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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 3 Stories

Brother, Can You Paradigm?
Trendy vocabulary word makes editors cringe

By Todd Sallo

Todd Sallo  
SOME WORDS take on a life of their own. Like the latest fad diet, they fall into common usage, becoming trendy. They then seem to run wild, eventually seeping deeply into the fabric of popular culture. Words such as "paparazzi," "roughage," "Type-A," "Boomers" and "Gen-x-ers" have, through endless repetition, become accepted into the popular lexicon.

One of the best examples in recent memory is the word "paradigm." Favored by growing numbers of academicians in the last few decades, its use seems to have reached a sort of critical mass lately, descending far from the hallowed halls of higher education, insinuating itself into everything from government publications to the Oprah Winfrey show.

"Paradigm" figured in a recent Doonesbury comic strip, and has become a favorite word among policy wonks on the Sunday morning "talking heads" shows. Politicians hoist it like a sword in order to demonstrate their sophistication, and to lend earth-shaking importance to their positions or proposals. After all, a "new paradigm" trumps a "good idea" any day.

But it became crystal clear that "paradigm" had truly made the big time when it started to appear on bumper stickers. Proudly displayed on the bumpers of Bugs and Beamers alike, big angry letters entreat: "Subvert the Dominant Paradigm!"

That may sound good, depending on your point of view. But what does it actually mean?

Paradigm is a slippery word. It sounds impressive and is at once deceptively simple and dauntingly obtuse. This may account, at least in part, for its frequent use and misuse. Like a Rorschach test, it can be construed to mean almost anything. But as a result, its common usage has become so broad that it often ends up meaning essentially nothing.

Ultimately, paradigm is a Greek word. According to James McCloskey, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, its Indo-European root is para-dejk (pronounced para-dayk). "The para part is a preposition meaning 'beside,' and the dejk part means 'to show' or 'to utter,'" McCloskey explained.

The dejk root of "paradigm" is very common in many languages, and can be seen in English words such as "teach," "dictate" and "didactic." This root also is shared by such words as "betoken," "Index," "indicate," "indict," "verdict," "predict" and "dictum."

"Paradigma" is a late Latin grammatical term which comes originally from "to set beside" or "to show beside." In that context, it refers to showing a single word in all its inflectional forms. "The paradigm for a given verb in Latin, for instance, should give all the forms -- the first person present, second person present, and so on -- all laid out beside one another as a model for other verbs of the same type," McCloskey said.

Obviously, in its common usage "paradigm" has come a long way from its original meaning. It now is a much broader term, encompassing almost any type of model, idea or structured thought. In essence, though, it still connotes something that is set apart or shown to be separate, and its best synonym is the noun "model."

But how did this relatively obscure grammatical term come to take the place of such diverse words as "method," "approach," "system," "philosophy" and "framework"?

The main culprit in broadening and popularizing the word's usage is Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and philosopher born in 1922. Kuhn's most renowned work, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," written while he was a graduate student in theoretical physics at Harvard, was published in book form in 1962. It has since become a central text in the modern philosophy of science, required reading in many college courses. In academia it qualifies as a best-seller, having sold more than a million copies.

Although critics chided him for his imprecise use of the term, Kuhn made grand use of the word "paradigm," which he described as essentially a collection of beliefs shared by scientists, a set of agreements about how theories and problems should be understood.

As Kuhn saw it, paradigms are central to scientific inquiry. "No natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation and criticism," he wrote.

Kuhn's basic argument was that scientific advancement is not a steady process. Periods of "normal science," typified by experimentation and gradual accumulation of information under widely accepted systems of belief, are punctuated by dramatic "paradigm shifts" which occur when the older, prevailing models can no longer adequately explain all the observed facts.

Science, according to Kuhn, is "a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions -- the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science." After such revolutions, "one conceptual world view is replaced by another."

For example, as Kuhn employed the term, the change from an Earth-centered to a sun-centered view of the heavens could be described as a paradigm shift. Likewise, following nearly two centuries of widespread acceptance of Newtonian physics, the revolutionary revision in the understanding of space and time offered by Einstein at the beginning of the 20th century could be seen as a new paradigm.

