Part of my title comes from a book by Howard Margolis (1993) in which he challenges us to examine how certain barriers in our thinking keep us from adopting new ideas. In other words, we have gotten used to thinking in certain ways and these may not be the best to believe (Kida 2006). Many years ago the scientist Polanyi warned us that even scientific findings are sometimes based on questionable premises (Polanyi 1946). The so called secular approach needs to be complemented with spiritual dimensions as well (Coles 1999). Hacking (1981) provides us with a number of contributors who examine the way science operates and the authority it entails. Thomas Kuhn, of course, is the one who crystalized certain concepts and methodologies of science, embedded in the word paradigm.[1]

I begin by noting the observations and conclusions Margolis makes on the basis of his comments arising about how are thinking establishes certain barriers, composed as it is of a paradigmatic methodology.

For example, we often establish a dichotomy between what is purely physical and that which is mental, although Margolis notes that “…there is unlikely to be any essential difference between a physical habit and a habit of mind”, although the former is easier to observe and more familiar (2). This may remind us of the schema of scripts, where certain behavioral patters are routinely pursued, often with no overt thinking about them.

It turns out that “… a particular, identifiable habit of mind is critical for the emergence and contagion of just those new ideas capable of provoking marked symptoms of Kuhnian incommensurability” (3). What provokes the symptoms of innovation is some logically difficult gap dividing some established theory from its challenger. Once this gap is overcome many previously ignored features make obvious sense (but were seen as anomalies previously). Margolis notes the emergence of probability theory as one example.

When I was first introduced to some of Margolis’s thoughts I was pursuing the possibility of a strategy for very small language groups, one which would not necessarily include Bible translation, Instead, Bible stories would be the initiating approach. At the time there was widespread resistance to such an tactic, although it is now widely adopted in some form or another. It demonstrated that“[T]he barrier cases show us how striking habits of mind can be in blocking what later come to seem irresistible institutions” (6).

If there are some habits or cognitive features that are instinctive, then what follows is shaped by them. In such cases “Learning can then be characterized as the modification of patterns in the repertoire, and as the training of new linkages among patterns” (8). So it is “what is in the head as the neural embodiment of these patterns can only be patterns somehow neurally embodied, not particular sets of commands to the muscles, and certainly not something locally “in” the muscles that ordinarily carry out the pattern” (10).

Chomsky has argued that, on the basis of how readily human children learn to walk and talk, there must be some set of innate properties that direct them. The same holds for postures, facial expressions, and so on, cross-culturally.

Original habits are difficult to eradicate, even when so desired, and may sometimes reoccur as mistakes. It follows that both physical and mental habits need practice, e.g. becoming fluent in a language involves both. We can learn about the habits of people “by watching how members of some expert group respond to situations, what they take for granted, what they immediately question, we can learn something about the habits of mind about that group, which in turn can tell us something about why a particular belief was hard or easy to produce.” (14). Such is the case when we observe leaders of clubs, organizations, or families and we learn their habits daily.

What what if “… a person is ordinarily unaware of habits… of when a habit is not serving [her] well.” (15). It turns out that, even when alerted, it is hard to “turn it off” to see if things would go better, because changing habits is clumsy and requires time. The effort required to change a habit will be contingent on the balance of the new habit and the well-entrenched one. This will produce rival intuitions. It is most difficult to see habits within our own culture, e.g. our accent. Such habits become almost invisible, so there is a sustained period when what the innovator is doing does not make sense to others. It just was never done that way.

However,  “persuasion, belief, discover, and the like can only start in some individual brain” (18). Once there is radical discovery, it prompts incredulity, confusion, even revulsion. Even initially, slight variations to habits of mind and experience can have remarkable consequences.

In scientific discoveries people with the same knowledge are resistant or blind to the discovery and resist it, especially when it was brought to their attention. The closest thing to a counterexample is when a disciple is deliberately trying to learn to see things like the master.

