Monday, June 26, 2006

Immaturity increasing: Academics as kids?

Neoteny describes a process by which paedomorphism is achieved – in neoteny, the physiological (or somatic) development of an animal or organism is slowed or delayed. So adults retain child characteristics.

Biologist Bruce Charleton argues that higher education is making people less psychologically mature. The modern world is unstable so a psychological neoteny effect – retention of childlike flexibility of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge - means adults never mature. Formal education, although continuing past physical maturity, leaves adults with immature minds.


‘The psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product — the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity. But formal education requires a child-like stance of receptivity to new learning, and cognitive flexibility. When formal education continues into the early twenties it probably, to an extent, counteracts the attainment of psychological maturity, which would otherwise occur at about this age’.

In hunter-gatherer societies, maturity was probably achieved during a person’s late teens or early twenties but modern adults, particularly highly-educated and socially-valuable people, fail to attain this maturity.

‘People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.’

Charlton added that modern cultures favour cognitive flexibility so immature people thrive and succeed, setting the tone not only for contemporary life, but also for the future, when our genes may change as a result of the psychological shift.

The faults of youth are retained along with its virtues. These include the mixed virtue of impulsiveness (as argued before), sensation and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness.

David Brooks, in Bobos in Paradise documents a related phenomenon concerning the current blurring of the bourgeois world of capitalism and the bohemian counterculture. Brookes believes people have lost the wisdom and maturity of their bourgeois predecessors due to emphasis on expertise, flexibility and vitality.

Are your colleagues neotenic? Are you? Not me!

Flag Tim Blair.

6 comments:

P.A. Coplay said...

What is meant by maturity? I am not sure what is the alternative state (and what its attractiveness is). In "The Glass Bead Game" by Herman Hesse almost the opposite is argued - the equivalent of a university (and its equivalents including sections of the Catholic Church) is almost a haven for wisdom and other virtues (which I would have thought were a part of maturity even if "not of the world"). I think there is something to this - particularly when observing some older academics or some particularly high-performing ones.

hc said...

p.a.c., I guess the idea is that the ceaseless question for new ideas makes you a bit unstable as well as being overspecialised. You'll note that the author does see net social advantage from academics. But at Tim Blair's blog conservatism rules - it's all negative - academics are impractical nurds with poor people skills.

I think its partially true but being an academic is probably not the worst thing in the world to be.

I am mainly interested in the effects of modern social change on impulsiveness and discounting. Its hard to judge but are we becoming more myopic? I think probably so.

civitas said...

"But at Tim Blair's blog conservatism rules - it's all negative - academics are impractical nurds with poor people skills."

I think it's more that academics, present company excluded of course, are out of touch with non-academic life. Often you'll find them arguing that what works in real life won't work in theory. See any academic discussing the welfare system in the US, for example.

EVen many university students recognize that little real world experience often leads to a herd mentality among academics. Perhaps the ivory tower was not meant to be a lifestyle but merely a stopping place for some period of time. People do make fun of academics for this ivory tower mentaility, and that's not nice. But there is an element of truth to it.

hc said...

Civitas, I find academics specialised people who are sometimes not that intelligent - I am not pointing the finger, I apply this dictum to myself. Academics will pursue an issue relentlessly whereas to others it is just a 'view' or an 'argument'.

The tradeoff is that this persistence can make them other-worldly. I am not sure it is an avoidable character flaw.

Anonymous said...

JC, are you so specialised that you label the behaviour of corporate managers as academic?

Corporate managers - CEOs - relentlessly pursue one issue; profits. But,when viewed objectively, profits are nothing but real numbers. How intelligent is it to pursue bigger and bigger real numbers when everybody outside the marble towers knows that there is no end to it.

Anonymous said...

hc, I apologize for having made a typing error (jc instead of hc) in the above post. I am very sorry.