About the Author:
Jerome Kagan is professor of psychology emeritus, Harvard University
- Yale University Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.06(d)
Read an Excerpt
An Argument for Mind
By Jerome Kagan
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2006 Jerome Kagan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChoice and Indoctrination
The second week of September 1950 was warm and humid when I arrived in New Haven, Connecticut, to begin graduate work at what the chairman of my psychology department at Rutgers had told me was the best psychology department in the world. I was twenty-one. That autumn the New York Times announced that President Harry Truman had threatened China with an atomic bomb if it attacked Formosa, the first modern credit card was introduced, and Senator Joseph McCarthy began his witch hunt of Americans suspected of being communists. Hundreds of thousands of men and women who had served in the armed forces during World War II were taking advantage of both the nation's gratitude and Congress's passage of the G.I. Bill of Rights, enabling them to choose careers that required a college education rather than returning to the blue-collar jobs held by their parents and grandparents. Americans felt confident of their egalitarian receptivity to reducing class distinctions without disrupting the economic philosophy and practices of competitive capitalism. Education, honesty, and perseverance would be rewarded with material comforts, a loving family, and, perhaps, a few moments of praise for discoveries,outstanding performances, or acts of kindness that struck some as commendable. Many different journeys in this version of Oz were possible. Although a few might be blocked by obstacles, many more would eventually capture the happiness they were told was the prize for sustained effort.
The five significant categories to which I belonged, and whose values I felt obligated to honor, were male, Jewish, middle-class, American, and white in that order. Members of this symbolic quintet assumed that a mind exploiting its talents to gain financial security and status was the icon to bow before when deciding how to exploit the talents, desires, and energies that genes, family history, and schools had cobbled together. Medicine and law were two obvious choices. Writer, painter, or composer required special, somewhat mysterious abilities most adolescents assumed they did not possess, and their less certain economic futures moved them into the shadows. A scientist at a university seemed both attractive and realizable. I remember the glittering halo my adolescent imagination placed on the college professor's life after seeing Robert Donat in the film Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The gentle setting of academia and the opportunity to reflect and nurture the young struck a chord in my incoherently articulated sense of self, even though my later decision to apply to graduate school was discrepant from the preferences of the peers and relatives I had used as buoys when deciding where to place the next brushstroke on my bare mural.
I had rejected law as an option, even though an uncle, a relatively successful lawyer in my hometown, had urged me to do so and to join his office. I was not attracted to the law because it was made by people rather than by nature, but I could not articulate the deeper bases for this prejudice. For reasons I did not understand, nature roused my feelings, and it still does, whereas human artifacts, whether Roman ruins, Baroque churches, Chinese porcelain vases, jeweled swords, or the law, did not. This judgment was a bit inconsistent with my reverence for the human artifacts that took the form of books, poems, paintings, and symphonies. But the human mind has no difficulty rationalizing such inconsistencies. The artist, writer, and composer were trying to create objects of lasting beauty. This intention distinguished these products from the law, which I saw as devoid of beauty because its propositions seemed arbitrary declarations with short lives.
My attraction to nature was more passionate for living forms than for stars or fossils. Many leading cosmologists remembered that, as adolescents, they remained awake many nights staring at the stars with a profound curiosity and awe. Adolescents who have had a strong emotional experience try to find ways to relive that precious moment. One undergraduate had his epiphany at a symphony concert when the audience applauded the conductor for many minutes after the performance. So many people celebrating a single person generated a moment of envy. He wanted to be on that stage, washed in the admiration of so many strangers. No one understands why a small number of adolescents have such powerful experiences and why these feelings are restricted to such specific events. I attended concerts but never felt the desire to be a conductor; I often looked at the night sky but never had a feeling of agape.
My curiosity was pricked by things that were alive. I remember walking home one afternoon-I was about twelve-when I saw a dead squirrel that had recently been struck by a car. Here was an opportunity to look inside the animal to see what unknown things resided there. I wrapped the animal in paper and took it to my bedroom-I may have felt there was something illicit in this activity-and with a kitchen knife sliced open its belly to examine its moist viscera. I found the gentle probing of the life-giving organs exciting and, in a sense, sacred. The glistening intestines evoked a feeling that may have resembled the state of a future cosmologist staring at the Milky Way at two in the morning.
