Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Landscape of Silos.

Going off to college I was anything but prepared for what to expect. On my arrival in my dormitory the first person I met asked me what my major was going to be.

"What's a major?" I asked.

Within an hour I was at the campus bookstore studying a course catalog to get a clear definition of Major. The editors of the catalog assumed as well the reader would know what a Major was.

Eventually I selected a major, not by any single decision I'd made but by scores of decisions I'd made along the way. Exploring and sampling everything I found interesting, in my third year at the university I received a letter in the mail informing me that I had to declare a major in order to graduate. The next day I went to the Registrar's Office in the Smoot Administration Building and asked to see a copy of my transcript. Beyond the required general graduation requirements I had taken additional classes in economics, English, math, art, engineering, chemistry, geography, philosophy, history. And probably others I can't think of as I make these notes.

Adding up the hours in the various courses I'd taken in the previous semesters, I discovered I'd accumulated the most credits in psychology, nearly enough to declare a major already. That settled it. My own curiosity and interest pattern had answered the question for me. I would be a psychology major. I had no idea, gave no thought whatsoever, to how that would translate into a job or a career, but it solved the problem for the moment.

Learning Theory, Perception, Motivation, Psychological Statistics, Experimental Design, Physiological Psychology, Developmental Psychology--it was all interesting to me. Each was a discrete field of study, with no hint that they may be connected with each other beyond sharing a common department in the university.

Silos of knowledge.

Each taught by a professor who was a recognized expert in the field, with a curriculum vita and a roster of research projects documenting specialized expertise. Some more interesting, inspiring or effective teachers than the others, all clearly knew what they were talking about. At a more detailed and broader level of involvement, this pattern continued into graduate studies, with specific areas of the field of psychology separated into readily identifiable research groups. Of course professors knew each other collegially but there wasn't the slightest suggestion that they had thought of coordinating their fields of expertise.

While I was accumulating a basic knowledge of the working parts of the field, this was exactly what I needed. With time, however, it seemed natural to me to wonder how these disparate fields tied together. Academic, formalized support of this curiosity was random and haphazard. Communication theory appeared at first to hold out hope for some theory of integration, as did the notion of symbolic interactionism, in the field of sociology. But my interest in these soon waned, with neither field approaching the level of comprehensiveness I seemed to be searching for. Too abstract for where I was at the time.

I settled into the burgeoning field of family systems theory, newly forming but asking questions in line with my interests. Though the word dynamics was occasionally used, there was really no energy, no movement, no dynamism to the way it was thought of. It was just another aspect to be analyzed.

Then came my turning point, and from a most unlikely source. A report published in a mostly dry and academic professional journal, Psychological Review.

Published in May, 1968, A reinterpretation of the direction of effects in studies of socialization detonated an explosion of recognition in my consciousness, an awareness that someone in this vast field of study had finally recognized--and succeeded in publishing--Life. Here's the shocking, profound point of the research: We've agreed that parenting styles have an effect on children. But wait! Babies also influence their parents!

Science discovers the existence of water, air and fire! That this was such a profoundly disturbing concept is the best way to get a glimpse of the nature of psychological truth in the 1960s. And the basis of the curiosity and the drive that took me so passionately deeper and wider, continuing to this springtime day 46 years later.

With discovery of this paper the direction of my personal and professional life was altered, determined. The course was set. My doctoral supervisory committee and my published research were to be focused on social psychology, with an emphasis on social systems theory and practice. My life's work would become understanding at least some elements of this complex field, and sharing those findings to as wide an audience as my limited resources allowed.

I was not alone in experiencing this revelatory work. The forces it unleashed in the entire model of human development and behavior took a previously young and undeveloped analytic model and provided the stimulus it need, energy that continues to this day to ripple through the American consciousness, permeate the scientific establishment, influence the education and management spheres, underpin military and political thinking. It was a harbinger of the coming revolution in psychological thinking and practice.

Yet this was not an idea that was marketed to the public, adopted for professional distribution by the power of economics, seen as a sexy, powerful avenue forward. It was simply an idea whose time had come. Years later it was a matter of true inspiration to read Richard Bell's description of how this unlikely professional report came to be

Thus began my journey to understanding the connectedness of life.

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