How Much Can Man Change?

Stability and Change in Human Characteristics

by Benjamin S. Bloom
John Wiley, 237 pp., $7.00

How much can man change and at what age is it too late to hope for very much change? It has been important that we know, but we had no means of doing so. Now thanks to Professor Bloom’s study of Stability and Change in Human Characteristics we do know, and the implications for social planning are vast indeed.

The dialectic process never stops. Only recently has American social science adopted the psychoanalytic view of man; hence the widespread conviction that human personality is shaped in infancy, and that the early characteristics are extremely resistant to change. Nevertheless, we find our social scene flooded with statements on how this or that form of social engineering is going to change personality at an age when (according to psychoanalytic theory) personality can hardly be changed short of long-term therapy or some influence of equal depth.

If it is not already plain, I am speaking, among other things, about the present controversy over school integration. Mixing children of different backgrounds is supposed to change the outlook on life of the culturally deprived child and to improve his academic progress, as if both were not determined before he entered kindergarten or first grade. We are told that the attitude toward learning is such a superficial characteristic that it depends merely on what happens in class, or with whom one goes to school. Often the same social scientist who believes on the one hand that infant rearing shapes personality claims on the other that the intellectual virtues are superficial enough to be conditioned by chance experiences in class. But, in fact, psychoanalytic theory holds that the attitudes formed in infancy are what condition the classroom experience.

More recent revisions of psychoanalytic theory deny that the basic personality, on which the child’s view of learning depends, is essentially formed with the resolution of the Oedipus complex. According to the most important revision of the Freudian system, that of Erik Erikson, basic trust is the ground rock of all later trust in others (including one’s teachers) and in oneself (so vital in attacking problems) and depends on the very earliest experiences of life. If these have not been favorable, they may condition, inversely, a life-long distrust of others (including one’s teachers and what they teach) and of oneself. As if this were not bad enough, our autonomy—including the qualities required to attack intellectual problems—depends on experiences we have only slightly later in life, and so does our ability to take initiative in meeting problems. When school age finally comes, it is the combination of trust, autonomy, and initiative that will condition whether or not we are capable of the industry so important for learning. Conversely, if our pre-school experience has bred mistrust, shame, doubt, or guilt into the personality, the school experience will reflect not industry, but inferiority.

If Erikson is correct, then the school experience of one kind of child will stand under the triad of trust, initiative, and industry, characteristics which will send an intelligent…

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