Shield and Shackle: The Paradox of Human Development Within Universities

In “Do Universities Retard the Development of Their Faculty?” (October 21, 2012), David Goldberg highlights a seldom-observed consequence of the modern academic organism.  Drawing on his review of literature in the field of adult psychological development, also known as constructive-developmental psychology, Goldberg concludes (in my own words) that universities’ focus on securing and strengthening knowledge comes at the expense of their own faculty members’ acquisition of greater wisdom.  Goldberg laments this limitation on an individual faculty member’s “yearnings to develop and move beyond the bounds of [Expert stage of development, as described by Jane Loevinger et al.].”

Inspired by such authors as Bill Plotkin and Margaret Wheatley, and roused to action by the current era’s well-documented, unprecedented complexity, I join Goldberg’s lamentation while suggesting a subtly different view of universities, a perspective informed by abundant appreciation for their gifts to humankind as well as their limitations:

Humankind is experiencing need for capacities greater than those cultivated by universities up until now.  Like a skeleton or a particular genetic sequence, today’s universities support certain forms of development and prevent others.  Their strengths are, paradoxically, also their weakness.  We ought to consider generating wholly new organizational structures, as well variations within universities, to support individual development beyond Expert stage.

Hooray for Universities and Education!

Let’s truly celebrate the contribution of universities to our species’ development of the capacity for self-authorship.  Once upon a time – and even today in some places on Earth – education has sought to generate sufficient knowledge and wisdom for a child only to conform to social expectations and not to exceed them.  Many girls and women today feel the press of this expectation more tightly than do boys and men.

Yet today, we largely take for granted the pursuit of intellectual independence, whether by man or by woman, if undertaken for the sake of discovering scientific truths that happen to contradict the prevailing mindset.  To an extent greater than before the advent of universities, parents today encourage their children to leave home, learn about the world, and strike out on their own independent paths.

Our educational systems and their flagships, universities, serve as defenders of both expertise and Expert-ism.  They form bulwarks against a society’s Diplomat-ist tendency to hold students and faculty alike within the constraints of deference, politeness, or social station.  We ought to appreciate the great evolutionary gift universities have given to our species: Universities have secured an individual’s right to develop an independent sense of self amid a world of tangled human commitments, statuses, and proprieties.

A Design Feature, not a Flaw

Seen in this light, we can return to the question of “retarded development” for university faculty with a fresh perspective.  Universities do not fail at the task of developing their faculty members (or students, or communities) to later stages of development so much as they excel at promoting development up to Expert stage.

Indeed, setting aside some approaches to continuing education, universities have accepted no developmental task beyond consolidating their learners at Expert stage.  The learning contract involves students absorbing data, acquiring a technique, or otherwise expanding their knowledge without having to change the fundamental ways in which they make sense out of the world.

Further, universities largely presume that their faculty members already possess Expert meaning-making capacities, and universities generally accept no claim to existence for the purpose of transforming the mindsets of their faculty-as-faculty (versus faculty-as-learners).  The faculty contract involves professors researching external and immutable truths, publishing communications about those truths, and imparting those insights to learners enrolled in their courses – all of which, I hasten to add, is noble, honorable, necessary, and transformative work in its own way.  Yet today’s complexity also demands inter-systemic capacities that conventional psychological frameworks cannot hold.

Ignore, Grow, or Evolve: Three Structural Options for Humanity’s Developmental Future

If we can agree that universities meet a crucial developmental need for our species, and if we can agree that they have not, up until now, met other vital needs, what options exist? I see three options for a way forward:

  • Universities can continue to ignore, actively discourage, or forcibly remove individuals who seek to develop maturity or wisdom beyond the Expert stage.  Such people, after all, just don’t fit fully within the organizations’ mission.  This is the current reality Goldberg describes, a future in which universities neither acknowledge nor adopt a mission of post-conventional psychological development.

Perhaps universities will assert that their way of approaching development is the only right way forward, that Expert mindsets crown the pinnacle of human sense-making.  Eventually, experience and universities’ own scientific Expert-driven data will require the abandonment of these beliefs, and the other stages of grief will follow.

  • Universities can choose to grow programs or approaches that address later-stage developmental needs for their adult members.  To some extent, Goldberg recommends this option, which I see resembling a genetic variation, the sprouting of a new appendage to meet an emerging need.

Some universities may choose to distinguish themselves by opening centers devoted to adult development within their communities.  This would be welcome news.  Most, however, are unlikely to experiment in that direction anytime soon; it just wouldn’t fit within today’s existing missions, funding conditions, or social support.

  • Communities of learning can evolve by creating new organizations outside the university structure. Communities could leave to universities the developmental task of supporting Expert-stage consolidation and raise up new structures, new “skeletons,” to address a new environmental demand of challenging and supporting individuals who seek to cultivate greater capacities.

The immediate barriers to this option are its novelty and consequent confusion about its meaning; resistance from people invested in the established way who might perceive a new species of organism as a threat; and paucity of available models to aid in initiating, crafting, explaining, or understanding a viable structure.

Whether through growth of experimental variants or through generation of wholly new structures, I expect our species to meet evolutionary demands by transcending the limited capacities of today’s universities.  The forms of that transformation will emerge only through our shared efforts.

Graham Segroves is an organizational change consultant and leadership development coach whose DevelopmentLens blog seeks to cultivate post-conventional perspectives on the human experience.  Cross-posted on DevelopmentLens.com