Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development
reviewed by Val Rust - 1970
Title: Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development
Author(s): William G. Perry, Jr.
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.), New York
ISBN: , Pages: 256, Year: 1970
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Essentially everyone agrees that basic changes in intellectual habits and values should take place with students during their stay in college. Prior to the nineteenth century the curriculum of institutions was uniform for all students, and these changes could easily be defined in terms of skills and information which were acquired by all. Those individuals who possessed a liberal education were simply those who had successfully completed a program at a recognized university. With the breakdown of standard programs into widely disparate and unrelated disciplines, educators began resorting to catch phrases, such as ability to think, heightened sensitivity, or extended horizons to describe a liberally educated individual. In actual practice, however, educators continued to rely upon a definition of liberal education in terms of courses taken and subject-matter competence, and as a field of study gained in stature, its proponents would demand that this course of studies be recognized as appropriate in imparting a liberal education. The more recent emphasis upon "general education" requirements and "core-courses" has been a very poor substitute for a clear definition of the fundamental changes in thinking and valuing which should occur with students.
The plight of the situation is well demonstrated by the studies which have been conducted on attitude changes that take place in college. Inevitably, these studies assess student value changes and then attempt to define the goals of higher education in terms of these changes. A fundamental weakness in higher education becomes evident when we resort to a search for value changes and then define the purpose of the university in terms of whatever changes we are able to find.
Even those more enlightened professors who have attempted to move beyond simple subject-matter acquisition and discipline development and who are concerned with thinking, values, and sensitivities, are all too often caught in a web as illiberal as their skills-oriented colleagues. Such a condition becomes especially evident when they are called upon to make judgments on the positions their students assume. Typically students are told that their professor doesn't really care which position is argued, but that the student will be examined on the internal logic, cohesiveness, and breadth of that argument. In short, the professor has traditionally tried to dismiss his own prejudices and personal values from the judgmental process, or at least he has tried to make his students feel he has. The painful truth of the matter, however, is that professors really are human, and if they were honest, they would admit that they tend to judge the student who argues a sympathetic position more favorably than the student who argues well a position which he finds distasteful. One primary fault of such a tendency has been the professor's inability to define fully what should happen to a student as he progresses through his college years. Anyone who has concerned himself with such a process realizes the void which exists in terms of actual empirical and even theoretical data. It is for this reason that William G. Perry, Jr., has made a distinctive contribution to higher education as he presents a scheme for tracing the Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years.
Perry has followed students through their college program at Harvard for two decades. He invites them to come in annually and discuss their personal situation in college, and he tapes these non-directive attempts at personal reflection on the part of students. Perry conceives student development in two major divisions, although his main line of development is subdivided into nine basic positions. Successful students proceed from position to position, moving from a thought form of dualistic absolutism toward acceptance of generalized relativism, while other students either "temporize, escape, or retreat" somewhere during their course of growth. The successful student ultimately orients himself to a world in which man's knowing and valuing are viewed as relative in time and circumstance, and the student continues to progress if he meets the challenge of personal responsibility for choice and affirmation of life. In other words, the successful student not only reorients his thought form, but he also consciously undertakes a personal commitment to a well-defined way of life.
Perry's ideal of relativism as a universal value is very appealing, although it seems that such an ideal in itself is insufficient. Existentialism is an example of such an ideal, but that point of view suggests a radical freedom which eventuates into pure arbitrariness and may be just as meaningless as the radical dualism it is reacting against.
Still another caution of relativism can be found among certain cultures in developing countries. These cultures recognize the absence of ultimate standards, but they are so committed to their own self-validating truths that anything which does not conform to traditional standards is looked upon with disdain and is not even entertained for its potential value. However strongly we presently feel the need to stress relativism as a necessary step in academic growth, we must at the same time recognize that the need is culture bound, and its appropriateness requires constant reassessment.
Although Perry recognizes the limits of his own study, I would concur with him that his scheme promises relevance to procedures of selection, curriculum design, classroom teaching, and advising. Under any circumstance it provides solid substance for all in the academic community to reflect upon.