The Dangerous Fallacy of the Self-made Man

They say this is a first. It may be, but it should not be a surprise. It is in fact a symptom of the chronic disconnect which is now commonplace between the key institutions in Western society – families, schools, government. About 70 teachers in a school in Lancashire, England, are on picket duty outside their school and are refusing to return because of a breakdown in school discipline. The Daily Telegraph (April 7) reports that staff at Darwen Vale High School in Darwen are angry over a lack of backing from the head and other management at the school when they confront unruly children.

Simon Jones, a local National Union of Teachers official manning the picket line, said: ”This is not a strike against pupils. It is about management, and management failure to support staff in dealing with challenging behaviour. No one wants to demonise the children here; they are no better or no worse than any other.” Pity the poor teachers, pity the poor pupils. In a broken society all are victims. Few know why and even fewer know what to do about it. This is by no means a “sink” school. In fact, in the latest report on the school from the Office of Standards in Education last June, Darwen Vale was rated a good school where pupils’ behaviour was given a good rating.

Something really terrible has happened when an entire body of teachers in a school has felt compelled to down tools and walk out of their classrooms because they find themselves no longer able to do that which should be second nature to them – relate humanly and affectionately to the body of students in that classroom. What the exact circumstances in Darwen Vale are may be special, but there is no doubt but that the reaction of those teachers is mirrored in thousands of classrooms around the Western world today where teachers feel they can no longer cope. Why? It is not a deficiency in their skills, or in their training, or in their good will. It is nothing less than a breakdown of civilised human behaviour.

What has happened has been happening for a long time and is deeply rooted in the culture of individualism which permeates Western society. A good and wise man – who died back in 2005 – diagnosed a good deal of this malaise in the course of his work for children and the American education system over the second half of the last century.

Urie Bronfenbrenner, born in Moscow to Jewish parents in 1917, came to

Urie Bronfenbrenner

the United States at the age of six. After graduating from high school he received a bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1938, completing a double major in psychology and music. He went on to graduate work in developmental psychology, completing an M.A. degree at Harvard, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1942. After the Second World War he returned to Cornell where he remained for the rest of his professional life.

Bronfenbrenner’s observed that interpersonal relationships, even at the most basic level of  parent-child relationship, did not exist in a social vacuum but were embedded in the larger social structures of community, society, economics and politics. These, he maintained, hold the key to understanding our  current sad state of affairs. Already in the early 70s he pointed out in his book, Two Worlds of Childhood, how a chronic erosion of the basic processes of true human learning was taking place in the US as a result of rampant individualism. His study consisted of  a comparison between the broad educational culture of the US and the broad educational culture of the Soviet Union – and, strange as it may seem, it was in the US that the more worrying trends showed themselves.

In 1979 he wrote: “In the United States, it is now possible for a person eighteen years of age, female as well as male, to graduate from high school, college, or university without ever having cared for, or even held, a baby; without ever having comforted or assisted another human being who really needed help. . . . No society can long sustain itself unless its members have learned the sensitivities, motivations, and skills involved in assisting and caring for other human beings.” (The Ecology of Human Development)

In Two Worlds of Childhood he described how a self-inflicted generation gap in the US was cultivated had been through the constant separation of generations in that society’s relentless catering for generational tastes and interests, exclusive of each other. This led to the breakup of family life, the break-up of cross-generational community life, all with unforeseen but dire consequences.

“Children need people in order to become human”, he wrote. “It is primarily through observing, playing, and working with others older and younger than himself that a child discovers both what he can do and who he can become—that he develops both his ability and his identity…. Hence to relegate children to a world of their own is to deprive them of their humanity, and ourselves as well.” (Two Worlds of Childhood: U.S. and U.S.S.R., preface)

The civilizing effect of work and the life of work – not only on the person working but on all those sharing his or her life – was one of the casualties resulting from the segregation of society along generational lines which he saw all around him in the US in the ‘sixties and beyond. “One of the most significant effects of age-segregation in our society has been the isolation of children from the world of work. Whereas in the past children not only saw what their parents did for a living but even shared substantially in the task, many children nowadays have only a vague notion of the nature of the parent’s job, and have had little or no opportunity to observe the parent, or for that matter any other adult, when he is fully engaged in his work.” (Two Worlds of Childhood)

This was for him one of the consequences of a merciless imposition by society of pressures and priorities that allow neither time nor place for meaningful activities and relations between children and adults, which downgrade the role of parents and the functions of parenthood, and which prevent the parent from doing things he wants to do as a guide, friend, and companion to his children.

In a 1977 paper for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Conference on Parent Education, “Who Needs Parent Education?”, he pointed out a central fallacy in American thinking which he saw as leading to our present predicament. This is essentially the thinking which is at the heart of all individualism.

“Witness the American ideal: the Self-Made Man”, he said. “But there is no such person. If we can stand on our own two feet, it is because others have raised us up. If, as adults, we can lay claim to competence and compassion, it only means that other human beings have been willing and enabled to commit their competence and compassion to us—through infancy, childhood, and adolescence, right up to this very moment.”

The failure to recognise these essential needs of the child, he argued, manifested themselves in practical decisions by planners and policy makers. What was critically needed, he wrote in Two Worlds, in the planning and designing of new communities, housing projects, and urban renewal, both public and private, was that explicit consideration be given to the kind of world that is being created for the children who will be growing up in these settings. “Particular attention should be given to the opportunities which the environment presents or precludes for involvement of children with persons both older and younger than themselves.”

At the Flint conference he called for recognition of the need for re-education about the necessary and sufficient conditions for helping human beings to be truly human. They need to be re-educated not as parents—but as workers, neighbours, and friends; and as members of the organizations, committees, boards. The informal networks that control social institutions and thereby determine the conditions of life for families and children need to understand all this. There simply had to be, in his view, clear recognition that a child’s development occurs through a process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else—“especially somebody who’s crazy about that child”. The poor teachers, and the poor students, of Darwen Vale High School find themselves far removed from this beneficent and crazy love.

Urie Bronfenbrenner foresaw the crisis now being experienced by our society. “If”, he said, “the children and youth of a nation are afforded opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, if they are given the knowledge to understand the world and the wisdom to change it, then the prospects for the future are bright. In contrast, a society which neglects its children, however well it may function in other respects, risks eventual disorganization and demise.” Are we there yet? We can only hope not.

3 thoughts on “The Dangerous Fallacy of the Self-made Man

  1. smashey

    I enjoyed your piece very much. I’ve been thinking about many of the same issues and was fortunate to come across your well-reasoned post. I am a high school teacher in the U.S., and while my school has not reached the kind of breaking point you described (and frankly, our faculty is not organized enough to do anything like a work stoppage), I see exactly the same type of attitudes and behaviors of which you spoke.

    Best regards.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s