In response to:
How Much Can Man Change? from the September 10, 1964 issue
To the Editors:
In his review of Benjamin Bloom’s book, Bruno Bettelheim attributes to Erik Erikson the view that unless the earliest experiences of children are favorable to their acquiring the basic senses of trust, initiative, and autonomy, it will later be be impossible for them to obtain the sense of industry necessary for learning. Actually, Erikson departs from Freudian determinism, and while he thinks that certain personality traits are chiefly acquired at specific stages in the life cycle, he does not feel that the traits acquired at specific stages in the life cycle, he does not feel that the traits acquired in each stage are immutable. Furthermore, Erikson strongly emphasizes the importance of the latency (grammar school age) and adolescent stages in personality formation.
Far worse than Mr. Bettelheim’s misinterpretation of Erikson, however, is his implied racism. Similar to the Southerner who argues that the Negro is biologically inferior, Mr. Bettelheim states that by age five his environment has made the Negro child irremediably inferior. Thus, why bother, except from an abstract sense of justice, giving him good schools when they won’t do him any good anwyay? In this context it is worthwhile to quote Erikson’s specific remarks on the Negro child:
Negro babies often receive sensual satisfactions which provide them with enough oral and sensory surplus for a lifetime… [But] the Negro…by the pressure of tradition and the limitation of opportunity is forced to identify with [his] own evil identity [i.e., with the white stereotype of the Negro] …All of this impresses us with the dangers awaiting the minority-American who, having successfully graduated from a marked and wellguided stage of autonomy, enters the most decisive stage of American childhood, that of initiative and industry (Childhood and Society, pp. 243, 244, 245).
Mr. Bettelheim seems to reason that, because most Negroes are socially and culturally disadvantaged, they must have had unsatisfactory infancies, and therefore any later possibilities for advancement are precluded. Yet there is no reason to assume that the majority of Negro mothers do not provide their children with enough maternal love. Erikson states quite specifically that “the amount of trust derived from earliest infantile experience…[depends] on the quality of the maternal relationship” (Childhood and Society, p. 249). And there is particularly no reason to jump from the neutral finding that young children suffering from severe personality warp may never overcome these problems and may not be able to profit from the school experience to the conclusion that Negro children will not benefit from better schools. Mr. Bettelheim cites studies showing that a child’s possible achievement level is almost entirely determined before he reaches school, and thus, apparently, is not raised by the quality of the school. He neglects, however, to mention those studies which show that as the Negro child attending segregated schools progresses through the grades, the gap between his achievement level and that of a white child who started at a similar level widens.
Mr. Bettelheim concludes that “all our educational planning for the underprivileged begins when for all practical purposes it is too late.” But the great need for efforts to reach underprivileged children before they attain school age should not obscure the fact that, no matter what the child’s potential is when he reaches school, he requires decent schools to fulfill that potential. Nor should one forget that many Negro children, probably the majority, are sufficiently motivated to do well at school and have parents who value education. Bad schools, discrimination, and the undesirable identification imposed on them by segregation can only create frustration and a feeling of inferiority in these children.
Susan S. Bove