PARADIGM SHIFT

by
Chris Maser

No idea is so antiquated that it was not once modern. No idea is so modern that it will not someday be antiquated. — Ellen Glasgow, American author.


Cultural evolution expresses itself through changing values. Culture is not genetically inherited. It can only be learned from the past, modified in the present, and passed on to future generations. The notion of culture poses two questions:  (1) What happens when the evolution of culture tears the social fabric with great force because of a shift in values in one part of society? and (2) How do we heal the social rupture that results from such a shift in cultural values?

Trying to answer these questions helps me put my idea of a paradigm shift in context with my understanding of a profession as a microcosm of societal dynamics, such as forestry in the United States, which is relatively young, rich in experience, and was noble in its early vision. But the vision of its inception—once on the cutting edge of social responsibility, science, and "correctness" for its time—has dimmed, and is rapidly being relegated to cultural history. Be that as it may, prior to casting out an old paradigm, wisdom dictates that we have a new one to take its place.

Each new paradigm is built on a shift of insight, a quantum leap of intuition, with only a modicum of hard, scientific data. Those who cling to the old way often demand irrefutable, scientific proof that change is needed, but such proof is seldom available to the "diehard's" satisfaction. Ironically, however, today's old way of thinking was yesterday's new way of thinking, which was challenged by an even older way of thinking to prove change was necessary or even desirable.

Time and human effort have proven the old paradigm to be more "correct" in terms of contemporary knowledge than its predecessor, but still only partially "correct." So it is with the new; it too will be more "correct" than the old and will eventually be proven to be only partially "correct," hence in need of change.

The personal and professional trap of every paradigm lies in its self-limiting nature, which manifests itself when the paradigm becomes too comfortable. At that point, new data cannot fit into the old way of thinking, which has grown rigid with tradition and hardened with age. It is thus necessary to periodically crack open an old belief system if a new thought-form is to enter and grow, moving both the individual and the profession forward in a renewed sense of authenticity in keeping with the cultural times.

Moving forward may be difficult for those whose belief system and personal identity is totally invested in the old paradigm, wherein their perception is vested in the cobwebs of the past, which preclude seeing any reason for change. For those who subscribe to a new paradigm, moving forward is easier, because there is something exciting and novel toward which to move—an opening vista that hints at what the profession must become, a vista more in tune with the knowledge and understanding of the day. Yet those who harbor the new ideas are not better as human beings just because their views differ from those who cling to the old patterns of thought.

The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, asked the critical question:  "Why did 26 great civilizations fall?" The answer, he concluded, was that the people would not, or believed they could not, change their way of thinking to meet the changing conditions of their world.

Thus, a profession can move forward only to the extent that individuals within the profession accept new philosophies and practices as demanded by a rapidly changing culture. No profession can remain the same. Those who feel they cannot accept new ideas must—and will—fall by the wayside. The constant evolution of culture decrees that every new paradigm will eventually be replaced by one more correct in terms of contemporary knowledge. And we must bear in mind that now is always a time of change, because change is a universal constant.


Nothing is so soothing to our self-esteem as to find our bad traits in our forebears. It seems to absolve us. — Van Wyck Brooks, American Author


©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.

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