God, the Devil, and Alfred Hitchcock:
Solving the Mystery of Human Development

Frank Pajares

Paper presented on the last day of class
to a doctoral seminar on Human Development and Education,
Emory University, Fall 1997

As a small boy growing up in Spain, I had a tendency to try to complete my schoolwork as quickly as possible so as to create time for the important demands of play. This meant that I would typically rush through academic assignments and complete them with great alacrity. Invariably, it also meant that in my great haste I would overlook critical aspects of the particular assignment at hand the minus sign in a mathematics equation, the critical comma in a compound sentence, the year the battle was won or the war lost. One day, my teacher, an old Jesuit priest who perhaps saw more promise in me than was warranted but who was also troubled by my haste, leaned over me and whispered softly, "Manolito, el diablo esta en los detalles." The devil is in the details, he said.

You can imagine that to me, a young and impressionable pupil in a religious boarding school who prayed daily and moonlighted as an altar boy, the image of the Devil lurking in the details of my academic work was not an easy one to dispel. It was one thing to tell me to be more careful. That, I could have more easily understood. But to tell me that the Devil's hand was at play in the fields of my schoolwork, that seemed both confusing and deeply troubling.

And so the image and phrase remained with me the devil is in the details. Years later, while attending Catholic school in the United States, carelessness as a result of haste still often got the better of me, until one day, in a scene reminiscent of the one that had taken place years earlier in Spain, a nun leaned over my shoulder and, as had my Jesuit teacher, whispered, "Frank, be more attentive. God is in the details."

That was certainly disconcerting. I had been wrestling for years with the difficult notion that the Devil was in the details. Suddenly, and very much without warning, I had to deal with the conception that God, and not the Devil, resided in those pesky nooks and crannies of my academic life.

It wasn't until many years later, I suppose when I reached formal operations of a sort, that I came to the realization that it was not only possible but likely for both God and the Devil to be in the details. And it was still some time after that when I learned that Cervantes had been responsible for claiming that Lucifer's hand was the hand at work in the details whereas it was Gustave Flaubert who later suggested that details were actually the province of the Almighty.

By now, I have heard each of those expressions used many times in many contexts, as probably have you. But here are the tasks at hand, at least for today. What do these proverbs mean? And even more to the business that concerns us here, what do they have to do with our understanding of human development?

Let me first deal with the meaning. Although God and the Devil are rather at opposite poles of the moral continuum, I suppose that what they have in common is that each seems to know a great deal about matters that matter to each, and probably should matter to us. I imagine that, between the two of them, they likely know everything there is to know about everything. Of course, God uses knowledge to tell the truth, whereas the Devil uses knowledge to deceive. But to know the lie of a thing one must know the truth from which the lie derives. So, clearly then, if together they know all things, each knows the truth about the things each knows. Thus, knowledge and truth must be what resides in those details.

So what my teachers were trying to tell me, each in his and her own way, was that unless I paid attention to the details of my work, I would not come to know the things I was seeking to learn and would not discover the truth about them, be they algebra problems or proper sentences or historical facts.

If these are reasonable inferences, and if it follows then that knowledge and truth are what can be found in the details, then it also follows that details are important. I think you will agree with me that, in and of itself, this insight is neither novel nor particularly profound. Isn't this something we have all already learned? We are all admonished to pay close attention to detail, and we admonish others to do likewise. In fact, attention to detail is the hallmark of any great craftsman or scientist or cook or artisan. "Look at the detail," we say when we admire fine porcelain or an antique or a beautiful house. And isn't nature rich in its attention to detail?

But this leaves me with the second question I posed: what do these proverbs have to do with our understanding of human development?

Alfred North Whitehead once observed that "we think in generalities, but we live in detail." We think in generalities, but we live in detail. Personally, I find that rather a profound observation. Professionally, I think it likely that social scientists find the implications that arise from that observation a little troubling. We think in generalities, but we live in detail.

