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In recent years, perhaps as a reaction to the narrow “categorical” social policies of the 1960s and ’70s, social thinking has ballooned into [being COMPREHENSIVE] at every opportunity. But so long as philosophers and scientists continue to puzzle over a unifying theory of everything, it is a safe bet that hardly anything will be truly comprehensive.

Addressing more than one thing at a time is admirable, but calling that comprehensive essentially ducks the really important question: Just how many things are you addressing, and how realistic is that?

The boundless enthusiasm of COMPREHENSIVE is admirable (who wouldn’t prefer to solve everything, rather than just a few things?). But one chore of clear writing is to help such enthusiasm find-dare we say it? – some perimeters. A graduate-school research paper several years back began its concluding section with the cliché “All things considered…,” to which a weary professor scribbled the concise marginal put-down, “ambitious.” That is essentially the problem with COMPREHENSIVE. It implies the due consideration of a great many things, maybe even everything, but fails to own up to its limits.

A COMPREHENSIVE initiative conveniently purports to unify all the important targets and direct action at all of them at once. The unstated presumption is that unimportant targets are, of course, omitted. And exactly which ones are those? Ahem, well, now, surely that is obvious…

COMPREHENSIVE has become all but compulsory in discussions of social policy and human services. Comprehensive planning, comprehensive reform, comprehensive alliances, comprehensive community-building. The word’s vagueness alone should be enough to arouse suspicions.


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