William Perry's
Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development

A journey along the 9 "Perry" positions (as modified by Belenky et al. 1986)

William J. Rapaport

Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Department of Philosophy,
and Center for Cognitive Science
State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260-2500

Last Update: Saturday, 22 December 2018

Note: NEW or UPDATED material is highlighted

On the Web (with links, underlined in printed versions) at https://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/perry-positions.html

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Introduction and Caveat: What follows is a highly oversimplified outline. You are urged to read Perry's original book and article or any of the other literature referenced at the end of this document. Or you can contact the folks at the Perry Network. For more details and some other material, see my Powerpoint slide shows.

William Perry claimed (and his claims have been substantiated by subsequent research) that college students (but others, too) "journey" through 9 "positions" with respect to intellectual (and moral) development. These stages can be characterized in terms of the student's attitude towards knowledge. The 9 positions, grouped into 4 categories, are:

  1. Dualism/Received Knowledge:
    There are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the sky, known to Authorities.

    1. Basic Duality:
      All problems are solvable;
      Therefore, the student's task is to learn the Right Solutions

    2. Full Dualism:
      Some Authorities (literature, philosophy) disagree;
      others (science, math) agree.
      Therefore, there are Right Solutions, but some teachers' views of the Tablets are obscured.
      Therefore, student's task is to learn the Right Solutions and ignore the others!

  2. Multiplicity/Subjective Knowledge:
    There are conflicting answers;
    therefore, students must trust their "inner voices", not external Authority.

    1. Early Multiplicity:
      There are 2 kinds of problems:
      • those whose solutions we know
      • those whose solutions we don't know yet
      (thus, a kind of dualism).
      Student's task is to learn how to find the Right Solutions.

    2. Late Multiplicity:
      Most problems are of the second kind;
      therefore, everyone has a right to their own opinion;
      some problems are unsolvable;
      therefore, it doesn't matter which (if any) solution you choose.

      Student's task is to shoot the bull.
      (Most freshman are at this position, which is a kind of relativism)

    At this point, some students become alienated, and either retreat to an earlier ("safer") position ("I think I'll study math, not literature, because there are clear answers and not as much uncertainty") or else escape (drop out) ("I can't stand college; all they want is right answers" or else "I can't stand college; no one gives you the right answers".)

  3. Relativism/Procedural Knowledge:
    There are disciplinary reasoning methods:
    Connected knowledge: empathetic (why do you believe X?; what does this poem say to me?)
    vs. Separated knowledge: "objective analysis" (what techniques can I use to analyze this poem?)

    1. Contextual Relativism:
      All proposed solutions are supported by reasons;
      i.e., must be viewed in context & relative to support.
      Some solutions are better than others, depending on context.
      Student's task is to learn to evaluate solutions.

      • Rapaport's speculation, part 3: Perhaps we then evolve into Contextual Relativists when we can express our intuitions in language and seek justifications for them and relationships among them.

    2. "Pre-Commitment":
      Student sees the necessity of:
      • making choices
      • committing to a solution

  4. Commitment/Constructed Knowledge:
    Integration of knowledge learned from others with personal experience and reflection.

    1. Commitment:
      Student makes a commitment.

    2. Challenges to Commitment:
      Student experiences implications of commitment.
      Student explores issues of responsibility.

    3. "Post-Commitment":
      Student realizes commitment is an ongoing, unfolding, evolving activity

    The journey is sometimes repeated; and one can be at different stages at the same time with respect to different subjects.


The 2 main references:

An interesting follow-up study:

A good general intro and an application to science teaching, with many useful further references:

Three of my own papers, my Powerpoint slide shows, and some other material:

A good general guide for college teachers, which discusses Perry's theory among others:

Some Perry-related WWW links:

For further information, contact:

Copyright © 2003–2018 by William J. Rapaport (rapaport@buffalo.edu)