Lurch and Learn

by Scott London

The German philosopher Hegel gave us what is still perhaps the most compelling model of how societies change and evolve. His theory of dialectical progression suggested that cultures evolve in much the same way as ideas or outlooks do. The prevailing concept — or thesis as he called it — over time gives rise to its opposite, its antithesis. The interaction of these perspectives eventually leads to a new concept, or synthesis. The synthesis in turn becomes the thesis of a new triad.

It’s easy to see how this dynamic plays out in politics, for example, where the pendulum seems to swing between liberal and conservative views in an orderly fashion and where the interplay between the two regularly gives rise to fresh and original amalgamations.

Daniel YankelovichSome years ago, social scientist Daniel Yankelovich offered an interesting twist on this idea, one based not on theory but observation. In his long career monitoring social trends in the United States, he found that society tends to lurch, often mindlessly, in a new direction. After a period of resistance and reaction, an integration eventually takes place. He called this pattern “lurch and learn.”

In the 1960s, for example, young people lurched away from the prevailing notion of duty to the search for pleasure. In a similar way, there was a lurch away from work to leisure. “The reaction of young people to their father’s nose-to-the-grindstone way of life was to see in leisure the possibilities of genuine self-fulfillment,” he explained in a 1996 talk. “After that lurch, they gradually found that the kind of self-fulfillment they were seeking often could be fulfilled better through a certain kind of work than through leisure.”

This idea goes a long way toward explaining how new ideas meet profound resistance before being assimilated into the dominant cultural worldview. Those who articulate innovative ideas move the prevailing outlook in a new direction. First, these ideas are ridiculed, as Arthur Schopenhauer famously said, then they are violently resisted. Finally they are accepted as self-evident.

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