Chapter 5: Socialisation and Its Counter-Cultural Impulse

As society became distanced from its past it became increasingly difficult for adults to figure out what values they ought to transmit to the younger generations. From the late 19th century onwards, adult authority over the process of socialisation was continually contested. Numerous social and professional movements insisted that only they possessed the expertise required for the socialisation of young people. Movements for Mental Hygiene, Social Hygiene, Eugenics and the Children’s Bureau, along with networks of psychologists, social scientists and educators, contributed to the displacement of parental authority. They were joined by influential commentators and policy makers associated with the progressive movement in the US and with New Liberalism and Social Democracy in Europe.

Disparate concerns – reform politics, child saving, the race improvement agenda of eugenics, the technocratic impulse for the elimination of waste by industrialists – converged to call into question traditional forms of socialisation. Professional intervention in the domain of socialisation steadily grew in the 20th century.

The professionalisation of socialisation and its promotion of ideals drawn from social science, and particularly psychology, weakened the influence of traditional moral ideals. Before the term ‘socialisation’ gained currency, the process of inter-generational transmission of values was sometimes referred to as moralisation. In its early usage, socialisation was still depicted as an authoritative act of transmitting moral norms.320 However, the traditional emphasis on conveying established moral ideals to children gave way to an approach that contested them. Socialisation slowly turned into what Danziger described as ‘a matter of changing obsolescent individual attitudes’.321 This focus on changing ‘obsolescent’ attitudes represented a challenge to the values that underpinned them and in an embryonic form unleashed a conflict that with the passing of time would crystallise into what today is referred to as ‘culture war’.

The project of eliminating obsolescent attitudes should be conceptualised as a form of moral engineering. Many of its practitioners identified themselves as social engineers whose vocation was to transform society through reforming prevailing attitudes. Unlike socialisation, which involves the transmission of pre-existing values, social engineering is devoted to gaining support for attitudes that as yet lack significant support in society. At the risk of simplification, this difference can be understood as one between mainly affirming prevailing attitudes (socialisation) and changing them (social engineering). The emphasis of social engineering, or what in the contemporary era is called ‘Raising Awareness’, on combating prevailing attitudes means that it self-consciously contests views that are associated with the older generations. The mission of raising awareness invariably results in cultural conflict.

With hindsight it appears that the Culture War began in the nursery and its battles were frequently directed at gaining control over the levers of socialisation. Movements of all shades of political opinion became drawn towards the project of training and educating children to become a New Man, a species of human whose physical and moral outlook was not distorted by the superstitions and irrational customs of the past. During the first three decades of the 20th century, political movements often invested their hopes in the figure of a New Man who, untainted by the distortions of the past, would serve to transform or revitalise society. Movements from left and right promoted their version of what a New Man would look like and achieve.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, projected a utopian vison of a new ‘superman’. In his Literature and Revolution (1924), he wrote that

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.322

Far right and fascist movements were also attracted to the myth of the New Man. The fascists idealised their New Man as virile, physically hard, forceful and committed to the taking of initiative. Adolf Hitler described the New Man as ‘slim and slender, quick like a greyhound, tough like leather, and hard like Krupp steel’.323

The utopian vision of educating children to become the New Man of the future was not confined to radical far left or far right ideologues. Similar sentiments were often advocated by individuals associated with the technocratic and social engineering ambitions of liberals, eugenicists and progressives. The behaviourist psychologist John B. Watson claimed to hold the key to the secret of creating a New Man through the application of science to the field of socialisation. In 1924, he asserted:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select − doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.324

The convergence of techniques of socialisation with different political projects and versions of utopia highlighted the potential for the nursery to become a seed bed for cultural conflict. This idealisation of the New Man did not perish in the interwar era. It re-emerged in the 1980s to refer to a male who embraced anti-sexist attitudes and rejected outdated masculine values and the traditional male roles.325 In contemporary times, gender-neutral and anti-sexist socialisation promises to produce young people who are not tainted by the heteronormative attitudes of the past. Today, these sentiments are constantly conveyed by those who promote the cause of ‘raising awareness’ of those who are still in the thrall of outdated attitudes.