Whitehead's observation might well be viewed as professionally troubling both to students and to professors of social science. Generalities, in their academic disguise as generalizations, are the stock in trade of students; and it is generalities that professors regularly profess and dispense. Of course, all good social scientists realize the logical and practical limits of generalizations. But recall William James's assertion that, although the goal of social science is to achieve a complete perspective of a human being, because this is not possible, social science becomes the art of human understanding, which is the art of grasping similarities among phenomena and thus forging perceptual patterns and conceptual categories out of the flux or chaos of existence. Secure in that assertion, and in the support from the great man himself, social scientists are regularly comforted by the belief that similarities, patterns, and categories generalities are worthy of pursuit.

But is this enthusiasm for finding similarities, patterns, and categories warranted? I ask that you recall Lawrence Blum's observations regarding the importance of particularity and by his claim that "non-principle based, situation-specific" understandings of individuals are the understandings required to make sense of human conduct. Should those of us who practice social science be more concerned than we are by our use of generalities to explain human thought and behavior? Should we be plagued by more than a small measure of insecurity about our discipline, about our teaching, and about own understandings of human development?

Perhaps we should be so plagued as to rethink the meaning of two of the themes that I offered you on the first day of class. The first deals with Mr. Palomar's efforts to see a wave. To read it, in fact, as we might read our textbooks or theory books or articles. By reading a wave, Palomar was simply trying to grasp the similarities of waveness and to forge perceptual patterns and conceptual categories, not even out of the flux and chaos of a roaring ocean, but out of the calm and gentle tranquility of an orderly sea whose waves were barely wrinkled.

Mr. Palomar wants to know the truth of a wave. He wants to know this because, as Calvino describes, only by knowing the wave "can he begin the second phase of the operation: extending this knowledge to the entire universe." In introducing this story to my students, I often gloss over the conclusion of this essay, which is that Palomar is unsuccessful in reading a wave. He loses patience, in fact, and "goes off along the beach, tense and nervous as when he came, and even more unsure about everything."

It is, of course, the details that do Palomar in, for "you cannot observe a wave without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself originates . . . these aspects vary constantly, so each wave is different from another wave." And, just as he thinks he might be getting somewhere with these waves, there "is a breath of east wind that stirs the sea's surface." The Devil is in that breeze.

Perhaps this is why, in a later reflection, Palomar concludes that he must "keep his convictions in the fluid state, check them instance by instance [detail by detail?], and make them the implicit rule [not the explicit principle] of his own everyday behavior, in doing or not doing, in choosing or rejecting, in speaking or in remaining silent."

Then there is the discussion between Marco Polo and the Great Khan. "Why do you speak to me of the stones?" asks the Khan. "It is only the arch that matters to me." "Without stones there is no arch," answers Marco. I always thought the arch far more important, but that is not at all Calvino's point. Perhaps I have been imposing my own meaning on this story. The stones. The stones are the details. God is in the stones.

And so perhaps it should be with an eye to the critical importance of details that we should make sense of our understandings of all that we have shared this semester. And should we try to make sense of these understandings not only with concerns about the details but with the words of Carl Jung ringing loudly in our ears? "Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of a living soul."

Whitehead reminds us that we think in generalities, but we live in detail. Jung admonishes us to learn our theories as well as we can, but to put them aside when we touch the miracle of a living soul. Blum cautions us that only by understanding "particular persons in particular situations" can we hope to make sense of their needs and care for the miracle of their living souls. And, of course, Lee Cronbach warns us that "when we give proper weight to local conditions," to details, "any generalization is a working hypothesis, not a conclusion"

Of what use is it, then, to think in generalities? To what end should we learn our lessons well? If our generalities are not grounded in the details of our everyday life, why think in generalities? Why study them? Why teach them? If we must put our generalities aside when coming in contact with others, is learning our theories a wise investment of our mental efforts? Indeed, if we should regard understanding a person in a particular situation as our primary moral obligation, why proffer rule-based, principle guided, theory-derived, research-oriented generalities to our students in the form of academic readings and to each other in the form of research findings and theoretic contentions?

It is with these questions in mind that I remind you of some of the major contentions we have all lived with this semester. Piaget and his stages. Individuals assimilate and accommodate information into mental schema. Disequilibrium is the impetus for cognitive growth. Of course, individual interpretation the personal construction of meaning is such a critical component of whether one decides to assimilate or accommodate, of whether one feels equilibrium or does not, that to know this generality may be to know very little about the individual individual. And if we don't know the individual's own interpretation, what do we know? And is that detail important.

