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“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

(Repost from conversationswithduckie October 23, 2012)

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

I stumbled upon this quote from H. D. Thoreau almost 10 years ago and it instantly became one of my favorites. Of course, this was mostly because I had a tendency to inconsistency in my arguments and was thrilled that somebody smart said that was OK!

But today, for the first time, I think I finally understand this quote. And why I love it.

To learn is to grow. And to grow, very often, is to change.

When babies and young children learn new things they undergo the complimentary processes of assimilation and accomodation (Piaget, 1936, 1957). Essentially, as children, we learn new things like what a ball is and all the things it can do. This is assimilation. We develop a framework for a concept, “ball”, and fill it in with things like roll, toy, bounce, play, be put in a circle-shaped hole, etc. We go along all happy and pleased with ourselves and our new discovery until we encounter something like an expensive glass ball table decoration, that breaks! (Who could have known?) And the several distraught adults who face us try, with varying degrees of calm and varying degrees of success, to explain how that ball is not a toy, and how we should never ever ever ever again play with the table decorations. (The what?)

And that’s when accomodation happens. Accomodation is the framework shift. The metaphorical rug getting pulled out from under us as we realise that what we thought was true about the world (balls are for playing) is not true (balls are not for playing).

Our job is to understand how this new ball-concept is different from the old one and to modify our cognitive frameworks (schemas) accordingly.

This is hard work. This can be upsetting. Babies have it rough.

In assimilation, we think we’re right. We feel that while we are learning, we basically understand the world and how it works. In accomodation, we see that we are wrong. We don’t understand. We must change something, but what? We must build a new framework, but how?

Luckily for us, by the time we reach adulthood, most of us have figured out the whole balls for playing versus not for playing distinction, and can go through most of our days and most of our lives learning things through the assimilation process.

However, sometimes we are faced with things that require accomodation again. (Oh, bother!) For example, we may think something like “conservative economic policies are the most appropriate response to the current financial crisis”. This is an assumption, a key part of the cognitive framework we use to operate in and learn about the world. This is all well and good, as long as nothing happens to come challenge this belief. Now I’m not silly enough to sit here and say that you’ll encounter any facts that make you change your mind; political beliefs are often above such petty things as facts anyway. But you may be put in a social situation where most people, smart people that you respect and think have good moral values, think that liberal economic policies are the best response. Now what?

There is a reason that most people don’t talk about assimilation and accomodation in adults, but only in children. That reason is that adults often just don’t accomodate anymore. Or at least not anywhere near as often as when they were children. Many of us will not change our assumptions about the world and how it works. We will change our situation so that it is not threatening to our assumptions (read: belief systems) instead.

But others will change their frameworks. They will say “Ah! New information!” or something to that effect, and they will modify their beliefs accordingly. Still others will have no choice as it is a move to a new country or a traumatic experience that changes their basic beliefs about the world. They will have to undergo the (often difficult) process of accomodation.

Now let’s get back to Thoreau.

A “foolish consistency” is one’s inability or refusal to accomodate. It is the “hobgoblin of little minds” because it restricts one’s ability to learn, to perceive, to process, and to incorporate new information into our intellectual life.

If to learn means to grow, and to grow means to change, refusal to change from a fear of appearing inconsistent is a refusal to learn.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

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