Social engineering

Those who wished to liberate children from being dominated by the obsolescent ideas and attitudes of their parents customarily insisted that their critique was based on science. Danziger remarked that their approach appeared to ‘show the influence of what might be called an ideology of social engineering’.326 In the current era the term ‘social engineering’ – especially when attached to family life – conjures up images of a dystopian Brave New World. However, during the first half of the 20th century professionals involved in the field of socialisation-related activities frequently and enthusiastically referred to themselves as social engineers. Psychologists, in particular, unreservedly called for the application of techniques of social engineering to ensure that people developed personalities that would make them suitable members of their society.327 By the 1930s, social workers often referred to their activities as a form of social engineering. In 1936 a Handbook on Social Work Engineering asserted that ‘through the practices of scientific social case work and social engineering, the contribution of social work to human happiness and public welfare may … be considerable’.328

Mead, who played a pivotal role in the development of what is described as the ‘scientific study of socialisation’, regarded social engineering as essential for helping people acquire the right kind of personality traits. According to one study, ‘Mead and her colleagues’ believed ‘strongly in the righteousness and efficacy of social engineering’.329 Her commitment to social engineering was linked to her ambition to challenge American moral culture and ensure that the socialisation of children was conducted on a more enlightened foundation.330

Mead, like many leading American cultural anthropologists, was drawn towards the project of challenging the cultural norms and attitudes that prevailed in their societies. They also went a step further and argued for the necessity of engineering these attitudes and personality traits associated with them out of existence. They were enthusiastic about the potential for using psychology to achieve their objectives, and collaborated with psychologists and psychiatrists like Erikson, Fromm and Kurt Lewin. Mead drew on psychology to highlight differences based on culturally specific regimes of child socialisation. Her study, Coming of Age in Samoa, was subtitled, A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. The interwar era saw the emergence of what were referred to as ‘culture-and-personality networks’, which encouraged collaboration between cultural anthropologists and psychiatrists.

In the US, the Advisory Committee on Personality and Culture set up by the Social Research Council played a co-ordinating role in promoting research into the inter-relationship between personality and culture in the 1930s. Their objective was to harness their research to what a study of the Council described as a ‘project of liberal social engineering’, which ‘aimed at reconstructing American culture so that it would foster the needs and mental health of the individual while adjusting the individual to group life’.331 According to one of the committee’s major reports, the aim of such cultural reconstruction would be the ‘ultimate control of the larger patterns of collective life’.332 The adoption of cultural reconstruction as a goal was influenced by the perception that during the 1930s American society experienced an ‘unprecedented sense of social and cultural disintegration’.333 During the Depression years it appeared to many individuals that they had lost their place in the world and that their culture struggled to provide them with a sense of meaning in what appeared an increasingly insecure world. In these circumstances social engineering held out the promise of protecting ‘the threatened personality of the individual by creating a culture geared towards their needs’.334

Mead’s friend and colleague, the cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict, explicitly called for social engineering to challenge what she held to be narrow-minded western values. Benedict believed that with the adoption of effective psychological techniques and policy, a new, more progressive personality could be created. She assumed that it was up to people like her – enlightened social engineers – to influence what society considered to be normal. ‘The relativity of normality is important in what some day will come to be a true social engineering’, wrote Benedict in 1934. Benedict claimed that since normality is ‘man-made’, there was no necessity for the future generations to accept the cultural normalities of the past; ‘our picture of our own civilization is no longer in this generation in terms of changeless and divinely derived set of categorical imperatives’. She adopted a confident view regarding the possibility of re-engineering civilisational norms:

No society has yet achieved self-conscious and critical analysis of its own normalities and attempted rationally to deal with its own social process of creating new normalities within its next generation. But the fact that it is unachieved is not therefore proof of its impossibility. It is a faint indication of how momentous it could be in human society.335

Benedict’s optimistic vision of the potential of science to re-engineer what society considers normal and alter the personality traits of future generations resonated with the influence of scientism in the 1930s and 1940s. Scientism constituted a politicised view of science that advocated reliance on the authority of the expert to manage the institutions of public life. Its politicisation of science or the scientisation of politics possessed great appeal to social reformers and utopian ideologues alike. The conviction that society should be reformed through the application of scientific principles was directly applied in relation to the socialisation of young people.

