Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development
A journey along the 9 "Perry" positions
(as modified by Belenky et al. 1986)
Last Update: Saturday, 22 December 2018
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On the Web (with links, underlined in printed versions) at https://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/perry-positions.html
Introduction and Caveat:
What follows is a highly oversimplified outline. You are urged
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
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:
There are right/wrong answers, engraved on Golden Tablets in the
sky, known to Authorities.
- Basic Duality:
All problems are solvable;
Therefore, the student's task is to learn the Right Solutions
- 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!
Rapaport's speculation, part 1: Perhaps we begin as Dualists because we
begin by accepting information from the world and reacting to it.
- Multiplicity/Subjective Knowledge:
There are conflicting answers;
therefore, students must trust their "inner voices", not external Authority.
- Early Multiplicity:
There are 2 kinds of problems:
(thus, a kind of dualism).
- those whose solutions we know
- those whose solutions we don't know yet
Student's task is to learn how to find the Right Solutions.
- 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
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".)
Rapaport's speculation, part 2: Perhaps we evolve into
Multiplists after we
learn things tacitly and have internal or implicit "feelings" or intuitions about
things, but not conscious or explicit beliefs that can be explained
- 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
- 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.
Student sees the necessity of:
- making choices
- committing to a solution
- Commitment/Constructed Knowledge:
Integration of knowledge learned from others
with personal experience and reflection.
Student makes a commitment.
- Challenges to Commitment:
Student experiences implications of commitment.
Student explores issues of responsibility.
Student realizes commitment is an ongoing, unfolding,
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:
Perry, William G., Jr. (1970),
Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston).
Perry, William G., Jr. (1981),
"Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning", in
Arthur W. Chickering and Associates,
The Modern American College
(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass): 76-116.
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
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