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Posts Tagged ‘piaget’


It’s been awhile. Lest you think I haven’t been blogging before yesterday, when my post about discernment went up—I have. I’ve been blogging in my head. And I’ve been blogging verbally to The Boy. The Boy is now about 6 and a half feet tall, has a beard, and is closing in on college graduation; I really need to find another name for him. When I’m blogging verbally he sometimes gets called “Bubba,” or “Boobala,” or “Sonny Jim,” or any of a myriad of other names, but never mind. I need to find something other than “The Boy” to call him online, but that’s a worry for another day.

Anyhoo, The Boy and I were talking about some family stuff, and how increasingly hard it is, in the days of Trump, to navigate the minefields we used to fondly call “conversations.” Because here’s the thing: many of my Nearest and Dearest and I see Trump, what Republicanism has become, and social issues from radically different perspectives.

This has been really, really hard on all of us.

Things recently reached a snapping point—the actual cause of the break was something irrelevant to this conversation, but after the echoes of the hard words had faded and I’d had a little time to reflect, The Boy and I were sorting through the schism that, since Sarah Palin was a candidate, really, has become what I fear is a continental split. As he often does, he mentioned something he’d been reading about in his Ed Psych class: Piaget’s theory on how one reconciles one’s view of reality with one’s daily experience. According to Piaget, we tend to do this in one of two ways: We might interpret our experience so it conforms with our view of reality—assimilation—or we might modify our view of reality based on our experiences—accommodation.

So why does this matter? Well, because it turns out that how we process new information has a lot to do with the world in which we live. Because I’m a picture-maker, I’ve made a couple illustrations to help make the difference between the two ways of processing information:

assimilationAssimilators start out with a fixed core belief (that’s the big white box in the middle of the yellow box), and a solid framework into which they fit new information (that’s the light yellow box). Information (all the other colored geometric shapes falling into the box) must fit into the the space between a rigid framework, and around the non-negotiable fixed core beliefs. If the information fits, it gets slotted in. If it doesn’t fit, it’s either pruned to fit within the framework, or simply discarded.

For example, take the age of the earth. An assimilator might start out with the core belief that the Bible is literally historically true in every aspect. This is non-negotiable. Therefore, all information provided by carbon dating, the geologic record, and everything else is discarded (“You can’t trust that carbon dating”) or mutilated (“Dinosaurs co-existed with Adam, Eve, and their descendants”).

For assimilators, core beliefs and the fixed frame work never change in any real way. At the end of life, an assimilators beliefs are pretty much indistinguishable from her beliefs at the time she adopted them. Unshakable core beliefs and a rigid framework characterize the assimilator’s world. This is seen as being faithful to the “faith of one’s fathers.” Of course, assimilation plays into other systems as well–note the insistence from the GOP that a real investigation was not necessary in the Kavanaugh hearings, and is not necessary in the current impeachment hearings. For assimilators that central belief shapes everything, for good or ill.

accommodation copy
Accommodators, on the other hand, start out with no unshakable beliefs (see? no big white box here), and no rigid framework (note the dotted lines around the yellow area). They may have provisional beliefs and a rough outline, but for them, reality evolves as they gain new information and accommodate themselves to integrate it into their worldview. That yellow area is completely mutable; as information comes in it’s examined and, if found credible, added to the box–and the box shifts, changes shape,  and grows. Accommodators are energized by an evolving view of reality.

To go back to our examples, accommodators might start out with a “young earth” view of earth’s history, but as carbon dating and geologic information and archeological information comes in they evaluate it, absorb what they find credible, and say, “You know, biblical authors and interpreters maintain the earth is only 6000 years old, but they also maintain that the sky is a hard shell over a flat earth. Modern science indicates that the earth is much older than that, and the sky is anything but a hard bowl and we know the earth is round. Can we reconcile those two things? If so, how?” And then they figure out some kind of accommodation that allows them to understand their previous belief within the new context.

Accommodators likewise pushed for fuller investigations, more data, and better evaluation in the Kavanaugh hearings–and are doing the same in the current impeachment trial. Rather than starting from the non-negotiable core belief in Kavanaugh’s suitability for the Supreme Court or Trump’s innocence, they started with a number of disparate facts. From them, they constructed a thesis that fit those facts. But, because they are accommodators, they did–and do–not stop there. They continue to push for more facts, for better understanding, and ultimately, for a reality that accommodates all the verifiable facts.

In short, assimilation is about safety, about sticking with the known. Accommodation is about risk-taking, exploring frontiers, and pushing them back.

Which is better? It depends. This isn’t a matter of right or wrong; it’s about the way we understand our world. Where understanding this becomes crucial is when we start looking at how the two ways of understanding reality shape things like economic, environmental and health policy, Supreme Court Justice confirmations, and impeachment votes.

In each case, the GOP has declared themselves unabashed Assimilators–they begin with an unshakable conviction–if you work hard enough you can get rich; the environment is tough; it can take whatever we throw at it; if you live right you won’t get too sick; Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed; Donald Trump should be acquitted in the Senate. In each, facts have been deemed either irrelevant or part of a liberal conspiracy.

Does this matter? Yes, I think it matters a lot. I find the idea of declaring truth in the absence of reliable evidence repugnant. Why? Because declaring reality in the absence of evidence does not work. Reality is discovered by exploration, not declared by fiat.
And yet we are dealing with a a President, a Senate, and a substantial number of fellow citizens who seem perfectly fine with declaring reality in all sorts of areas. We’ve seen the CDC muzzled both financially and linguistically–there are certain words the CDC has been forbidden to use, words like “fetus,” “abortion,” and so on. We have seen environmental regulations gutted in favor of industry, and the gutting defended by a simple, unsuupported denial. We have seen the science wing of the government decimated. We have seen social and economic policy become ever more punitive for those at the bottom.

The nation is being run by assimilators, and assimilators’ rigid worldview and fixed core beliefs mean that there’s an awful lot of information simply being discarded. But here’s the thing: Discarding, suppressing, or massaging facts to fit comfortably into one’s rigid world view does not affect the laws of cause and effect. Our financial structures are increasingly forcing many of us down, rather than up the financial ladder. Pollutants still sicken and kill too many people. Sometimes even really good people get terribly, terribly sick. The world continues to warm. No amount of denial will change Trump’s past actions. No amount of shouting made Brett Kavanaugh a more palatable nominee.

So why aren’t we all accommodators? Well, accommodation may be exciting, and it might create a “sky’s the limit’ world, but it can also be scary. The assimilators’ box might be restrictive, but it’s also pretty supportive. It can be nice to have “filled your box.” You can stop exploring, evaluating, learning, and adjusting to meet a reality in flux. You can snuggle down on your box and look smugly out at all of the accommodators, still struggling to sort out what they find worthy of belief, let alone build it into any kind of edifice. You have control. Or at least you think you do.

The reality seems to be that we live in an expanding universe. Knowledge is never complete. There is always another horizon, another challenge to meet. In the end, assimilation fails because it rejects new information. By clinging to discredited theories and outdated beliefs, assimilators end up living in tiny black boxes, set into the midst of an amazing, vibrant, ever-expanding world. And they don’t even know what they’re missing.

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