Benedict and her colleagues’ ambition was to displace traditional forms of socialisation with the techniques provided by social engineering. This ambition was by no means confined to a handful of marginal academics. By the 1930s, and especially during the Second World War, this approach had gained significant institutional support, and academics like Mead and Benedict played an important role in influencing the cultural politics of the American Government. Mead’s influential classic, And Keep Your Powder Dry (1942), was commissioned by government. It emphasised the impact of culture on the formation of personalities and reflected the sentiments of the social engineering ambitions of Mead and her colleagues. This book was still used by schools in civic classes until the 1960s.

Typically, the cultural relativist advocates of social engineering did not elaborate a system of values or moral norms that would serve as the content of socialisation. ‘The recognition of cultural relativity carries with it its own values, which need not be those of absolutist philosophies’, wrote Benedict.336 What Benedict and her co-thinkers advocated was the adoption of traits like flexibility, adaptability, a willingness to question prevailing norms, that they saw as consistent with relativity. In this way a new personality, freed from outdated moral norms, could flourish. Their aspiration to ‘free’ personality from the past appears as an end in itself.

Despite the articulation of ambitious society-wide reforms, the project of social engineering tended to be principally interested in influencing and managing the socialisation and education of children. As one study pointed out, their work was ‘intimately connected with a human engineering agenda oriented toward the socialization and education of the individual’.337

The love affair of social engineering with the socialisation of the young developed first in the United States. Arendt linked the early development of cultural conflict over socialisation in the United States to the fact that this nation of immigrants showed an ‘extraordinary enthusiasm for what is new’.338 Erikson also reiterated this view. In a lecture delivered in 1973, he wrote of the ‘shining newness of the American identity’ and that ‘faith in that newness which included the power to renew newness itself exists in all of us to this day’.339 In addition to America’s unique embrace of novelty, the ideal of progress through the application of science resonated with the relative optimism that prevailed in this society until the late 1960s.

Despite its historical celebration of rugged individualism, the United States proved unusually hospitable to the adoption of social engineering to manage change and to regulate the future development and behaviour of society. The American progressive movement adopted an explicit technocratic approach towards the education and socialisation of young people. Edward Ross, the progressive sociologist, eugenicist and economist, personified this outlook. In 1906, Ross emphasised the importance of ‘moral experts’ in order to manage the enormous power of ‘public opinion’. He came to this conclusion because he was concerned that ‘the judgments the average man passes upon the conduct of his fellow are casual, inconsistent and thoughtless’.340 Unlike ordinary voters, whose behaviour was unreliable and dysfunctional, experts could be relied on to serve as rational decision makers.

Ross’ enthusiasm for moral experts was shared by a significant section of the ruling elites, who looked to science and organisation to manage the unpredictable impact of change. The progressive social engineering ethos was adopted by prominent public figures across the political divide. This ethos was embraced by ‘corporate capitalists who sought control of the market, physicians or scientists who claimed a special role in society by virtue of their expertise, and progressive reformers who sought control of the forces of change’.341 Soon similar sentiments were being proclaimed in the UK by the New Liberals and sections of the recently formed Labour Party.

In its early phase, 1890−1930, the appeal of social engineering resonated with the widely held conviction that, through science, many of society’s outstanding problems could be solved. Its promise of managing change through the application of new rational forms of management appealed to the industrial and cultural elites of virtually all shades of political opinion. As the author of Machine Age Ideology: Social Engineering and American Liberalism, 1911−1939, explained, the ‘theory behind social engineering’ argued that the world had become a very different place from the past and that ‘politics as a governing device had become outdated’. It insisted that, instead of the wrangling and demagogic appeals to the masses, what was required was scientific management and administration oriented towards ‘troubleshooting and problem solving’.342

Social engineering provided ideological support for the rule of expertise. This ideology contained an imperative to bring all dimensions of human experience − including personal and family life − under its spell. In 1901 H.G. Wells prophesised the passing of democracy as the inevitable consequence of the ascendancy of expertise. He wrote that ‘at present the class of specially trained and capable people – doctors, engineers, scientific men of all sorts – is quite disproportionally absent from political life’. Nevertheless, he predicted that the ‘forces are in active operation to drag it into the centre of the stage for all that’.343

