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State of the Child

The Mental and Social Life of Babies: How Parents Create Persons

by Kenneth Kaye
University of Chicago Press, 289 pp., $22.50

Siblings: Love, Envy and Understanding

by Judy Dunn, by Carol Kendrick
Harvard University Press, 289 pp., $18.50

The Erosion of Childhood

by Valerie Polakow Suransky
University of Chicago Press, 221 pp., $7.95 (paper)

A half-century ago psychologists and philosophers could still innocently make generalizations not only about the universal character of mind but about the “natural” way in which mind grows from infancy to such perfections as it may attain in adulthood. The proclivity to do so, it seems, proved extraordinarily robust even in the face of criticism from such anthropologists and advanced social philosophers as Franz Boas and G.H. Mead. The chief inheritor of that universalist tradition in our times was, of course, Jean Piaget—though his version of it could hardly be called innocent.

Recently, during the period of its dominance, developmental universalism came increasingly under attack from different quarters. Among the critics were the anthropologists, who made claims about the cultural relativism of the mind and its growth. The forms and functions of mental activity, they alleged, varied with the demands of cultural practice, linguistic structure, and with various “basic disciplines” imposed early and exigently within each culture. The social setting and the kit of symbolic instruments ranging from myths to vocabularies were singled out as the critical factors involved in the development of the mind.

The ideological form of this criticism charged such universal theories of mind and its growth as Piaget’s with ethnocentrism, claiming that all such theories were inappropriate projections of the culture of the theorist or, even more severely, that universal theories of childhood were instruments for furthering the values of a dominant group in the interest of exploiting “inferior” cultures or inferior social classes. If the growth pattern of middle-class, Western children could be established as the norm or as “natural,” it was that much easier to label non-literate cultures or the dispossessed of our own culture as “deficient.” Writers like Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich could accuse theories of “middle-class” development of supporting the exploitation of the children of the downtrodden as inferior. Such critics pointed to the school, the family, and even the toys and games of impoverished childhood as fetters designed to assure the power of the ruling class.

But there were other, less dramatic but possibly more powerful, criticisms brought against universalist views of human growth. One of them had its origin in the failures that seemed to be endemic to Piaget’s universal theory of cognitive development, a criticism that was widespread even before Piaget’s death two years ago. For Piaget, development consisted of passage through several stages of mental growth, each of which could be characterized by the set of formal logical rules that governed the mental “operations” typical of the stage. Progression from stage to stage depended upon the child’s self-initiated interaction with his environment; feedback from that environment produced the aliment (pablum) that nurtured growth to the next stage. The image of the child was of a solo problem-solver who had to figure out the invariances, the cause-and-effect relationships, and the other logical features of the world around him on his own—without the support system inherent in the language he was mastering, and without instruction from parents or peers. He had to act like a little intellectual in pursuit of his own conclusions. To master was to discover on one’s own. Everywhere the course of mastery was alleged to be the same, regardless of culture: it grew from “pre-operational” to “concrete operational” and finally to “formal operational” thought. Each stage of development had a structural integrity to it that could be likened to a system of logic.

The trouble was that when one got down to exploring children’s developing thought in situations other than that of the typical Geneva laboratory setting, the stages of its growth unraveled in a most disconcerting way. As Margaret Donaldson’s appealing little book of a few years ago demonstrated,* the level of mental achievement (the “stage”) of the child varied with the nature and familiarity of the task, with how it was presented by the experimenter, and with the language in which it was couched. The defense of Piaget’s Geneva school was to invoke décalage. Décalage asserts weakly, and without predictive power, that the shift from one stage to another is likely to occur in certain situations sooner than in others, an argument that is not only weak but begs the questions of the structural integrity of each stage of development. Décalage was for Piaget what the epicycles were for pre-Copernican astronomy. In effect, it brought the structuralist base of Piaget’s theory into question. How could the same child be “pre-operational” in one sphere, “concrete operational” in another, and “formal operational” in a third?

As if this were not enough, criticism arose out of a still more damaging set of findings, or alleged findings. Stimulated to a considerable extent by work in “artificial intelligence,” developmental psychologists began to discover that growth was uneven in different “content areas” of thought—e.g., in dealing with numbers and words—and that, indeed, the course from ignorance to expertise in the use of different forms of intelligence was not necessarily uniform. This amounts to saying what many would expect: that the young Mozart need not necessarily be expected to have had high social intelligence, or that the verbal genius of William Blake did not necessarily correspond to his putative mathematical talents or his skill as a mime.