Vygotsky and the zone of proximal development. Will two children at the same point in the zone of proximal development, instructed by the same teacher who utters the same words and provides the same lessons, climb the intellectual ladder at the same pace? If the answer is no, then what do we know? And is that detail important?

Bandura and self-efficacy. I think we know enough about confidence to know that we don't know how much is too much or how little is too little, just as we know that we can have nothing to say about a specific child's self-efficacy no matter how much we know about self-efficacy until we know about the specific child. And if we don't know that, what do we know? And is that detail important?

I could go on, of course. Erikson and the development of identity. Freud and the ego. Stages of moral development. Research findings on adolescent stress. Should we be interested in the generalities about boys and girls or about the details of a specific boy and a specific girl? What theory-driven, research-derived insight about boys and girls is useful when you are face to face with your own child? sister? brother? parent? nephew? niece? grandchild? I am reminded of the quip that, "Before I had children I had several theories about raising children. Now I have several children and no theories."

Perhaps as social scientists we can be comforted by the rules, and call them elegant insights. Or I suppose we could equally be troubled by the exceptions and call all rules formalisms. We could be troubled by the details. For it is in the details that these theories, these generalities, seem to falter. Do the generalities blind us to the details? "Theory blinds observation," Carol Gilligan claimed. Do the details really weaken our generalities? "Do not attack a generalization with a specific," professors warn. What a dilemma.

Can empiricism and the scientific method save us from this dilemma? Can well-conducted investigations and sound statistical analyses aid us in reconciling our generalities with the details that confound them? The purpose of scientific inquiry is to investigate the variance in human conduct. Variance is about difference it is about the difference between what is expected and what is actually known. But it is not the variance in human conduct that interests researchers. Rather, it is the common elements of human conduct, and it is these common elements and not the variance that define for researchers the essence of being human. An analysis of variance, ironically, is an analysis of generalities.

It is at the very least a bit embarrassing for a professor of development to come to the end of a course only to warn his students that they may want to rethink those things he has tried to teach them. Not to mention that they should ignore it all when they come in contact with a living soul.

But that is not where I want to leave you with this dilemma. That would be unconscionable. But what can I say that will help you to, as Blum puts it, bridge the gap between principles and particular situations? What can I say that will help you decide how you might maintain the balance between the meanings obtained from research and theory and the meanings of the details, especially given the initial injunction that God and the Devil, truth and knowledge, are in those details.

Let me see if I can be of some help to this end. I'm sure that none of you are old enough to remember the Alfred Hitchcock Show. It was in black and white. Each and every week on the Alfred Hitchcock Show, Alfred would present to the viewing audience a mystery. The mystery was always completely engrossing. A body would fall out a closet door, a conspiracy would be discovered, the lead character would be followed by a mysterious person. For the better part of a half hour each week, millions tuned in to experience the thrill of the mystery and the vicarious feeling of tension. Because everyone loves a mystery.

The problem, of course, was that the clever Mr. Hitchcock seldom bothered to solve the mystery he presented. Instead, viewers were left hanging, frustrated, irritated. Usually, the story just ended, with no resolution whatsoever. So all we got was the mystery. And I thought, "It's just a television show, just a story, for goodness sake. How difficult can it be to write a proper ending?" But no resolution. All we got were details. The details of the crime, the details of the crime scene, the details of the police search. What did Mr. Hitchcock expect? Did he expect us to solve the mystery on our own? We were the viewers, not the writers.

After the show, everyone in our family would argue about how the show should have ended . . . this could have happened, that could have happened. This is what probably happened. Didn't you see how he looked at her? But he was stabbed from the back. Don't you remember how the alarm didn't go off? For the rest of the evening, we argued about the details and solved the weekly mystery, each in our own way. I'm not sure any of us got any better at solving it. How could we know? I do think that we got better at paying attention to the clues.

The show was finally canceled. I suspect that most viewers couldn't handle the absence of a resolution.