Discover Waldorf Education: Assuming Nothing

Judith Rich Harris on Nature vs Nurture



Near the end of the twentieth century, Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption (The Free Press, New York, 1998) appeared amidst great publicity and controversy, and then proceeded to all but disappear. Neither the controversy nor the rapid fade into obscurity should have been surprising. The argument arose because Judith Harris was questioning one of the most basic premises of modern child psychology: the seemingly incontrovertible fact that parental influence was the most important element in the life of the child.

            Near the end of the twentieth century Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture
(The Free Press, New York, 1998) appeared amidst great publicity
and controversy, and then proceeded to all but disappear. Neither the
controversy nor the rapid fade into obscurity should have been surprising. The
argument arose because Judith Harris was questioning one of the most basic
premises of modern child psychology: the seemingly incontrovertible fact that
parental influence was the most important element in the life of the child.  

To bolster her
premise Harris was casting aspersion on the findings of hundreds of well-funded
research studies undertaken throughout the late Twentieth Century. Her book
happened to appear at a time when the mapping of the human genome and advances
in bioengineering were making the science of genetics front-page news. Harris’
arguments provided ammunition to the increasingly vocal ranks of geneticists who
asserted that nature, not nurture, determined the child’s character and
capacities. After the hullabaloo subsided, however, the book’s rather minor
impact might also have been predictable: Judith Harris has no university or
research institute affiliation,  and she works from home, doing her
research on the Internet. Most damning in terms of academic success, however, is
that her ideas are so original in many respects that they undermine almost
of the present-day theories about emotional growth and development.

             Harris’ hypothesis is
simple: “parents matter less than you think and peers matter more.” Basing her
theories both on the data (rather than the conclusions) of hundreds of child
research studies, as well as her own experience as a parent, Harris points to
the fact that two, or three, or more siblings raised in virtually the same way
by the same pair of parents may turn out to be profoundly different; it all
depends on the peer group with which they bond as they grow up. Children, she
argues, possess an innate capacity to separate their home life from the life of
the street, the classroom, or the school cafeteria. Home influence remains just
that – parental influence that stays at home:

Parents belong in the home; when they come out of the home it makes their children nervous. Aside from the
embarrassment, it makes it harder for children to know which context
they’re in, which rules they’re supposed to follow. They are not aware
of this, of course; context almost always affects behavior at a level that
is not normally accessible to the conscious mind. It isn’t until
adolescence or adulthood that people occasionally become aware of the way their
behavior changes in various social contexts . . . .

                The youth described by Henry
James [earlier in the book] was “demure enough before his parents and teachers”
but behaved differently when he was with his friends. He acted the way
his parents and teachers had taught him to act, but only in social
contexts that included his parents and teachers. It’s difficult to teach
your dog not to sleep on the sofa when you’re not around, because what
you are actually teaching him is to stay off the sofa when you
around. When you’re not at home, he never gets whacked for jumping
up on the sofa. (72-73)

            In Harris’s eyes, the old
warning that parents have given generations of young people – “Judge me by my
friends” – takes on new significance. As a modern scientist, however, Harris has
no difficulty equating human and animal behavior, and the response of a dog to a
situation is assumed to be equivalent to a human response. It could be argued
that an animal’s behavior is always contextual, because it lacks an inner
life that could retain the memory of previous responses to previous stimuli.
That is to say, the dog lacks the kind of memory that slowly becomes an
ingrained “habit of thought,” reminding it never to sit on the couch whether or
not the master is home. We hope that a child has a conscience (or is at
least developing one), the “inner voice” that acts in loco parentis in a
host of different contexts.

             Nonetheless, many of
Harris’ examples and arguments are compelling, and help dispel some of the
clouds of guilt that hang over many a modern multitasking parent. In most of her
most intriguing analogies, she points to the story of Cinderella. In the context
of her domestic life, Cinderella is homely and unhappy, her “self-image” having
formed in accordance with the demands of her stepmother and wicked stepsisters.
In the context of the ball, she takes on a completely different character and
appearance – to such a degree that her sisters don’t recognize her – and she
acts in accordance with completely different expectations. Indeed, many fairy
tales are about children who in their parents’ eyes are good-for-nothings, yet
manage to rise to heroic heights when the setting is right and the expectations
are high. 

generally takes a passive stance towards what parents can do about the peer
group – moving to a “better” neighborhood seems to be her most cogent advice,
and even that advice was proffered before the prolonged boom in housing prices
made moving prohibitive for many families. And she has almost nothing to say
about the teacher’s power to help form a peer group in the classroom.
Undoubtedly, this is because all of the schools studied by the psychologists
Harris cites are conventional public schools in which teachers have little or no
power over (or interest in) the social life of the students. As any contemporary
movie about teenagers reveals – and as such tragedies as the Columbine massacre
prove – peer groups that are simply left to form themselves will become, in the
words of Hobbes, “Nasty, brutal, and short.” But what if a teacher is not only
given the mandate to help form a peer group, but given the time,
and given the means? In other words, what if the teacher is in a Waldorf
school classroom?