I am not certain why life-forms possessed this power. Each time I silently pose that question, the same voice, whose source seems to lie midway between head and heart, whispers sexuality. One need not be loyal to Freudian ideas, of which only a few remain roughly correct a century after their announcement, to suggest that boys find the unselfishness of mothers puzzling and the female body mysterious. Why are women gentler and kinder than men, and what was hidden beneath that mound of hair that was always covered? Today's parents worry over the Internet pornography their adolescents might be watching. My father, and the fathers of my friends, hid sexually explicit paperbacks in the top drawer of a dresser beneath a high pile of handkerchiefs. When a boy was lucky enough to find one of these treasures, he immediately shared it with his friends, like an early forager bringing back to camp a gazelle he had managed to kill. Sex excites, and only living forms engage in sex. Although I might be wildly wrong, perhaps my exploration of the moist organs of the squirrel lying on the floor of my bedroom brought me closer to understanding the mystery of women. François Jacob, a Nobel Laureate in biology, recalls his mother: "Tender, sweet perfume, warmth. Safe harbor from all fears and all violence ... maman, who rocked me to sleep, bathed me, wiped me, blew my nose, disciplined me, tucked me in, caressed me, scolded me, watched over me ... maman ... who, when I was a medical student and would get back late at night, always left a snack on the table with a note as tender as a kiss."
A career in medicine, which promised economic security, status, and an understanding of human bodies, seemed the right choice. The imagined routines of this role, however, competed with a penetrating interest in human thought and, especially, the puzzling roots of prejudice. Rahway, New Jersey, a town twenty miles south of New York City, with a population of about twenty thousand in my childhood, had a relatively large working-class population and a small group of Jewish merchants, including my father. Like many Americans during the 1930s, some adolescent boys could be virulently anti-Semitic, hurling muted versions of Hitler's harsher rhetoric. I did not understand why I, who had white skin, broke no laws, did my homework, bullied no one, and lived in a modest home without ostentation, should have been selected as a target of hatred. What illogical ideas were tumbling around in the minds of those who disliked me without provocation? Could it be only the arbitrary symbolic category to which I belonged?
A second, quite different foundation for my curiosity about mind had a more internal origin. I was conscious of frequent feelings of uneasiness that today's clinicians would call generalized anxiety. The persona I displayed to others-a good school record, close friendships, and passable skill at touch football-did not rest on a firm foundation. It seemed that these thin outer layers would dissolve if challenged by my friends' more forceful personalities. John Widemann, an African-American writer who grew up in a poor black ghetto in Pittsburgh, combined great talent, a warm, encouraging family, nurturing teachers, and a little luck to become a respected writer and beloved professor. In his memoir, Brothers and Keepers, Widemann revealed that each morning when he awoke he feared that this would be the day others would discover that he was a fraud. George F. Kennan, one of America's most influential diplomats, confessed to a similar unsureness, for he was shy, without athletic talent, and embarrassed because his family was less wealthy and his childhood experiences were less worldly than most of his friends in Princeton's Class of 1925. My feelings were not as strong as those of Widemann or Kennan, but they lay on that continuum. I was a shy six-year-old who stuttered and occasionally woke with my sheets wet with urine-a fact that worried my mother, who was told by a pediatrician that I would outgrow it.
It is hard to ignore the uneasiness that pierces consciousness in the minutes between assignments, and I wondered why I felt this way. What crooked thoughts produced a gnawing doubt that none of my friends seemed to harbor. Adolescents who have these feelings today might be told that they were born with a temperamental bias. But the popular explanation in the 1940s was that parents were the unwitting villains. My mother was protective, emotionally labile, hypercritical of her husband, and effective at generating guilt. My father was bitter over his crippling arthritis and failure to make as much money as his younger brother and some of his friends. On occasion, his frustration could be ignited by a slightly critical comment from his wife. Thus, I attributed the uneasiness to a mother who restrained my independence, a father who could become unpredictably angry, and the jeers of my Christian peers. The desire to understand how these events came together, like the elements of a perfect storm, to create these tensions in a fourteen-year-old was as strong as was my interest in human bodies.
