Contemporary Expressions- Child Study, Piaget, and Humanistic Psychology

Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

Although this more optimistic current in Western thought has much shallower roots in Western thought than the Judeo-Christian view of human nature, its influence on contemporary fields of Human Development and Psychology has been pervasive and profound. First, in the development of the child study movement in the 19th century and later in the emergence of the Human Development field in the 20th, a focus on identifying and charting the major milestones of normal childhood development lead to the first textbooks and courses on Child Development and Adolescence.


The 19th century was a time of intense interest in the naming and description of all manner of natural phenomena, from rocks and plants, to animals, languages, and cultures. This came to include an interest in the naturalistic observation and description of infant and child behavior. Darwin’s bold new theory of evolution shattered the previously sharp distinction between nature and man and ushered in a whole new attitude of curiosity about and inquiry into both the evolution of man from lower animals and the development of human adults and adult intelligence and abilities from its origins in the undeveloped and frankly helpless and unformed human infant. Interest in child development was therefore closely tied to a concern with education and how to foster optimum intellectual and moral growth in the new systems of universal education that arose in America and Europe.


These related concerns were reflected in the work of one of America’s pioneer psychologists G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924) whose textbook on Adolescence became the first of many subsequent books throughout the 20th century on child development. His student Arnold Gesell (1880-1961) went on to conduct an ambitious research program that systematically described and quantified both the physical and mental features of normal child development in extensive detail. Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Jean Piaget’s (1896-1980) careful and insightful observations of his own children were elaborated into an exciting new theory of cognitive development that borrowed both ideas and inspiration from Kant, Hegel and Continental Philosophy.


The other strand of this more optimistic attitude towards human nature and human development has been the influence of Rousseau and the Romantic movement. But while the study of normal child development and the stimulus-response psychology of Watson, Skinner, Thorndike and others held sway within academic psychology in the West, the applied fields of Psychiatry, Clinical Psychology, and Social Work were, at first, heavily influenced, especially in America, by Freudian ideas and attitudes. The pervasive influence of Freudian psychology on the culture at large was reflected in the increasingly common use of Fruedian words and concepts in the language and discourse of ordinary people: “complex”, “unconscious”, “penis envy”, “latent hostility”, “repression”, “anal and/or oral personality” and “Freudian slip” all became part of the common lexicon and a mark of non-prudish sophistication.


But the romance with Freud turned out to be short-lived. The dark view that almost everyone was neurotic and psychologically scarred in one way or another grated against American’s optimistic sensibilities and preference for normalcy, not to mentioned most American’s impatience with the prospect of the many hours and years that were typically involved in participating in actual psychoanalytic therapy.


These cultural contradictions provided fertile ground for the rise of the Humanistic or “third force” (i.,e. neither Behaviorism nor Freudianism) movement in psychology which proved much more congenial to American sensibilities and attitudes. Carl Rogers (1902-1987) became a central figure in this rising “third force.” It is significant that Rogers’ initial intended career was the ministry. From this background, he brought another aspect of the Western Judeo-Christian heritage — a sincere belief that every human being is valuable and worthy of redemption. Leaving theology behind, however, Rogers came to see this in entirely naturalistic development terms. Like Rousseau, he rejected the notion of original sin and its modern Freudian equivalents of the Oedipus Complex and other early pathologies. Instead, Rogers believed that the “organism” has an inherent drive towards positive growth and meeting its potential. The role of the Therapist was that of a midwife who facilitated and merely encouraged a process of natural growth in each “client.” Rogers had little interest in diagnostic schemes and labels, believing that such labeling would tend to pigeonhole and limit the capacity of each client to grow out of any difficulties in their own unique way. Also like Rousseau, Rogers felt that whatever psychological problems and syndromes that individuals might develop were the result of too much interference from external social pressures to obey, conform, and fit in — especially parents who imposed “conditions of worth” on their children. Rogers’ championing of the individual and his belief in natural unfolding of human potential when adequately supported was mirrored in the work of other Humanist psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, with his famous hierarchy of needs, and Gordon Allport, whose book Becoming was an early classic of this new movement.


Finally, Behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner saw themselves as optimists who sought to push society in a progressive direction by redesigning educational and home and work environments to produce a new, improved species through careful conditioning. We will take a further look at Behaviorism in the next module on the “blank slate.”