The Paradigm Shift

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ and gave us the phrase ‘paradigm shift.’ It was soon everywhere; it migrated from science into pop culture. Any change in fashion, art, music or politics was described as a paradigm shift. Whenever language that begins as technical jargon crosses the line into popular culture, it’s a sign that culture is ready to learn something. Often, it’s a moment to take something serious and dress is up in a new suit, just for a bit more fun. Think of television icon Fred Rogers taking off his jacket and putting on his sweater; there’s a shift.

A paradigm shift could be Rogers taking off his jacket and the rest of his clothes and putting on a bathing suit (did you know Rogers swam, almost everyday? It was his favorite exercise.) That’s a change that seems to follow from the previous example, but takes us into unexpected territory.

So, framing a scientific revolution as a paradigm shift was Kuhn’s way of expressing it. I doubt he imagined, while writing, that he’d be contributing buzz words to pop culture. It’s an ideal example of an ideal example. 

While there’s a notable bit of outrage on social media ( a.k.a. the insanity factory) about a change in the curriculum at our high school, I’m excited about the promotion of ethnic studies, and I’m hoping it could be the door to the future. 

Because we really can’t take for granted right now that there will be a future. I’m all in favor of educating everyone just as broadly as we can, because that is where new ideas can happen. 

Formal education – high school, university – typically doesn’t love new ideas. In the past, it’s been about reading the classics, and staying in the designated lane set up for whatever course of study or work, and doing what your professors did in decades past. I was recently reading an essay by a doctor who had despaired of the fact that he had to take Organic Chemistry to qualify for med school. It was traditional, but a bit sideways; his teacher noted that “you don’t need to know organic chemistry to be a doctor, you just need it to get into medical school.” What the student discovered was that organic chemistry requires you to be able to hold lots of disparate and seemingly unrelated facts in your mind at the same time, and THAT is actually very helpful for the practice of medicine. Nowhere in his instruction was he given this key. 

So, by pushing Ethnic Studies to the front, rather than leaving it off to the side, our local students will have the enormous advantage of being able to see the world from perspectives different from their own, and know that those perspectives are equally valid. 

While I’m hearing people express a ‘post-pandemic’ longing for things to be normal, the fact is that there is no such thing as normal. If we are going to have a future, we need to change a lot. Not in small, cautious increments, but in large, sweeping differences. That’s hard. For people who have been through trauma, just hanging on to the status quo seems like all we can do. Anything that threatens the status quo looks suspiciously like more trauma. 

Kuhn describes a scientific revolution as “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.” Reading Chinua Achebe, Clarice Lispector or Haruki Murakami is not going to hinder anyone’s study of English, it’s going to increase the understanding of it exponentially. While we might think we don’t really need this, like Organic Chemistry, it could be vital in an utterly unexpected way.

Shifting the previous standards of education might be the paradigm shift that opens the door. 

Judith Martin-Straw  





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