One more fact made psychology attractive. Despite a resentment of my mother's restrictiveness, I felt confident in her love for me, and I held a deep affection for her. She reminded me regularly that her father, whom I never knew, was always reading books, many concerned with human nature. I was told hundreds of times that, as a late adolescent returning home, my mother found her father dead of a heart attack, an open book on his chest. The mother whom I desperately wanted to please revered a man who loved to read books on human nature. If I were able to find out how the mind worked I would be carrying on his tradition and, perhaps, replacing him in my mother's eyes. George Kennan chose the Foreign Service because a close relative with the same name and birthday was a celebrated statesman who specialized in the politics of Russia. Kennan became a Russian specialist.
Because my interest in the mind was nourished by penetrating emotions, I was vulnerable when a professor teaching abnormal psychology asked me to walk with him across the Rutgers campus at the end of class. As we strolled he said, "You know, you would make a good psychologist," because of a comment I had made in class that afternoon. I have no memory of the comment, only his suggestion that, in his opinion, there was the possibility of my achieving a creative career in this profession. No stranger had ever told me that I might be an unusually skilled physician, chemist, lawyer, or astronomer. Most young people live with continual doubt. So when a stranger who has no reason to flatter offers a heady prediction of the future, a rational analysis of the accuracy of the prophecy is foolish. Relish it and run.
Most college seniors wondering about their future want a challenge that, with effort, they can meet. Humans enjoy the unique feeling that accompanies the successful exploitation of an uncommon competence. A successful neurosurgeon once told me that he chose this specialty because he felt he had "talented hands." I still feel a twinge of guilt over a comment I made more than twenty years ago: I told a dozen students training for a career in clinical psychology that although they believed their primary motive was to help those with mental problems, they would become bored in less than a year if they had a magic wand that cured every patient they touched. What they really wanted was to use their talents to alleviate distress. I interpreted their long silence as a sign that they were brooding about the reasons for their choice. John Stuart Mill had a similar epiphany in 1826 when he realized, with sadness, that he not would experience great joy if all of his wishes were suddenly granted.
Psychology was not especially attractive to many of my peers because its activities did not seem to require any special abilities that were not already in the repertoire of most college seniors. Recording the behavior of rats traversing a maze or of college students memorizing words did not tax one's intelligence excessively. The attractiveness of psychology lay in the hope that its discoveries would illuminate the human mind and, as a dividend, suggest ways to alleviate suffering. The first task used to belong to philosophers and novelists. Plato, Michel de Montaigne, and Immanuel Kant, as well as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugene O'Neill, and Jean-Paul Sartre, believed that their sentences contained answers to perennial queries about the essence of human nature. I recall an afternoon when, as a thirteen-year-old, I had borrowed Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov from the town library and could not wait to get home to discover its insights. Far fewer of today's thirteen-year-olds believe that reading novels will reveal universal truths. The television programs Nova and Nature now serve that function because people have become persuaded that philosophers and writers brooding about life, self, and society in a quiet room are less likely than scientists to arrive at the correct answers. Young people who would have chosen philosophy had they been born in the seventeenth century were drawn to psychology in the twentieth.
If psychological research helped us understand why some children cannot learn to read and some become criminals, we might eventually prevent or cure these afflictions. Psychology was a moral enterprise, and many in my age group who selected this discipline did so because of this altruistic concern. I chose psychology, instead of biochemistry or the law, not only because I wanted to understand why I was easily intimidated and a target of prejudice but also to improve social conditions so that fewer people might experience the shame of school failure, the indignity of imprisonment, and the psychic pain of depression.
It may thus have been inevitable that, when forced to decide between graduate training in biochemistry at the University of Texas (I had learned of my acceptance in early April) and studying psychology at Yale, I chose psychology. Although I would probably have accepted Yale anyway, two improbable events contributed to the resolution. The first occurred one afternoon during a chemistry laboratory exercise in which we had to estimate the amount of barium sulfate in an analysis that in 1948 took about six hours. I had just turned in my estimate when a friend who was walking to the balance to weigh his tiny pile of white powder stumbled and the barium sulfate fell on the floor in a heap. In no mood to redo the work, he asked the other students to estimate the amount of barium sulfate in the pile. He computed an average of the guesses and turned that value in as his answer. I was troubled the following week when he received an A and I was given a B. I interpreted this injustice as a warning to avoid chemistry.
Excerpted from An Argument for Mind by Jerome Kagan Copyright © 2006 by Jerome Kagan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jerome Kagan is professor of psychology emeritus, Harvard University, and was co-director of the Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative at Harvard.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews