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Politicians acting like children

It’s exasperating to witness adults praising elected politicians with little or no indication or consideration of relevant facts that might be either supporting or questioning their conclusions. It’s exasperating since logical thinking and moral maturity are expected in the behaviors of adults.

Jean Piaget found four stages in the growth of logical thinking that might clarify how this happens.

Logical thinking and moral maturity develop through an invariant sequence that correlates with children’s drawings along with language and social-emotional development.

Piaget’s first stage is marked by motor-sensory behavior occurring in infancy. Individuals experience life and automatically respond with physical movement. Example: A loud sound normally elicits an immediate response. This neurological capability occurs before logical thinking emerges.

All experiences elicit responses, but responses differ at each stage of development.

The second stage involves pre-logical or pre-operational thinking wherein a youngster’s intellect is capable of intuitive or pre-logical responses to life’s experiences. During this stage in early childhood, individuals are unencumbered by logic; they are free to express verbally or non-verbally their reactions to experiences without regard for validated evidences or facts that justify or predict the consequences of their behavior.

Psychiatrist Lawrence Kubie described pre-operational thinking this way: “It has long been known that in early years children have an extraordinarily inventive imagination, transposing experience freely among the various sensory modalities, using delightful and original figures of speech and allegory.”

Decision making at this stage is based on perception, on how things appear to be, not on concepts that are mental images retained from experiences.

Kubie asked: “What happens to the free play of pre-conscious/pre-logical functions in the course of conventional education?” An excellent question, don’t you think?

The next stage is concrete operational or beginning logical thinking. For example, given two identical beakers, each containing the same amount of water, and the water from one is poured into a taller and skinnier beaker, even though they appear to be different, if no water was lost in the transfer, they must still contain the same amount of water no matter how they appear. That is logical thinking that leads to reasoned conclusions based on concrete experience.

Capability for formal operational thinking is the fourth stage that deals with abstract and hypothetical experience involving mental manipulation of concepts drawn from experiences.

A formal operational youngster responds to the question about whether there is still the same amount of water in the two different beakers by looking into the “empty” beaker and observing a droplet of water left behind. He or she will mentally visualize there is not the same amount of water since that droplet did not get transferred.

An absence of formal logical thinking and immature moral decision making are observed in adults who refuse to examine validated facts or evidences when reaching a conclusion. This behavior among many politicians appears not to have progressed beyond the stage of pre-logical thinking. Is that possible?

Piaget concluded that experiences can retard or disrupt the growth of capabilities for logical thinking, but experiences can not accelerate the arrival of stages since their schedule is related to biological processes and not to age. That schedule is uniquely programmed in an individual’s genetic code.

We ask: “What experiences or lack of experiences could possibly account for behaviors among politicians that appear to remain pre-logical and morally immature?”

Their school experiences are claimed to be developing critical thinking, but evidence suggests otherwise. Critical thinking among adults requires formal operational capabilities. That capability emerges in individuals while in school, sometime in the teenage years. Yet adult politicians appear to be operating at a much lower level.

The fact is, youngsters during their pre-logical and early concrete logical phases are now and in the past continuously facing instruction in abstract and hypothetical language. That language is perhaps appropriate at a formal operational level, but it constitutes developmentally inappropriate experiences for pre-logical or early concrete logical youngsters. It can arrest their natural growth of logical capabilities. That happens daily during instruction and testing in elementary and middle school classrooms, with lasting negative impact on adult life.

In those cases, pre-logical behavior becomes an unconscious and repetitious response to everyday experiences, likely to remain unchanged except through intensive self-analysis.

Politicians who function pre-logically due to forces beyond their control can be forgiven for their behavior, but what about those who choose to appear pre-logical, who know full well what they are doing?

Individuals who have become capable of formal operations but choose to function unconstrained by logic are considered hypocrites.

Can’t schools do more to prevent that problem from happening? We had better find out before more children become morally immature politicians who behave like children.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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