Sample Essay on Perry’s Theory of Intellectual & Ethical Development

Perry was a counselor and professor of education at Harvard University during which he was intensely involved in conducting research that led to the development of the Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development. He did his research for about 15 years of his course from the 1950s and 1960s along with more than thirty other people. Perry and his team recognized the mounting relativism in society and diversity on campus. This prompted them to get an understanding of how students coped and comprehended the modern world. Perry identified the geographical diversity, how students traveled from all over the world to Harvard. They all came up with an intellectual and ethical scheme that is now identified as solely Perry’s. Moon (2013) observes that the scheme forms a bridge between childhood and adolescent studies, and early adulthood studies especially the experience of college students. The scheme was developed from a qualitative analysis of experiences of college students where students described their transformations over their college years. They interviewed students at the end of their academic years. The objective of this analysis was to identify the personality differences   particularly the authoritarian personality notions. The findings were not stable individual differences over the years, but what was observed was a consistent educational journey which Perry and his colleagues described as “an intellectual Pilgrim’s Progress.”

Brief overview of the theory

The Perry’s theory is a reflection of both cognitive and affective perspectives of students throughput their college education. According to the theory, early adulthood studies is a difficult journey comprised of complex thinking about the world, one’s area of study and one’s self. The theory emphasizes the notion that the student’s most credited progress resulting from their curriculum experiences is defined by their qualitative changes which involve approaches used by learners and their subjective matter. In the theory, he identified nine positions as stages from which students viewed the world in their common paths. The sequence of these nine positions is grouped into four categories namely: dualism, multiplicity, contextual relativism, commitment within relativism (King, 1978).

The first major category, dualism, contained position 1 and 2.Position one represents the original personal view about knowledge and truth of nature. In this position, students base their opinions on individual identification with an authority figure which may be a parent, teacher or church and this figure is unquestionable. In Position 2, students start to accommodate different views and perspectives but acknowledged them as wrong. This thinking is characterized with dualism where a view which is believed to be right is distinguished from the one believed to be wrong. Multiplicity is the second major category holding position 3 and four which is a successive progression of right and wrong dualism. This progression continues to position five in an attempt to understand the diversity of human opinion and experience. Position 3 represents the unknown certainty involving right and wrong categories and also adds the ‘not yet known’ category to be determined in future. In this position, students realize diverse opinions and start to recognize and accept that there is room for human uncertainty. In position 4, the ‘not yet known’ notion is further made certain by letting it be upon one’s thinking which is an additional subcategory of critical thinking. Up to this point, students are assimilating new ways of thinking.

The third category of Relativism contains position 5 which explains that students get to a point where they adopt new ways of thinking through understanding, analyzing and evaluating of knowledge and values. In this position, relativistic thinking is practiced as normal and becomes a common habit. The notion of authority changes and it is no more a status open to challenge, but as status open to analysis and evaluation. The last stage which explains positions 6 to 9 opens a new chapter of commitment in relativism. In position 6 students are in a situation where they realize they have to take commitments to establish their paths in the relativistic world. It is at this point students begin to have desires to define their personal choices which they believe it is a responsible thing to do. In positions 7-9, students attempt to diffuse their commitments into their personal lives.

Critique of the theory

Perry’s study has received many supportive views in the academic world as his work apart from been timely, it makes a perfect sense of the cognitive developments undergone by college students. The most outstanding and damaging drawback in his work is the lack of empirical data. Furthermore, His work is not in a position to be reproduced as the information used to develop it was merely interview responses which are not verifiable evidence. Scholars have criticized his work further. First his work has been proved as high accurate of students experience but difficult to believe his work was without error or conclusive. This problem wouldn’t have existed if Perry had included further writing in his work. Judging his work from the perspective of design methodology, his work is considered to be a failure of instrumentation.

Another drawback is the fact his sample did not account for inclusiveness. Considering the students admitted at Harvard University are those categorized as intellectually advanced, interviewing students from such a prestigious university did not accommodate varied cognitive development. This is because majority of those students had an advanced cognitive development because of social and economic privileges exposed to them because of their status of living defined by wealth.

Despite the critiques, Perry work has been influential and led to the development of other studies including that of Belenky et, al. on ‘women’s ways of knowing.’ His work may contain few drawbacks, but the major function of it is very relevant particularly in dealing with student affairs in higher institutions. In fact, in practice, his work has proved applicable and effective for example in student career counseling and evaluation of policies to fit student’s needs

A  HESA circumstance in which Perry’s theory maybe be beneficial

Institutions of higher education face certain challenges in their process of providing the best undergraduate education for their students. Examples of challenges faced include inability in providing access to higher education for all students due to the difference in their backgrounds, increased costs like faculty salaries and healthcare, reduced support from the government, for example, reduced appropriations for state scholarships, and pressure from the government to improve the quality of undergraduate studies. These challenges can be tackled by applying Perry’s theory through enhancing growth and development of students with a central goal of providing quality higher education. Growth and development can be promoted by obtaining the theoretic base of knowledge and practice it by describing, explaining, predicting and controlling students’ behaviors (Delworth, 1989). The theory, therefore, enables the student’s affairs professionals to identify and address student’s needs through applicable measures like enhancing program planning, developing policies and creating a favorable environment where students can experience positive growth.

Student affairs have changed with time. Higher education started at the colonial period where these students’ affairs were handled through informal procedures. During this time few administrators would act as surrogate parents in affairs like athletic programs. However as issues of race relations, sexual violence and drug abuse grew with time, professional administrators were engaged to help deal with them. This continued until in the 1990s where there was the emergence of student’s affairs offices and departments, cultural centers, and career services among others. It is this evolution that students started being treated as consumers rather than clients. From the role of a client which was seeking expertise and knowledge from institution to an educational environment where students made changes to their curriculum, attendance policies and examination expectations. It is these changes that created competition for students where universities provided amenities to attract students as opposed to earlier presumption that it was a fortune to attend a particular university. That brings us to today’s main focus on student’s success as an essential aspect in colleges. Administrators are now joining efforts to provide a valuable academic experience to students and enhance student’s lives. Perry’s development theory is useful in justifying the relevance of student affairs professionals in colleges. This theory is useful in understanding how a person can be addressed.

