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The Erosion of Childhood
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…
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