Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Quest for Certainty

Currently, I'm reading The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. On page 157 of the former, she writes that in the 1960s:
The appeal of the Christian fundamentalists was similar to that of strict Hasidic sects in the Jewish community: They offered rules and certainty to some young men and women who had found only unhappiness where others had found personal freedom.
Back in the day, I was one of the youth who was revelling in the freedom of the time. Brought up UU in a diverse Washington, DC, congregation, when I went to the University of Wisconsin (Madison), during the turmoil of the late 1960s, I felt like the rest of the world was joining our free, liberal faith. In contrast to my felt sense at the time, Jacoby points out that the turmoil of the 1960s was the seedbed for neoconservatism, fundamentalism, and the Reagan Revolution.

In Outliers: The Story of Success and this wonderful video from the 2008 New Yorker Conference, Malcolm Gladwell points to a "mismeasurement" problem in many fields that is due to a misplaced quest for certainty in examining. While it's true that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior (the mantra of performance-based interviewing), the value of past behavior as a predictor varies with its relevance to the expected future behavior. Dividing a job into its component parts and testing each of these may not provide good results. Please see the Gladwell video for specific examples.

I wonder whether the complexity and the nature of the current UU ministerial examining process is not in part a consequence of the difficulties of some ministers and ministries. How has our UU history served as a seedbed for our conservatism in examining?


  1. I think it more likely that our conservatism is psychological in nature. Most sensitive people find it very difficult to judge others and agonizing to tell them that their sense of call is false or that they must delay their career plans in favor of more preparation. But they volunteer to do it because it is very important. Once done, however, they just have to believe that they made the right decisions using the right process. It's too painful to contemplate otherwise.

  2. I'd like to intro a "yes and" here.

    I wholeheartedly agree w/ your evaluation of the psychological component of conservatism in examining once it has been determined that it's "very important" to tell candidates that "their sense of call is false or that they must delay their career plans in favor of more preparation."

    The "yes and" is my still advocating for looking at the interaction between the psychological component and the historical/cultural component which led to the determination that such rigorous, centralized examining is necessary.