By simple observation we can note that “… what binds together a certain community (making communication easy within… and [hard without]” (23) are certain habits of mind that guide critical intuitions and which don’t come reasonable to someone who is not a member of the community and therefore lacks certain critical experiences. The particular group has a distinct way of talking about things. This is not the same as speaking of rival points of view because people are ordinarily conscious of them, but unless specifically and effectively prompted, they are unconscious of habits (25).

How can the habits be ferreted out? Only in relation to some alternate view, in Pikean terms by “contrast” between essential components that yield a contrastive difference. The pronunciation of certain words in English dialects can be pointed out, but the habits are entrenched and change is generally not motivated, so it is not easy or long lasting.

In the case of approaches to language documentation, storytelling and other language related concepts,  notice how long it takes to go from a point where something is first discovered and put forth in argument to when it is accepted as a new way of looking at things. There is always some logical or conceptual distance between the new idea and what preceded it. “The argument looks good so it looks wrong to reject the belief, but the belief itself still looks wrong” (p. 30). The individual is then in the paradox state.

Experience shows that “… the critical problem for a revolutionary shift in thinking is not in fact some intrinsically difficult logical or conceptual gap that needs to be leaped…. It is the robustness of the habits of mind that help the new idea, given the evidence and argument available to support it.” (31). If there is a particular habit that needs to be overcome, that is the barrier. Because of certain prevalent patterns or barriers, new ideas are effectively blocked out. (p. 37)

It seems that in the case of seeing Bible storytelling as a barrier it was overcome by the ideas and effects being “too striking to be quickly forgotten” (39).

We can sum up Margolis’s contribution by noting that “pattern-recognition is central to thinking is a familiar idea. Everyone who writes on these matters discusses – in some way or another – patterns, frames, schemata, attunements, and so on , which are somehow recognized and then provide a key input to whatever happens next” (203). The temptation is then to move from pattern recognition to some algorithmic rule-following procedures which can be articulated and even demonstrated by computer programs.

Let us assume that the principles that form habits of mind and resulting barriers are valid. How might they apply to concepts like Vision 2025 [a Wycliffe and SIL concept that all language groups that do not have the Scriptures will have programs initiated by 2015] or to an institution like GIAL? Well, first of all, we need to see how the Vision is understood by respondents: What were the essential components that were analyzed? And how might they compare with the study of the Vision statements of SIL, WGA, GIAL or other agencies? Training seems to be a core activity and essential for the pursuit of the vision so investigation may prompt questions about our training process, such as:

  1. What if the training at GIAL (or other SIL  training venues) was completely competency based? That is, what if certain tasks or combinations of tasks were considered? What if it was only when a person could demonstrate an acceptable level of competence, that the person would be finished with the training.
  2. What if there were no subjects, as such, taught at GIAL (or elsewhere in the SIL world)? In other words, what if everything taught was part of an integrated structure? Of course there would need to be particular “courses”, but what if the emphasis was upon collaborating between them instead of having them rigidly separate.
  3. What if all learning was conducted along recognized and accepted lines of adult learning? That is, if all subjects were group oriented and cooperative, even on-line learning?
  4. What if the learning could be done from multiple locations by multiple means? What if on-line learning was the the introductory and default means?
  5. What if the faculty and students were subject to displaying the same level of competencies? That is, the proficiency of the faculty would not be assumed.
  6. Given that one of the competencies would be the ability to “multiply” oneself, replicate the training methodology, and mentor students, in what ways could this be demonstrated?
  7. What if GIAL (and other SIL related schools) became a training brokerage for applied linguistics? It would operate throughout the world by satellite and mostly informal institutions? How would qualify be maintained? And why is quality so often equated with grades rather than competency? Or why is competency considered equivalent to ones grade point average?
  8. What would it take for GIAL (or any SIL entity) to become a mentoring institution?
  9. What is “good” research and how does one learn to do it?
Some Enterprise Questions
  1. What if Wycliffe Home Entities no longer raised money for Bible Translators? What other ways can be imagined for translators and specialists to be funded?
  2. What if Wycliffe Home Entities no longer recruited candidates that needed to be trained at SIL related schools? Where else might they come from?
  3. What if Wycliffe Home Entities requirements for fieldwork were not considered in determining the SIL related curricula?
  4. What if SIL International ceased to exist and, instead, multiple SIL franchises were put into operation?
  5. What if SIL entities reorganized according to functions? SIL Literacy units of the world, SIL Community Development partnerships, SIL translation checking groups, and so on.
  6. What if all SIL entities had to use local resources and not depend on international means for e-mail, computers, programs, supplies, aviation, schools, and so on?
  7. What if there were only electronic and print-on-demand publications?
  8. What if every translator had to layout their own paper publications and print them?
  9. What if there were only audio or audio-video Scripture productions?
  10. What if people could only leave their place of assignment when they had trained someone to take their place?
  11. What if all management was hired?
  12. What if there was a condition that no one could be recruited or hired for a job if there were services available elsewhere?
  13. What if you could join SIL and didn’t have to join Wycliffe Global Alliance?
  14. What if there were SIL Associates organized into service groups or units?
  15. What if Wycliffe Home Entities merged with other appropriate institutions of mission?
  16. What if SIL ceased to exist? Would members be satisfied to be only members of Wycliffe Home Entities of Wycliffe Global Alliance?
  17. What are the core values of SIL? Do they include an organization which is scientific and educational or is this simply a pragmatic decision?

