Scaffolding: Its Pertinence and Importance
Most people realize that western culture thinks differently today than previous generations, but few can explain why it is different. In prior times, people-as-a-whole appeared to act and to think more orderly and morally, but to a lesser degree now. Why?
The picture of a scaffold is helpful in explaining this dilemma. I believe it was first used by Stephen Toulmin, author of Cosmopolis, to describe the effect of modern thinking (the age of modern science and reason from 1687 onward) and to depict it as an changing structure whose patterns of thinking exchanged certain beliefs (some of which Toulmin labeled “half-truths”) in order to frame a new system of belief for a particular period of history.
When you think of a scaffold that a bricklayer or painter uses, normally you envision four primary components: 1) the platform (where the bricklayer or painter stands to do the work), 2) the frames (the sides of the scaffold that ground the platform), 3) the braces (the intersecting steel bars that secure the frames), and 4) the hardware (the screws and bolts that lock everything in place).
In similar ways, the idea of a scaffold is helpful in picturing how an individual, society and culture-as-a-whole thinks and processes information. Intellectual scaffolds operate like “paradigms” that Thomas Kuhn discussed in his well-known work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Scaffolds are processing networks, the way individuals, communities, societies and cultures make decisions. They serve as a systematic framework for evaluating and concluding information—a structure that produces decisions/convictions that mold and shape an individual’s and society’s worldview.
Since platforms, frames, braces and hardware make up a typical worker’s scaffold, these elements similarly make up a person’s and a society’s decision-making apparatus. The platforms of an intellectual scaffold represent the grounds upon which an individual or society bases their beliefs. This is the visible component. Normally, it is the first thing that is seen or heard since it reveals the actions and speech coming from a person or group. A platform represents the actions, words and lifestyle that reveals the kind of reality and truth that they believe and trust.
The frames in a scaffold represent the individual and predominant philosophies that determine the kind of platform (system of belief and practice) that people or societies possess. Some of the most recognizable frames that people and cultures-as-a-whole evidence today include skepticism (“I doubt practically everything”), egoism (“what’s in it for me?”), pragmatism (“if it works, do it”), and fear (from the past, present or future). Not all frames in a scaffold are “worldly” or bad. Some scaffolds can have frames of compassion, confidence, responsibility, duty, integrity, etc. in their composition. This helps us see why an individual’s intellectual scaffold (as well as an entire society) is unique. No two individuals and no two communities have the exact same scaffold. The reason is obvious: their frames (supporting philosophical beliefs and convictions) are different.
The braces in a scaffold typically represent the three or four most predominant beliefs or philosophies that govern the person’s belief system (scaffold) in place. Without these strong braces (active beliefs), the scaffold could not operate functionally. As a general rule of thumb, the foremost predominant philosophies that have described postmodern, and now post-Christian culture, are existentialism (“life is a game of survival and existence”), relativism (“what works for you may not work for me”), sensationalism (the appeal to the senses and the desire for the right “look” and appearance), and multiplicity (the desire and search for community, relationships and value in interpersonal networks). Other predominant beliefs are diversity (respecting others’ uniqueness), individualism (“what’s in it for me”), and skepticism (distrust of practically everything).
Although these philosophies appear more prominently in virtually every kind of advertising, music, sports, fashion and TV/cinema presentation, other beliefs such as mysticism (the search for the spiritual), nihilism (the rejection of all morality), performance (everything is a game or a challenge), credibility (who can I trust?) and authenticity (what is genuine?) also appear at times as an “undercurrent” set of beliefs that people often possess.
The hardware in a scaffold generally depicts the operating process that the mind uses to interpret and to evaluate the world around us. Just as hardware (nuts, bolts) are needed to bind the scaffold together to make it a supporting structure, so also the hardware in an intellectual scaffold represents the interpretive and processing “holding power” (operation) that makes a person or society think in particular and obvious ways. Hardware speaks to the actual operation of the scaffold, the peculiar way an individual or community chooses to look (through their paradigm) at a particular issue, event, action or behavior.
In summary, individuals make up local communities which are woven into larger societies that make up the fabric of a respective culture. In order to understand the thinking frameworks of an individual, community, or culture, you must discern and detect their peculiar intellectual scaffold, recognizing that scaffolds differ from one person to another, from one community to another community, and from one culture to another culture. Analyzing a person’s or community’s “scaffolding elements” provides opportunities to see what predominant beliefs exist in their worldview, and how the elements of the gospel can be injected into their mental world to change their scaffold from a worldly paradigm to a more gospel-centric paradigm.
The following diagram visualizes this concept and may prove helpful to visual learners: