Individuality, Humanity, and the Person


Anthropologists in the tradition of the "culture-and-personality" school often regarded educational processes as it privileged domain for the understanding of cultural attitudes. Some authors Sound its if they believe In a direct causal relationship between educational techniques (such as swaddling) and religion, social structure, or intellectual history. Even if these are rare extremes, I must stress here more than they did that the type of education given by members of a society to their children is culturally determined--in other words, that education is shaped by sociocultural choices. This is the position that will be taken in this book, not because of any a priori decision on the order of the causal relationship in this "chicken-and-egg" business, if there is any, but because of a methodological choice: my research is oriented rather toward a synchronic understanding of adult positions and a study of some of the consequences of these positions than toward a more diachronic or processual analysis of the life histories of persons going through the system. This, indeed, is the meaning of the very plan of this book. Also important in approaching education from the educator's point of view rather than from that of the educated is that in America adults have been very conscious of the importance of education. They have been the source of many philosophic and intellectual statements about what education is and should be. And this consciousness of purpose belongs not only to intellectuals or even professional educators but to most of the people I have talked to on the subject in Appleton.


Definitions of, the nature of the educational process and of the manner in which children should be educated abound in Appleton and are very well summarized in the following two statements that I reproduce almost verbatim. The first statement, more conservative and philosophic, was made by a judge:

"We can do only one thing in our schools and in our homes, and it is to explain to our children why we have made the choices we made in our life, moral and otherwise, give them both sides of the question and all the reasons that have made us decide for one way rather than for the other. If we are good parents, and if we have good teachers, we should be able to make out- children understand us and follow our tracks."

The second statement, more liberal and technical, was made by a schoolteacher:
"The students nowadays do not want and should not be taught as they used to be taught with a lecture from me one day and a quiz the following day to find out whether they can regurgitate what I told them the day before. They should express their opinions and teach themselves."

I heard variations on these statements many times, even from parents who disapproved of the liberal methods of education that had completely invaded the public school curriculum and were starting to be used in the Catholic parochial school too. I rarely heard statements denying the first statement directly or by implication. This was particularly true among the most educated and reflective informants. The only homes in which I was told that education should be merely a process of indoctrinating children with a set of undiscussed truths were those of informants whose European background still pervaded all their other attitudes.

The Catholic school was a fortress of such sentiments until recently, when it began to give in to more orthodox-that is, "liberal"-attitudes. European influences were fading away with the disappearance of the immigrants who had dominated the parish until they were replaced in positions of responsibility by their children or grandchildren. Indeed, It %%,as striking to see that many recent and not-so-recent graduates of the parochial school had finally been almost totally enculturated into mainstream Americanism.

Implicit In the statements I quoted is the Idea that the child is already a fully formed person who Call make choices based oil rational and intellectual premises a person who possesses the inner wisdom to "teach himself," to discern truthful, or at least useful, statements of fact from other statements that might be appealing for purely emotional reasons. The second quote is reminiscent of Plato's idea that truth is inherent in every human being or at least that anybody may be led to discover the truth for himself. Indeed. when a teacher is very good at the Socratic method, real teaching may take place in the classrooms where spontaneous methods are used. If not, it is clear that no teaching is possible-teaching as distinct from education, which should be considered a more general process from which no child can escape, whatever method is used. Many students in Appleton had so well accepted the idea that they were free agents as far as being taught is concerned, that it was becoming more and more difficult for parents and teachers to retreat from the extreme position they had reached, as some said they would like to do. It was all the more difficult because this freedom of children to develop according to their own permanent%' was not restricted to the classroom.

Among my informants in Appleton, the children were left essentially free to choose then- own life-styles in their early teens ill many families, and certainly in all of them by the time they entered their junior year in high school. In the context of other aspects of American culture, this meant that children differentiated themselves from their parents very early; indeed, that they were more or less expected and educated to do so. Differentiation has been institutionalized; the generation gap is a necessary by-product of the structure.

The pervasiveness of the push toward differentiation between children and their parents is amazing, and it is difficult to realize that there is nothing "natural" about it. When the thirteen-year-old daughter of the Methodist minister stuck a Joe Namath poster oil the ceiling of her otherwise very conservative bedroom with the amused tolerance of her parents, one can measure the extent of the acceptance of the idea that a child is a full person, an individual who should be left free to develop through Ills or her own whims and desires. Both parents and children would Say that there are limits to this freedom. They meant that though the parents expect and prod their children into significant variations from their own pattern, this variation call become too great and trigger negative responses by the parents. The children may persist and then break community they used to away from the parents, abandoning the form with the parents it, much in same way Mr. Howard broke from the Farm Bureau The child may also desist and come back to a safe level of variation. Some parents may allow a wider range of variation than others, and some children may be more adept at minimizing overt conflict; in all cases, the process remains the same.

Another way of measuring the institutionalization of this definition of the nature of a child as an individual is through the observation that even among the most educated informants, who were not professionally involved in the field of education, few would quote the libertarian educators of the past fifty years: John Dewey, Margaret Mead, or Dr. Benjamin Spock. Furthermore, many informants who classified themselves as politically conservative gave a great amount of freedom to their children, while some liberals held a tighter rein and showed more interest in their development

A corollary to this view of the child as an autonomous human being very early in its life can be found in what is often called the lack of interest displayed by many parents concerning the actions of their children. But this should not be seen purely in these terms, for it is also closely linked to the idea that children cannot be interested in the business of adults and thus would not want to participate in many activities or even be present. This was not expressed solely in negative terms--parents refusing the presence of their children at social functions. It was also stated positively as the need for children to have interactions with other children rather than with adults, since the absence of such interactions would endanger the full development of the child. The refusal to systematically involve children with adults 'Was thus often a sign of positive interest in the child's welfare.

This was translated into action in many ways. Very young children would be left at home with a babysitter instead of being taken to the activity the parents were attending; nurseries were provided during church services and oil other social occasions; and so oil. When they were older, children would be left at home, sometimes alone more often with their own friends Very soon they discovered that they were not "wanted," that they vvcrc Special and different from their parents, that they might and even had to, have their own activities. By the time they reached their teens, they generally had come to prefer their own company to that of adults. From time to time a church group would remark that this break was too sharp, that parents and children should he together during church dinners to prove their solidarity I never observed any success in such attempts at intergenerational solidarity. The older children resisted being seated with their parents and ended up at a table by themselves; the younger children might successfully be forced to eat with their parents but were always moved to the nursery as soon as the meal ended and before the program started. The same distinction is revealed in this statement by a woman about her daughter: "When Grace turns sixteen next year, we will buy her a car if we can. It is so much more convenient. I have my clubs, and she has her activities. Our time schedules do not coincide, and it is a lot of trouble for me to go and pick her up or for her to wait for me."

Some adults, like the church group mentioned above stressed by this dichotomy between the two worlds and talk about "bringing families back together." Many more, particularly the less reflective, protested vocally and somewhat aimlessly that young people are given too much freedom nowadays." Very few adults were conscious of the relationship between designing special activities for children and the children eventually designing their own special activities with little consideration given to whether their parents approved of them or not.

Parents considered their young children to be different from them; older children came to believe this, too, and they expressed it. This resulted in the often paradoxical spectacle of an otherwise totally respectable and conservative youth antagonizing his or her respectable and conservative parents on very minor points rendered all-important at the time of the exchange for no apparent purpose other than an affirmation of freedom on the part of the youth.

The revolt of children in their middle and late teens is culturally necessary. It does not have to be very radical, but it must be communicated verbally and otherwise to the parents or to an authority representing adult society (the police, the dominant political parties) in such a way as to create a dramatic tension, even in the many cases where the positions of the parent and child are not so far apart. This is indeed what happens and it soon becomes very hard for adults to realize that they, too. revolted. But they were looking from a different side of the generation gap, to use all anachronistic term, and they do not recognize the landscape from their point of view. They remember that, apart from a few pranks, they were nice kids, and now they see their children turning "wild", or they are made to believe that this is what is happening but if they could look at their children without passion, they would see that apart from a few pranks, like getting drunk on strawberry wine or high on pot, their children possess a system of values very close to their own. Their children are just as individualistic and understand the need to build a feeling of community just as much as their parents.

Sociology as Psychology

Appleton High School did not have classes in personal hygiene or the modern world, but it had a class in sociology, which turned out to have a very similar purpose: to discuss and explain the modern world to the students before they confronted the world Outside after their graduation. This language reveals the generally accepted idea that upon graduation from high school, the child, who has reached the age of sixteen to eighteen, becomes socially autonomous and morally responsible. If there is to be a sharp break between a child and parents, it is at this time that it occurs; and even when the break is more latent than open, all signs point to the importance of this period: the first dates, the first unsupervised parties (the first time one gets drunk or high), the first time that church youth groups are considered autonomous. Senior year in high school is thus the last formal occasion when the adults can try to influence their children. Informal communication may have ceased before that time, or it may continue afterward; the formal break occurs at graduation from high school, and indeed the first real change in the life of a young man or woman does occur then (I should note here that the percentage of children finishing high school in Appleton is high-in 1960 more than 50 percent of the adults had a high school education or more; in the 1968-69 school year, the dropout rate was only 5 percent), whether he or she is going on to college, getting a Job, or marrying

The high school sociology class was an attempt to verbally communicate indicate a certain view of, society to file soon-to-be-graduated students By this time, the students had been totally enculturated They had organized their own private lives according to rules they had abstracted from the actions and statements of their parents. The most enlightened teachers did not even attempt to impose their personal viewpoint on the students. But while they perceived their intervention ;Is consisting solely In the elicitation and clarification of, each students viewpoint they were Imposing a cultural view- the viewpoint that moral decisions are a matter of individual rather than group responsibility. Some students, among the most thoughtful, were disturbed by such a relativization of values, which they perceived as a hostile challenge to their more absolute beliefs.

In Appleton the relativistic argument was, however, fully accepted by most teachers and students. The class in sociology concentrated more on a presentation of the problems that certain moral decisions may create than on the dogmatic enunciation of a comprehensive system. There was a system, of course, but it was implicit rather than explicit, which is interesting in itself. The class was explicitly about morals but only implicitly about a particular system of morals (American). When it became explicit, as sometimes happened, what was stressed was the way in which the individual person gives morals meaning and how dissent is permissible.

Nine topics were discussed in class: (1) personality (self-concept), (2) sex education, (3) marriage and the family, (4) religion and the new morality, (5) drugs, (6) crime and delinquency, (7) mental health, (8) black-white relationships, and (9) demography All were dealt with similarly. A movie would be shown or an oral report would be given by a group of students. It would set tip a situation, and a discussion would develop on the proper response. The situations were considered as given from the outside. The consequences that might be attached to the various solutions were also often considered as given. But the process of situation-to-consequence was not considered given because it depended on an individual decision. Would you/should you have sex before marriage? What are the consequences for the individuals involved in getting married and having children? What are the dangers of drugs? And so on.

In the discussions, dominated by the students' perceptions but chaired by the teacher, no consideration was given to the forces, sociological or cultural, that shape individual action. They were not denied, just forgotten. What was stressed was that action is shaped through the mental constitution of the individual and that this form of, shaping is of overriding importance. Society is active only through a reinterpretation of- its pressures by the individual. May be it is the environment that makes people commit crimes, but through either will, psychological treatment, or salvation, they can transcend this environment. The individual dominates society, and if he is weak, another individual (therapist, preacher) can help him. Fills was not presented as an act of faith as in the Farm Bureau Creed but ill, the result of, scientific inquiry into the nature of human action.

I have emphasized that this perspective on human action must be seen as cultural and "arbitrary" to the world in the Saussurian sense, and not in any simpleminded way scientific or necessary. It may also be scientific, or at least useful for the development of our understanding of the individual psyche, but it was not its scientific quality that made the approach possess what Geertz has called, in reference to religion, "compelling facticity." It is something that was much more pervasive, an approach to the interpretation of social life that sprang out wherever there was a need to talk about human action, be it in the conscious declaration of one's faith, the unconscious patterning of one's way of telling one's history, or the search for a proper answer to questions posed to all adolescents in any culture as they grow up biologically and culturally. And at the same time as it is a perspective useful for the development of the discipline of psychology, it is one that may be fundamentally at odds with the sociological mind, which may explain why the "sociology" taught by the teacher I observed had such a "psychological" quality.

Kinship and Marriage

American kinship was recently, and brilliantly, studied by David M. Schneider. I did not go to Appleton to check on his analysis, nor did I see myself as building on his work. That I ended doing just this is interesting in itself. Thus, I will not explore the domain of kinship in any great detail. What I would like to do is to give a brief indication of the way Schneider's conclusions fit with the argument I am making.

To do so, I will first return to the text provided by the life history of the Howards and their children. They never told me anything to make me believe that their definitions of the units of kinship were ally different from those that Schneider collected. For the Howards, like all other people I talked to in Appleton, a family is, first, the unit composed of a husband, his wife, and their children. Only secondarily is it the unit of all the living relatives. Husbands and wives are together because they love each other. This is symbolized by sexual intercourse. There is a difference in the social world between people to whom one is related and those to whom one Is not. The former are one's kin. A further differentiation is made among these according to whether the relationship is by blood; that is, the result of a marriage contracted by the speaker or one of his blood relatives.

These are some of the features used by my informants to distinguish a certain type of people from other people-what Schneider calls "the distinctive features which define the person as a relative." Those features are rarely discussed as such; they are thought to be grounded in a scientific analysis of the world and thus to be unchallengeable. They can be assumed and taken for granted. When one tries to explain to an informant that in some societies people make a distinction between patrilateral and matrilateral cousins, this is generally greeted by a blank stare, a shrug of the shoulders, and a comment to the effect that "of course" those people "do not know" the facts of life, that "really" cousins are all the same whether they are born of the father's siblings or of the mother's. What cannot be assumed is the way relatives ought to conduct themselves toward each other, and references to cross-cultural variation in the code of conduct expected from relatives can lead to lively discussions. How women should be treated by men, children by their parents, how one should treat the children of one's son's wife by her first husband-all this is problematic and is constantly being renegotiated.

The only requirement is that relatives, particularly the closer ones, "love" each other or, at the very least, "be nice" to each other. These specifications, however, remain very vague indeed. They cannot be taken as a guide for everyday behavior toward relatives. At most they are a yardstick against which to measure whether one's practical actions are appropriate. As I will mention later, natives can recognize whether love is present, but they do not define it. Love, liking, being nice to, are relations, not formally spelled-out contents. Biological fathering, on the other hand, is purely a content because one remains a father to one's children even if, whether through death, divorce, or abandonment, one never relates to them. Children, of course, are in a problematic position, for they participate in both content--or "substance," as Schneider calls it--and code of conduct. One is expected to take care of one's progeny, physically at least (as through child- support payments), until their majority. After that, children lose their substance, and any further help is voluntary--an expression of love, riot of biologically based necessity.

People do relate to their kin. They are simply entitled to relate to them in whatever way they please--with great warmth or bare politeness, or not at all. One may deal differently with relatives of the same type. One may even, within one family group, consider one's relatives in a different way from other members of the group. The relationship between Mr. Howard and his sister is a case in point. lie felt somewhat close to her but was not able to make his own family participate in this relationship. In fact, it is not only relationships between family units or between somewhat distant relatives that remain unspecified; relationships between spouses or between parents and grown-up children are just as vague and dependent on the persons involved.

Schneider deals at great length with this lack of definiteness of the code of conduct. He shows that the specific code of conduct chosen by two relatives in their relationship depends solely on a decision made by these people. For those two people, for certain families, for certain subgroups, the code of conduct may be very specific indeed, involving strict rules as to gift giving, greeting-card exchange, regular invitations, and so on. But even among those who demand a rigid code of conduct, it will be insisted that specific acts are only symbols of the love that is supposed to bind family members, that they express and reinforce their love and should not be considered an end in themselves.

As Schneider says, a relative is a person, and in one's dealings with one's relatives, one must always take this into consideration. The vagueness of the code of conduct is thus not a matter of statistical variation. It is not a result of the fact that in no society do people consistently follow the rules dictated by that culture. The vagueness or, to be more precise, the possibility of choice between different codes of conduct and the resulting variations that can be observed in such an outwardly well-integrated community as Appleton are built-in structural factors in American culture.

Thus it can be understood why the impression I got. from my initial talk with I

I I'm Howard (see page 22) was mistaken. Mr. Howard was not it patriarch, nor could lie be because patriarchy is outside die American cultural structure. When Jim talked of his Littler as it good mail a better man than Ills mother, lie wits not implying anything about Ills authority or tit(- special rights and responsibilities of fathers In general. Indeed, Jim Was not talking about it father so much its lie was talking about it unique Individual, it person to whom lie happened to be related its soil but who could he evaluated com para ively In much the same manner its any other person he may have met. The point of reference was not fatherhood. Jim might have said the same thing about his mother. The point of reference was the more general humanity of the person as expressed in a unique psychological makeup.

Individualism and Social Structure

My analysis of the Farm Bureau showed that it was an organization whose membership was open to (1) anyone who could call himself a farmer, and (2) anyone who accepted a certain set of means to reach a more widely desired goal. I have just shown that a family is a group open to (1) anyone who can prove relationship to the group by blood or by law, and (2) anyone from that set of people who accepts a certain code of conduct that is, in fact, a set of practical steps toward a more general goal. The parallelism in structure is evident.

Farming, like being related, is an objective thing. One cannot declare oneself a farmer if one cannot demonstrate that one actually farms. joining the Farm Bureau is like marriage: the act is unequivocal, but it is a matter of personal choice initially and a matter of maintaining unanimity of purpose, or at least the pretense of it, during the tenure of the association. Marrying and joining the Farm Bureau are both "forever," though this aspect of the relationship is ritually stressed much more in marriage. Yet joining the Farm Bureau is never considered a temporary move. and there is no formal limit to it; indeed, most Farm Bureau memberships, like most marriages, are forever.