Areas, where the theory can be applied to student’s affairs, are in career counseling and academic advising. Knowledge of Perry’s theory provides a basis for academic advising where advisors obtains an understanding of queries and comments made by students in expressing their wide and differing views of seemingly same situations. Advisors can use this theory to identify confusions or dilemmas experienced by students and also get to know which kind of students they are dealing with and their problem. They can them administer solutions beneficial to student’s needs. They can help student’s select career choices that fit their personal attributes.

Applications of Perry’s theory today

Perry’s scheme has been practiced and proven to be applicable in many areas. Movement from the mentality of wrong and right to accommodating diverse viewpoints is a valid experience. Finally movement to a stage of evaluations and evidence in the realistic world is viable. One of the fields where Perry’s theory has been used is in blogging.Elvona Adakai is a blogger and an advocate of Perry’s theory. In his blog, ’Exploring college students development theory,’ he has been able to provide a learning experience for graduate students at the University Of Utah who are enrolled in College Student Development Theory. This blog has provided a platform for students where they share their insights about theories and how they are applied in higher education. Perry’s theory has been very applicable in this blog as it has increased understanding and generated dialogues among students through testimonial of those who have practiced it.

Along with Zhang and Watkins, Elvona Adakai was able to conduct research using Perry’s theory and their findings validated Perry’s theory as an applicable scheme to other ethnicities and races. By studying Chinese students to find their relationship between cognitive developments in them, relativism and dualism were observed. Though Perry did not take into consideration the different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, his theory remained valid and was useful for all students. From their research, the Chinese students and America students are culturally distinct in their views. Chinese views is that education from a prestigious institution is high and led to good careers hence their focus is on the determination as compared to American students whose approach is exploration. Perry’s contributions to intellectual and ethical developments are very applicable today with evidence of duality and multiplicity throughout cultures.

Perry’s theory can also be applicable to counseling students. Many counselors can use a developmental approach to appropriately address challenges in order to progress to a higher level of functioning. This way, students can benefit from such instructional approaches, and in their level of development challenged to advance their thinking level. According to findings of King and Kitchener (2015), providing students with an appropriate environment enables them to progress through intellectual stages that represent complex structures in their progress and this way students get to comprehend their world. Beginning students depend on the instructor as the authority while advanced students continually engage in complex and autonomous thinking. By use of developmental approach, instructors can classify students according to their level of development either beginning, middle or advanced and after that conceptualize their specific needs at each level (McCarthy, 2012). Considering these levels of developments are predictable in a classroom, counselor educators can make use of Perry’s phenomenon and provide appropriate  structure and activities that meet student’s needs.

As we apply Perry’s theory, Patton, Renn, Guido,  Quaye, Evans, & Forney (2016), suggests certain issues that should be considered. First, in trying to use Perry’s theory sociohistorical concept should be considered. At the time Perry was doing his research, latter in the 1960s there were drastic changes regarding the afforded authority across the social spectrum. There was questioning of political and religious authority and the challenges facing the society which might have been the reason why students flocked Harvard in full position than their counterparts in the 1950s.Perhaps, these students had already experienced questioning authorities which led them into making sense of conflicting messages from their authoritative figures.

Another issue suggested for consideration is the changes in college students. From Perry’s observations, students of 1970s had already experienced transformations and were at position 5 level of development. However, findings from other researchers during that time showed the difference in development levels at institutions less prestigious than Havard.These students appeared to be at positions 2 and 3 in the beginning of their course and graduated at level 3 or 5 with some graduating without reaching position 5 of thinking. This is backed by other findings from researches on the individual psychological perspective which rules that students graduate from college without developmental growth by the experience. The difference is brought up by the different populations of students in Harvard as compared to the students of 1950s.Even more, raising the concern of issue of homogeneity dominated by Perry’s participants who included traditional aged, male, the upper and middle-class students white students, and Perry’s scheme may not be applicable always. We can also assume that his participants were single, schooled full time and without children. Today college students have remarkably diversified regarding race, gender, age, life circumstances among others. Researchers have recognized the changes and used Perry’s scheme as a basis for the development of related theories. An example is Belenky, Clinchy study on cognitive development in women.


Perry’s theory has been majorly useful in handling student affairs in higher education. The theory has also extended to other areas like counseling where councilors rely on it to identify individual’s position of development before conceptualizing any form of help. Researchers have also used it extensively in the development of cognitive development theories applying to other categories of a population like women. The theory also serves as a reference to progressive changes in individual development where in the 1950s, students attended college with self-motivated and intentional choices advancing to students attending college as a normal habit and an assumption by the society. It is no doubt that the modern students go through drastic changes in their college years. They advance from dualism and shift towards relativism and at the end graduate making personal commitments which is a whole process of intellectual development (Moon, 2013). Students also develop morally by changing perspectives of values, virtues and collectively the ethical bearings instilled to them by authority figures including parents and religious leaders. These bearings are disposed of upon discovering various ways of thinking and behaving. Religious commitments are exposed to new ideas and beliefs experienced in student’s life, and students are left to decide what beliefs to commit to for their adult lives. It is, therefore, the responsibility of those who work and educate college students to be aware of the cognitive developments experienced by students and take extra caution in directing these students into their new adult life determined by their choices. Perry’s theory remains relevant in the affairs of students in colleges.




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