Ironically, it was not Kuhn's premise, but rather his appropriation of the word "paradigm" that generated the most controversy, and elevated his work to pop status. "Though one can question the extent to which Kuhn's cyclic theory of scientific revolution fits what we know of the history of science, in itself this theory would not be very disturbing, nor would it have made Kuhn's book famous," wrote Steven Weinberg, a professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, in a recent article for The New York Times. "For many people, it is Kuhn's reinvention of the word 'paradigm' that has been either most useful or most objectionable."

Weinberg went on to suggest that this linguistic quarrel was unimportant. But for editors, who have encountered the word so many times they roll their eyes at its mere mention, and for language purists, it has become something of a cause.

An article in a recent issue of Educational Researcher warned of "paradigm proliferation," and asked, "What's a journal editor to do?"

"Paradigm" is everywhere. Even the most glancing search of the Internet, especially one concentrating on sites catering to higher education types, reveals how frequently the word is being used. Scores of instances appear readily, with some writers invoking it ten or more times in the space of a few paragraphs.

One of the more popular ways to use "paradigm" is to marry it to a common modifier. Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher referred in the Washington Post to "the post-Cold War paradigm." Maureen Hogan of Columbia University's Teachers College wrote of "an Internet process-oriented paradigm of teaching and learning."

There are references to "social theory paradigms," "a neoliberal paradigm," "a traditional outsourcing paradigm," "a process paradigm for teaching writing," a "current-traditional paradigm," a "deschooling paradigm," a "results paradigm," "social theory paradigms," "the Future Empowerment Paradigm," "debate paradigms" and, of course, "the American paradigm" -- whatever that is.

In a recent issue of Comparative Education Steven Klees of Florida State University wrote, "We will not make much progress contesting each piece of dominant paradigm evidence." In a paper presented at an annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the writer referred to "a paradigm of possibilities," then proceeded to use the word 14 times in the course of her 200-word abstract.

One policy expert, in recommending courage on the part of education leaders, warned, "There is considerable risk for leaders infected with paradigm paralysis or trapped in a district immobilized by paradigm effect. Educators must become paradigm shifters." In his book, "Paradigm Lost: Reclaiming America's Educational Future," William G. Spady extols "the importance of being a paradigm pioneer."

In a recent Forbes Magazine article the CEO of an investment firm was asked how he decides which companies to support. He answered, "We sit on paradigm beach and wait for the next big wave."
"Paradigm" has been twisted into a linguistic pretzel. For instance, although it is a noun, it often is used as a verb. And California Attorney General Bill Lockyer even managed to use it as an adjective: "Consumer laws are paradigm examples of remedial legislation."

And the next generation also seems to love "paradigm." A Web site featuring student writing was thick with examples. One student essay opined, "Paradigm shifts are very important because they occur all the time." The writer then went on to ask, "So how can we justify paradigms?" Good question.

Simple truth is, even if we defer to Kuhn's definition of the term, paradigm shifts do not occur all the time -- they are extremely rare, coming along only once in a generation, or even once in a century. And it takes time for such a shift to take place and to be recognized. Today, however, it seems that someone is claiming the dawn of a new paradigm every 20 minutes.

Why is this happening? The most obvious, and perhaps best explanation is the simple fact that "paradigm" sounds more impressive than most of its available synonyms. And it also has that wonderfully eccentric spelling, with a silent 'g.' Using such a fancy vocabulary word can make even the most mundane, banal point seem more substantial.

And Kuhn greatly glamorized the term. Under his definition, no one would want to be engaged in boring, humble "normal science." That's grunt work. Everybody wants the glory of being the one who initiates a paradigm shift. "There's a certain romance and glamor associated with the scientific revolutions described by Kuhn," McCloskey said. "It's not some twiddling with an old system, or some small advance; it's a gigantic, world-shifting kind of change. That's really the appeal of the word, I think."

So, perhaps people who are abusing the word are really just guilty of grandiosity -- certainly nothing new in higher education. McCloskey agrees. "Self-aggrandizement is the principle sin, I think," he said.

Properly understood, and called upon sparingly, paradigm can be a very useful word. One can hope that, like styles of dress, the popularity of trendy words waxes and wanes with the passage of time, and that "paradigm" will prove to be no exception.

Perhaps the cyclical popularity of diet fads -- first high protein, then low protein, then no protein, and so on -- is a good example. While each may have a kernel of validity amidst its overblown fruit, they tend to work best only when used in moderation.

Moderation. This could be the beginning of a whole new paradigm.

Todd Sallo has come face-to-face with the "paradigm" problem many times as an editor and production manager for this publication.

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