Beneath the surface of this criticism there were two implicit premises. The first was that “mind” might consist of a set of “organs” each specialized along different lines, and that these organs would show their stuff when and only when they could find expression through various heuristic procedures like language, music, soccer, administrative structures, or whatever—all rather autonomous and self-sufficient. The “organs” of mind could be conceived of as “computational devices” or autonomous cognitive processes that were there to be awakened when faced by some appropriate “input” that unlocked their power. If you want to find out how poetic skills develop, some prominent psychologists advised, study how Auden or Robert Lowell became poets and compare that with how neophytes proceed. Study Robert McNamara for administrative skills, and so on. Never mind about the logical progression of universal growth. The truth is in the particulars.

The disputed role of language as an instrument of thought provided another source of criticism of developmental universalism. There has always been a powerful philosophical tradition, deriving from nominalism, that has seen language or some language-like system of symbols as the medium of exchange in which thought is conducted. Language in exchange was what was emphasized in this tradition, for shared meaning (or as the hermeneutic tradition would have it, negotiated meaning) is what shapes thought to the demands of social living.

This is a view that joins together such disparate thinkers as C.S. Peirce, G.H. Mead, Benjamin Lee Whorf, and Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky proposed that intellectual and social maturity depended upon the flowing together of the initially independent streams of thought and of language. His “zone of potential development,” central to his theory, describes a state of readiness for growth in which words invite thought. Growth takes place when verbal formulations can organize thought to correspond to the linguistic representation contained in the words. And indeed, the latter-day Geneva psychologists have moved toward Vygotsky: witness a famous article by Barbel Inhelder and her Geneva colleagues entitled “Nothing Succeeds like a Good Theory”—the “good theory” being a fitting verbal formulation.

From most of the foregoing one would gain the impression that growing up consisted principally of achieving intellectual prowess. And for a long time this was the chief focus of the Piagetians and the research they inspired—not surprising, since Piaget’s genetic epistemology had been preoccupied mainly with finding parallels between the growth of thought in children and the historical growth of logic, mathematics, and science. But as interest has risen in the ways that mental growth is determined by the situation of the learner, so too has interest grown in the specific settings and systems of incentives that support or promote intellectual growth (what Piaget used to dismiss as la question Américaine).

With that new interest there also arose a renewed concern with the social and the emotional life of children for its own sake. And as the issues broadened, research workers (bent on reformulation) became interested in earlier and earlier periods of development. In consequence, infant psychology and even infant psychiatry are now both flourishing professions, their respective world conferences in the last couple of years each drawing more than a thousand participants. The study of development, and particularly of development during infancy, has become a major growth industry.

So though students of development are still open to all kinds of charges including ethnocentrism, gender-centrism, class bias, and even ideological wickedness, they have nonetheless produced during the last decade more and better “hard” data concerning human development than ever existed in the preceding millennium. But what is lacking is an agreed-upon general theory, for much of this vigorous research has led to the rejection or questioning of older, grander, universal theories of growth, whether Piaget’s logicism, or Freud’s dramaturgical reconstructions of childhood from the free associations of his adult patients. All four books under review reflect this dilemma, created by the imbalance between data and theory.

Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences reflects some of the central preoccupations of recent psychology. It begins with a skeptical view of theories of general intelligence and of its development, and proposes instead to draw on the newer cognitive sciences and on theories of “artificial intelligence” in order to explore autonomous and special kinds of intelligence. On its face, in view of the tradition of mental testing, this may seem a tired idea. We have had accumulations of statistical data by generations of psychometricians who analyze intelligence tests, attempting to isolate from them “primary mental abilities”—verbal, numerical, and spatial, among others. The capacities that cannot be factored out are allocated to “g,” or general intelligence. But the statistical assumptions involved in such exercises in reducing data were so narrow that very little of theoretical substance has come from them.

Gardner rejects such methods. “In formulating my brief on behalf of multiple intelligences, I have reviewed evidence from a large and hitherto unrelated group of sources: studies of prodigies, gifted individuals, brain-damaged patients, idiots savants, normal children, normal adults, experts in different lines of work, and individuals from different cultures.” He sets up tough criteria to determine which kinds of intelligence are authentic, so tough, in fact, that it is not surprising that his book scores only a near miss—particularly in view of his “open” criterion that “a prerequisite for a theory of multiple intelligences…is that it captures a reasonably complete gamut of the kinds of abilities valued by human cultures. We must account for the skills of a shaman and a psychoanalyst as well as of a yogi and a saint.” His stringent criteria for what a proper intelligence would consist of are: a) it must have some demonstrable physical basis; therefore it can be destroyed or spared by a brain lesion; b) there are prodigies or gifted individuals who exhibit it; c) its core operations should be identifiable as “computational devices” or mental operations of some recognizable kind; d) it should exhibit a history of development to the point where people can be expert at it; e) it should have a plausible history in human evolution; and f) it should be in line with the data of other branches of psychology and the behavioral sciences.

  1. *

    Margaret Donaldson, Children’s Minds (Norton, 1978).

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