"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Power of “Basic Assumptions”

In the reading titled “Three Levels of Culture” written by Edgar H. Schein, he describes his basic conceptual model of culture having three levels: artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and basic underlying assumptions, e.g. unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs and values.He goes on the state that “basic assumptions….tend to be nonconfrontable and nondebatable, and hence extremely difficult to change.”   He cautions that “we tend to perceive the events around us as congruent with our assumptions, even if that means distorting, denying, projecting, or in other ways falsifying to ourselves what may be going on around us.”  Perhaps this can explain why I was functionally illiterate until the fifth grade.

In my early childhood years I attend a public school in an economically depressed neighborhood riddled with violence.  Our classrooms were always frothing with chaos and sometimes were outright dangerous.  It was in the 4th grade that I experienced the blade of a kitchen knife held to my neck by one of my fellow students.

For the most part, the teachers held basic underlying assumptions that their students were incapable of learning, prone to violence, and will never amount to anything.  Ironically, just as Schein warns that “if people are treated consistently in terms of basic assumptions, they come eventually to behave according to those assumptions…” which we did.  I recall how relieved I was when my Dad returned home from the Vietnam War and announced we were moving to a new city.

The new neighborhood was more affluent than the previous one and it was also safer.  My new school had a very good academic reputation and I quickly learned that the basic underlying assumptions held by my new teachers were that their students were highly capable of learning, emotionally stable, and had the potential to go to college. I also remember how shocked my teacher was about my extremely low literacy skills.

Fortunately for me, her basic underlying assumptions enabled her to view me as a teaching opportunity vice a loss cause.  The intervention was stressful and arduous for both student and teacher, but by the end of the academic year I had acquired the appropriate literacy skills for my grade level.  Consequently, my teacher had profoundly changed the course of my life. 

As educators, we all have an obligation to become aware of, and analyze, the basic underlying assumptions that influence our behavior, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. With this understanding we can exponentially increase our teaching efficiency and effectiveness.  Without it, we can do grave damage and permanent harm to our students.
According to the MIT Sloan School of Management faculty directory, Edgar H. Schein is the Society of Sloan Fellows Professor of Management Emeritus and a Professor Emeritus.  “He investigates organizational culture, process consultation, research process, career dynamics, and organization learning and change.” (https://mitsloan.mit.edu/faculty/detail.php?in_spseqno=41040 ). In 2003, Edgar Schein was ranked 17th as one of the most influential management thinkers in the world by The Thinkers50 (http://www.thinkers50.com/t50-ranking/2003-2/)


  1. Bob, thank you for sharing this story! What a powerful example of how our basic assumptions as educators can affect the lives of others around us. This reminds me of Paulo Freire's premise that "education is not neutral" and that the "interaction of students and teachers does not take place in a vacuum." (Wallerstein, p. 33).

  2. Great post, Bob. Like Rachel, I was thinking of parallels with the Frier readings--the women in Nan Elsasser's class & how Elsasser "assumed" that the women could read and write their own world, with support of course. Basic Humanism! And thank you for the background on Schein! Glad you resonated with his chapter!


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.