Conversely, divorce is permissible and relatively frequent. (The rate of divorce in Appleton is slightly lower than in the United States as a whole. In 1970 it was 44 percent.) Why does one divorce in Appleton? Sometimes because of what could be considered a strong breach of the code of behavior, such as when one's wife or husband becomes an alcoholic or heroin addict, though much more often it is for more elusive reasons. ("We just could not stand each other anymore I did not know her when we got married and she turned out to be a bitch.") In some cases, the fact that the husband if has been found -going out with" other women or men may be called the "last straw," but if one investigates further, it is found that the real breach is explained as having occurred before and as being basically of a personal and psychological nature.

The cultural perception of interpersonal relations remains structurally similar In all the domains, kinship and otherwise that have explored. In fact, it is possible to go further and argue, following the lead offered by Schneider, that it would be a mistake to interpret the view Americans have of their society as involving several domains that would be "structurally similar." It might be said that there is really but one system of principles regulating interpersonal relationships, which applies to all the situations confronting Americans. This system involves what I have called "individualism"; that is, the necessity to deal with other persons in a way that is negotiated on an ad hoc basis.

In other words, the social structure of a town like Appleton the term "social structure" being understood as the system that Americans have created to direct their interpersonal, social intercourse-is not made tip of different groups considered to be in a symbiotic relationship, but rather of different individuals who come together to do something. Appleton is not divided into "wife-givers" and "wife- receivers." Nor is it divided, as Indo-European societies were, into a system of merchants, farmers, warriors, and priests. Nor is it dichotomized between a working proletariat and a group of capitalist entrepreneurs--between a peuple and a bourgeoisie. It is divided into as many individuals as there are people in the town.

I said that these individuals are considered to come together to do things. What are these things? I mentioned farming and farmers, procreating and relatives. There are, of course, many other such categories of people: doctors, merchants, factory workers, Italians, blacks, and so on. A complete listing of all these categories would not mean much because they are, culturally speaking, indefinite. They describe what people do, not how they relate to each other. A person can be a member of several of these categories: he can be an Italian, and also an industrialist, and a grandfather, and a husband; he may play different roles, but he is still considered to remain the same person, "himself," within these roles. This allows him to refuse participation in a trade association, to divorce his wife, to refuse to help his children financially to dissociate himself his or, conversely, to claim ethnicity when the blood claims are very weak.

The distinctive features of kinship are grounded In biology; whatever it is that scientists say genetics is, is what constitutes descent. Similarly with farming I- doctoring. One is not a legitimate farmer or physician If one does not follow I he edicts of science and technology, objective disciplines that tell us "how it really is." Therefore it is possible and legitimate to talk of such ad hoc groups as the farmers, or the townspeople, or the Howard family. They are all the people who are related to an outside, objective, substantial quality, whether they relate to each other or not. One may use a generic term in such contexts either when one has to explain to an outsider what one does ("I am a famer .... .. I am Irish") or when one is dealing with a group of persons not as persons but as people related to the objective in which one is interested. Thus the farmers are a group for the machinery dealers in town because their livelihood is dependent on what the farmers do-how successful they are at it. Who individual farmers are is irrelevant in this context.

The distinction made is that between dealing with man in his relations to nonhuman, objective reality--such as biological facts or technological areas--and interacting with another individual ill a manner negotiated by the two for the duration of the interaction. American moralists have often argued that the latter mode of interaction is better than the former, precisely because it is individualistic and takes the personality of the other into account. In fact, America is also the culture that accepted most rapidly the rationalization of labor in industry, with its antipersonal implications. It is also agreed that any process that involves evaluation of an individual must be grounded in objective criteria that are not dependent upon the relationship between the evaluator and the evaluated.

There is one apparent exception to the vagueness of the definition of the code of conduct: the fact that, as I noted, parents are not free not to take care of their children. It is recognized that small children cannot be physically independent, though they are considered to be emotionally independent at the earliest possible age. Thus it is somebody's Job to take care of them, just as it is somebody's Job to produce food for the rest of the population. This person is the parent, who must raise the child. However, parents and children are also individuals who have to Interact, and thus its soon as the child is old enough I() respond on an basis a decision must be made its to the type of interaction--positive negative, and so on--that will prevail between the two. This is why there is a formal end to the job of being a parent, both by law (the parent is responsible for a child for eighteen years) and by custom (the parent is responsible for a child until the latter's graduation from high school).