms required to achieve them. Many, perhaps most,
of the benefits they crave result from application of technologies based upon modern physical and social science. Learning
and applying these technologies requires a scientific way of thinking that has come to permeate Western culture but that is
foreign to many other cultures’ ways of thinking. Even in the Western world, scientific thinking hits snags when it
is at odds with traditional culture. For example, Darwinian evolutionary theory is the foundation of modern biology. But,
even in the English speaking countries (Darwin’s own culture) there is widespread rejection of the theory because it
is perceived to contradict the traditional theological paradigm.
The power of easing restrictions on paradigm access is attested to by the recent economic fortunes of India, China,
and, on the down-side, Egypt. In an attempt to move forward economically, these countries expanded their basic educational
systems and built universities and technical training programs—often with help from Western institutions. The result
has been both good and bad. Good in that among young Indians and Chinese the level of education is increasingly high and economic
development has followed. Bad in that in both countries economic development has lagged behind education and there are fewer
jobs than people who are qualified to fill them. The over-supply of educated young people is particularly a problem in Egypt
and other Middle Eastern countries that have expanded education, however little, without providing ways for its graduates
to contribute to economic development. The discontent of these unemployed/underemployed young people has resulted in riots
that have temporarily, one hopes, endangered what economic development there is by frightening off foreign investment and
In The Book I cite universities as the Western world’s major repositories of and developers of culturally valued
paradigms. Currently, universities are undergoing a huge and important shift in how they define their responsibilities, and
I am afraid it isn’t altogether good. Universities
have long advocated education as a key to economic competitiveness for individuals, and they have provided instruction in
their store of paradigms for a mostly nominal tuition charge. Moreover, as the culture’s designated developers of the
paradigms that are in their care, they have made their new developments freely available through publicly accessible publications.
Of late, however, austerity and a dawning appreciation of the latent value of their paradigms have caused a shift in mission.
In the past, economic use of their paradigms by their graduates was regarded as a good thing but not the university’s
main concern. Now they want a cut of the action.
Excellence is increasingly
defined as profitability, either in student credit hours (tuition) or patents or business spin-offs, with the university as
a partner in the patents and businesses. This generates pressure on faculty to think of education and paradigm development
(research) in terms of productivity and dollars. They no longer can engage in wholly disinterested, unfettered intellectual
inquiry; it isn’t forbidden but it isn’t valued as much as economic productivity. The result is that universities
increasingly resemble industry—which they see themselves as being anyway. Well intended efforts are made to protect
the arts, but even they have to bring in money through admission fees for performances and galleries. Few speak for the classic
disciplines that archive the culture’s heritage--classics, literature, poetry, history—because they don’t
make money. In my view, this trend strikes directly at the core of universities as trustees for a culture’s paradigms.
Together with the splintering of the elementary system into
special interest charter schools, the subversion of the great public universities and the astronomic increases in their tuition
may signal the end of America’s greatest and most successful experiment, free universal public education. Perhaps the
splintering of the elementary school system was inevitable; we overburdened it will responsibilities for curing too many social
ills. But, when public schools are gone, when the classics have largely fled the universities, what will provide the culturally
unifying education that public education provided? And, can a society as diverse as ours survive without it?