I am not sure
that many Waldorf teachers make the most of the “context-creating capacity” with
which they are endowed through Steiner’s educational methods. Indeed, Waldorf
practitioners are probably the teachers most likely to demand that
parents do an ever-better job on the home front, even though those same teachers
will attest that most children act very differently with their classmates than
with their parents. My own experience would attest to the fact that Judith
Harris’ thesis is worth pondering. I have been a Waldorf teacher for thirty
years and know several “generations” of graduates, from a group of fifteen
year-olds to a group in their early forties. As a Waldorf consultant who has had
long-term relationships with a number of schools throughout North America, I
have come to know hundreds of other students and their families as well. The
majority of these alumni were raised by caring, conventional, upper middle class
parents. On one end of the bell-curve there were a number of families who
applied “Waldorf methods” at home, and raised their children without any media
influences, served them organic food, and made every effort to maintain healthy
rhythms and strong family bonds throughout the grade school years. At the other
end of the curve there were always a few families who seemed to have no
connection whatsoever to the school’s philosophy, rarely took my earnest advice,
had no household rhythms, abused drugs, suffered from emotional disorders, etc.

 How have all
of these students turned out (especially the interesting ones at the ends of the
curve)? Most of the students from the “dysfunctional” households have turned out
very well indeed, finding their way to highly competitive colleges and then to
careers in academia or business. On the other hand, a disproportionate number of
those raised in the “right way” by families cleaving to Waldorf methods, are
still struggling to find their way in life, and there have been some severe
problems with drugs and crime. Several are college dropouts, and many have
wandered from one part of the country to another, still searching for their
direction in life. Of course, there are those from druggy homes who are
wanderers, and some from Waldorf homes who are successful artists, scientists,
and entrepreneurs — and as the bumper-sticker says, “Not all who wander are
lost.” If I blend the biographies of the extremes with the many
students from middle-of-the-road homes, I would have to admit that their
parental upbringing and influence appear not to have mattered very much.

When asked about what formed them most in their childhood, these alumni always
say that it was their Waldorf classmates – their peer group – that made the
biggest difference in their lives. Based on such admittedly limited, anecdotal
evidence, I would have to say that Judith Rich Harris is on to something.

With this in
mind, we must consider the possibility that we Waldorf teachers may be overly
critical of parents, asking to perform make-overs of their homes and lives that
will have only a negligible effect on their children. My Waldorf colleagues
often complain (justifiably) about parents who are always on their case,
unremittingly criticizing their abilities and classroom performance. Does it
ever occur to us that, in much the same way, many parents feel persecuted by the
relentless commentary of their child’s teacher?

educators gladly accept the brain/mind research reported by such
Steiner-friendly authors as Jane Healy and Joseph Chilton Pearce, because it
corroborates so many Waldorf practices. Although Rudolf Steiner repeatedly
cautioned us not to assume the brain’s centrality in the activity of thinking,
no less in a host of other organic functions, we are at times so desperate to
find some kind of validation in the “real world,” that we accept Healy,
Pearce, and others without doing the requisite research ourselves. Judith Rich
Harris presents Waldorf educators with a more subtle challenge. Are we willing
to entertain ideas – based on research more solid and considerably more
mainstream than the studies that the brain/mind writers cite – ideas that may
support some Waldorf educational principles, but that severely question
others? Can Waldorf teachers read a book while maintaining what Keats called
“negative capability,” or do we only want to study those writers who don’t ask
us to question any of our assumptions?

Steiner tells us that the reign of the Age of the Archangel Gabriel, which
extended from the Renaissance to about 1900, was characterized by an intense
interest in issues concerning heredity and family life – areas in which Gabriel
holds sway. The age of Michael, however, will gradually shift society’s interest
much more towards issues involving individuality and community life. For a good
part of the Twentieth Century, mainstream child psychology continued along its
Gabrielic trajectory, convinced that the key to human unfolding lay within the
bonds of family. Judith Rich Harris’ book represents a seismic shift in this
regard. Flawed and glib as her book may be, it casts a Michaelic light into the
murky obscurantism of child psychology, and may be the precursor of more
profound studies still to come.

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