Dualism and Gradations

A few years ago I read an article about the cognitive development of the college student. It stood out to me because it described how students enter their undergraduate years with a dualistic view of the world. Through their 4 years of college, they progress through various stages that ultimately end up with them understanding their world as committed relativists.

I found myself returning to that developmental progression over and over again for multiple reasons. I have not returned to that particular article, though. As luck would so often have it, I never found it again nor could I ever recall the details of who gave it to me and why.

The fact that finding specific articles without citation information can be such an exercise in futility led me to resurrect a strategy for citation management that I adopted as a library school student but gave up as entirely too compulsive for normal human beings. More on that in another blog entry.

That I didn’t have a citation management system for articles I read and that I only remembered the broad details of the article are the reasons why I never found it again. So I went through the tedious process of identifying appropriate keywords and finally learned about the scholar whose work led to it.

It turns out the article I had read was built off the work of Harvard psychologist William G. Perry, Jr., published in 1970. He postulated 9 steps that undergraduate students go through in their cognitive development process .

Here’s a webpage (Perry’s Scheme by Macie Hall) that that describes more fully William G. Perry’s model of college students’ progression from dualism to committed relativism.

Here’s my take: students enter college seeing the world in terms of dualisms: yes/no, right/wrong, good/bad, do/don’t, the teacher said so/the teacher didn’t say so (dualism).

Then they start to recognize that there are more than 2 ways of seeing the world; there are actually multiple ways (multiplicity). And all those ways are equally valid.

Next they start to qualify the different ways of seeing the world; some are better than others, at least for the purposes of the given evaluator (relativism).

Finally, they decide on a way of seeing the world that satisfies themselves (commitment or committed relativism).

The fact that there are multiple ways of looking at any issue places that issue on a spectrum with gradients. The light is not actually on or off. It is off, barely on, dimly on, moderately on, very on, and fully on. And those qualifiers overlook the infinite ones in between them.

This is important. This is icandy. Sure the entire blog is called iCandybyWangC (wangc being my Arcadia University profile name) but icandy is the kind of thought that makes me want to jump up and share with someone else—like a Ghirardelli salted caramel chocolate. It’s the kind of thought that either puts together multiple thoughts I’ve already thunk or that is so altogether provocative that I can’t possibly ignore it and don’t dare forget it. Incidentally, intermediate thoughts that make me “whoa” but aren’t enough to make me “whoooooa” I call mental ingredients.

The fact is that I’d thought about how college students develop psychologically, behaviorally, intellectually, morally, socially, and politically, but never cognitively. Perry’s model may provide insight into why non-college-educated males and the rest of voting Americans vote so differently. “May” because there’s no assumption that all non-college-educated males vote homogeneously or that all other voting Americans vote the opposite. That’s the whole point of Perry’s model: it’s about relativism and degrees.

Here’s what that has to do with information literacy. Developing researchers want the perfect article, the correct database, the ideal keywords, and the exact search strategy. But they don’t exist. The topic, the assignment, the individual, even the course and faculty member shape the process of seeking literature. And the perfectness of any aspect will come in degrees. So it all depends.

Students who find the perfect article either have no reason to write anything or are plagiarizing.

The more a given student understands who comes to me for research assistance, the more confident I am of her or his literature research maturity. The greater the number of upper level students who come for assistance providing evidence of that understanding, the more confident I feel that we librarians and the higher education development process have made the necessary impact.

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