Reader’s Forum — Frank Fear



Stifles and



For me (perhaps for you, too), there’s always a passage in a reading that stands out—the ‘it’ of the text, so to speak—words that encapsulate the essence of what’s written. In The Overweight Brain, I found my ‘it’ on p. 149:

Science needs to grow. Knowing took science and us this far. But just like everyone else, science would do well to grow beyond knowing if it’s to contribute to making the world a better place.”

But what might happen if we removed the words ‘science’ (used three times) and ‘knowing’ (used twice)? Why eliminate an author’s core vocabulary? Here’s why.

The more I read Dr. Holzman’s book, the more convinced I became that The Overweight Brain describes the transformative process that people go through when they leave behind a conventional way of thinking/practicing and transition to a radically new place. As told in The Overweight Brain, Dr. Holzman’s story is one example of what happens when a person or group finds something profoundly problematic, concludes that drastic change is needed, and is committed to doing what’s necessary to make great significant change possible.

To get a sense of what I mean, fill in the blanks (below) using your words. Use one word to replace ‘science’ each time it is used. Use another word to replace ‘knowing’ each time it is used.

____ (science) needs to grow. ____ (science) took ____ (knowing) this far. But just like everyone else, ____ (science) would do well to grow beyond ____ (knowing) if it’s to contribute to making the world a better place.”

I’ll give it a try.

The Democratic Party needs to grow. The Democratic Party took its politics this far. But just like everyone else, the Democratic Party would do well to grow beyond its politics if it’s to contribute to making the world a better place.”

That’s why I left the Democratic Party and became a Progressive Independent.

That said, the critical matter here isn’t my journey; it’s what I believe to be a significant contribution of Dr. Holzman’s book, that is, how people go from whatever A might be to B where they end up.

Holzman describes that transition in understandable ways by telling the story of her journey. But there’s a hitch in making that transition, and it’s a double hitch, too. First, it’s about being able to clearly articulate the alternative to convention. Second, it’s about being able to transition effectively to the alternative state and remain there.

The first hitch can be understood through a pithy saying: To be unconventional, first you must be conventional. Dr. Holzman is a prime example. She couldn’t possibly offer us an in-depth and extensive critique of psychology, science, and knowing if it were not for the fact that she is well-educated in all three. Plus, she is a practicing psychologist with loads of experience. That background enabled her to critique and dissect the discipline and profession, including the scientific way of knowing.

That’s just the beginning, though. Again, Dr. Holzman shows us the way. Unlike thousands upon thousands of colleagues who accept the traditional way of thinking and doing, have conventional careers, and do what they can to advance convention—and are rewarded for it—Dr. Holzman took a different approach. She questioned business as usual and found flaws (fatal flaws, in fact) that others either didn’t see or minimized.

Years ago, Thomas Kuhn called fatal flaws of that sort ‘anomalies of fact,’ that is, matters that can’t be accommodated easily, if at all, by conventional thinking and practice. The default option in the conventional world (Kuhn calls it the dominant paradigm) is to cherry-pick new ideas from the outside as a means to maintain paradigmatic advantage. Holzman et al. acted differently. They used fresh ideas to build a new and different paradigm. That approach, Kuhn contends, is the stuff of which paradigmatic revolutions are made.

But there’s still more, and (once again) Dr. Holzman shows us what’s required—pivotal relationships. She connected with like-minded and highly capable colleagues (Fred Newman et al. in her case) with whom to network, collaborate, and invent. Together (with others), they drew insights and inspiration from those with high standing in the field, ‘credible witnesses,’ as it were. Holzman and Newman gained enormously from the work of Lev Vygotsky and Ludwig Wittgenstein—reading, citing, and applying their work.

Putting it all together requires taking the boldest step of all—going public. In effect, you say to the world: “What you believe, I do not. Here’s not only why, but here’s a better way, too.” That’s a declaration of independence with implications. Going public means removing oneself intentionally from the mainland of thought and relocating on a sparsely inhabited island. That new residency brings a substantially different identity—and it’s not just about what you decide to call yourself. Others will name you based on how they see you. Expect references rich with disdain. And why not? You are now on the other side of the decimal point.

There’s even more. Once in your new home, yet another trap awaits—the second ‘hitch’ to which I referred earlier. It’s a surprising challenge, too—avoiding becoming conventional in one’s unconventionality. That happens when you lose the edge that made you unconventional. If that happens, then slowly, but surely, you’ll undo what you worked hard (and took substantial risks) to become.

Becoming conventional in a new space doesn’t happen just some of the time; it happens most of the time unless you work hard to keep it from happening. Here are two (of many) counter-strategies to consider.

First, refresh the new space regularly with diverse people who bring new ideas, energy, and commitment, including encouraging new faces to transition into leadership roles. Otherwise, you risk a bubbly endeavor going flat and/or face a ‘last person turn out the lights’ future.

Second, engage in robust critique—just as you did earlier in your journey. This time, rather than shining the lens on the conventional way of thinking and practice, direct it at your new way of thinking/practicing. Based on what you learn, adjust and change accordingly.

But let’s make this clear: what I’ve just suggested isn’t easy to put into practice. The default option is to keep the circle tight and to live on past glory. Courage and resolve are required to keep the space open and to be reflexive, that is, to engage in critical self-analysis.

On p. 19, Dr. Holzman writes:

It might surprise you to know that growth-creators are not a rare breed. On the contrary, they literally populate the planet.”

Yes, they are everywhere, and they have important stories to tell—just as Dr. Holzman did for us and, perhaps, what I’ve written here. Add to the repository by telling and sharing your stories.

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society.


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The Overweight Brain

How our obsession with knowing keeps us from getting smart enough to make a better world

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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