I asked the following question of a former student and her husband (she attended North Dakota SIL as a student and teacher, as well as Texas SIL, and had taught at an SIL overseas High School. Her husband has been involved in missions for the short term on several occasions.

What do you see as the unique and distinguishing features of SIL (as compared to other missions and organizations)?

  1. There are more highly trained people.
  2. It is a more academic organization – you need more than a “good heart” to do translation.
  3. It is more specialized – you don’t do everything.
  4. There are clear goals, your fingers are not in lots of pies.
  5. There is no SIL-ese or Wycliffe-ese to make you appear religious or spiritual.
  6. It is more diversified in denominational makeup.
  7. There is not a focus on lists of things you cannot do – at least not so many.
  8. There is no separation of faith and academics.
  9. There is a basic but not exhaustive list of creedal items.
  10. There is more contact with non-Christians, e.g. linguists and government people.
  11. There are also more introverted, computer oriented, focused, even driven, compulsive and over-achievers.
  12. The North Dakota SIL chapels were more personal and free-form than those of Dallas.
  13. There is more interaction at North Dakota; Dallas seemed more stuffy.
  14. There is more problem sharing from speakers with personal experience.

Some other questions:

  1. What is it that Wycliffe Home Entities want, just more applicants, numbers?
  2. Are there other ways to show commitment than career service?
  3. Is trial membership in Wycliffe analogous to trial marriage?
  4. Does SIL have suppliers (for students and membership), other than Wycliffe Home Entities?

I have talked about such things with scores of members and other people. There is often a desire for change, but apparently no satisfactory way of overcoming traditional educational and organizational barriers. Is it true that only a determined Board of Directors and administrators committed to new ways of thinking can make change possible—and not the individual? Margolis thinks otherwise: the individual can be an innovator. But it might take a revolution!


Coles, Robert. 1999. The secular mind. Princeton University Press.

Hacking, Ian, ed. 1981. Scientific Revolutions. Oxford: Oxford University

Kida, Thomas. 2006. Don’t believe everything you think: The 6 basic mistakes we make in thinking. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Second edition, enlarged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Margolis, Howard. 1993. Paradigms and Barriers: How Habits of Mind Govern Scientific Beliefs. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press.

Polanyi, Michael. 1946. Science, Faith and Society: A searching examination of the meaning and nature of scientific inquiry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[1] To Kuhn (1970:viii) a paradigm is a universally recognized scientific achievement that for a time provides a model for problems and solutions to a community of practitioners. However, the term is widely used outside of science community and includes the social sciences as well. It can also apply to the models organization administrators and leaders look to for their solutions to problems, such as language development.