“You’re Just Plain Wrong (And Probably Evil)”: Adult Intellectual Development

Culture, Education — By on February 18, 2013 at 7:00 am

“It gives them an excuse to push their own agenda on guns,” the words rolled out from under his mustache while he leaned back in his chair, agitated. “I think they’re glad it happened.” Glad it happened? I reeled a little with disbelief. How could he possibly think so?

There are three stages to the intellectual growth in adults (according to Perry’s scheme of development.)

In the first, all is black and white. The first stage means entering a math class and wanting the teacher to hand you formuli to memorize, but not wondering who wrote the formuli or why they work. All the facts of a discipline are unquestioned, and people in the first level tend to get irritated by professors who problematize or contextualize information. Think of the Pharisees, who have trouble acknowledging anything beyond the letter of the law.

In the second stage of development, adult learners swing to the other extreme. Challenged by enough cases where the rules don’t hold, they throw out all the rules. All knowledge becomes opinion, and there is no reason for one opinion to be more valid than another.

In the third and final stage of development, adult learners recognize that, though there are a variety of opinions, some views are more valid, more coherent, and more supported by evidence than others. In this stage, there are many ideas that reasonable people may hold, but one is the most true, and that is the view the adult adopts.

This development framework explains quite a bit. For instance, years ago, I assigned an elementary student an essay on the pros and cons of school uniforms. Opposed to uniforms, she spun one-dimensional and sometimes almost evil arguments on her opponent’s behalf. The implication was clear: to hold the opposite view from her own, someone would have to be the devil himself. Developmentally, this makes sense; the suggestion that someone might sympathize with her opponent appears to someone in the first stage of development as a call to switch sides.

To my mind, refusal to acknowledge legitimate aspects of opposing views reveals small faith in or understanding of one’s own view. After all, if the only thing you can imagine being better than is Satan, this doesn’t suggest a very high opinion of your own viewpoint.

As the adult’s understanding of the truth of her own view becomes big enough and strong enough to do battle against intelligent counter-arguments and still come out the winner, her understanding reveals genuine rooting in reality. If they believe their view is smarter than a smart view, they generally reveal more faith and understanding than those who believe their view is smarter than a stupid view.

So, what about this mustachioed, agitated young fellow?

If I ask him to acknowledge the non-Satan-hood of his opponent, he will think I’m asking him to switch sides, since his world is built on extremes. The only thing to be done is to ask him to move forward, to build a more intelligent understanding of others’ views and, so, of his own. Revealing respect for an opposing viewpoint is the only way to convince me that you genuinely understand and believe in your own.


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  • Chris

    Thank you for this post. I found it very enlightening. However, so as not to fall prey to the first stage of adult intellectual development, might I ask how you established this method? Is it based upon psychological theory?

  • Alicia

    I’m glad you found it helpful. And, that’s a good and important question; I borrowed the three stages from William Perry’s development scheme. My interactions with his work have all been second-hand – class lectures and sections of the book “What the Best College Teachers Do” – so I’m more familiar with the concepts than his original research. I believe he examined the cognitive abilities and orientations of undergraduates over the course of several years.

  • nb nb

    The problem, and hense the solution, lies not in how the adult develops their argument but in how the person develops to and attains the level of adult. Too many times the discussions are on the level of maybe 2nd graders who resort to tactics of my dad can whoop your dad, and if that is not gaining ground use name calling to attempt to lower the field to a school playground. I will be sharing this with my high school and college students! Thanks.