On reading advocates of social engineering discussing their worldview, one is struck by their confident paternalistic conviction that they know what is in the best interest of the targets of their intervention. Speaking through one of his characters in the novel The New Machiavelli, H.G. Wells, who was sympathetic to this ethos, states;

I became more and more convinced that the independent family unit of today, in which the man is master of the wife, and owner of the children, in which all are dependent on him, subordinated to his enterprises and liable to follow his fortunes up or down, does not supply anything like the best possible conditions. We want to modernize the family footing altogether. An enormous premium both in pleasure and competitive efficiency is put upon voluntary childlessness and enormous inducements are held out to women to subordinate instinctive and selective preferences to social and material considerations.344

In this instance the aim of modernising the family through promoting the eugenic policy of childlessness is conveyed through the promise of democratising the family. The aim of eliminating the man as a master of his family was coupled with the objective of enforcing ‘competitive efficiency’. In this way a ‘democratic’ form of social engineering claimed to serve both as a mechanism of socialisation and also as a medium for realising social efficiency.345

Though the ethos of social engineering often projected a utopian vision of a world fundamentally transformed in accordance with scientific principles, its practice was often drawn towards the more modest objective of rationalising the process of socialisation. It was as if the rearing of children and their socialisation proved to be the most promising field for the implementation of social engineering ideals. During the 1940s, the culture-and-personality school of anthropologists and psychiatrists declared that ‘social scientists could redesign the character of a culture by modifying the child rearing of its future generations’.346 Meyerowitz noted that the re-engineering of culture through the rationalisation of the socialisation of children ‘lifted child rearing from the domain of parents and families (and pediatricians and therapists) and into the realm of group identity, national politics, and international relations’.347

The conviction that the re-engineering of socialisation held the key to a progressive future was enthusiastically promoted by the anthropologist Weston LaBarre in his address to the Annual Meeting of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene in 1948:

Whether he knows it or not, man has the key to his own future evolution in his unwitting and unready hands, for through anthropological and psychiatric knowledge and control of the bringing up of our children, we are potentially able to shape almost any kind of human personality which an increasingly integrated world would seem to require.348

LaBarre concluded that the importance of modifying the way that future generations are socialised was ‘potentially one of the greatest scientific discoveries of modern times’, since the ‘single most important thing in human cultural behavior is literally and specifically the way we bring up our children’.349

The transformation of socialisation into a project of social engineering continued to be actively promoted by the therapeutic professions in the post-Second World War era. In the UK, the Child Guidance movement looked to the Welfare State to provide an emotionally healthy environment and ensure the healthy development of society.350 They, like their American counterpart, unhesitatingly assumed that socialisation and family life was an appropriate site for their intervention. For example, Murray Bowen, who was one of the leaders of the Family Therapy movement, perceived his role as that of an engineer. He stated in 1966 that:

In broad terms, the therapist became a kind of expert in understanding family systems and an engineer in helping the family restore itself to functioning equilibrium. The overall goal was to help family members become system experts who could know the family system and an engineer in helping the family restore itself to functioning equilibrium.351

The re-engineering of the family to assist the socialisation process has proved to be an extraordinarily resilient idea influencing expertise on this subject. Its practice is arguably far more expansive today than at any time in the past.

Socialisation − a site for cultural contestation

The social engineering ethos was zealously pursued by progressive social scientists, particularly educators and psychologists, who were determined to challenge and overturn prevailing cultural norms. Rather than leaving matters to chance, ‘you want to organize a culture’, argued one of Wells’ social engineering-influenced characters.352 Although they did not refer to their project as a Culture War, in all but name their aim was to vanquish cultural norms and attitudes that they regarded as archaic obstacles to the realisation of progress. As one study of progressivism and social democracy in Europe explained, ‘they emphasized cultural change through education and democratization not because they trusted the popular will, but because they believed nothing less than a dramatic reorientation of values would suffice to accomplish their goals’.353

The focus of social engineering on cultural change led to an emphasis on assuming a dominant influence over children’s education and socialisation. Educating children to internalise an orientation to life that was antithetical to those of their parents and ancestors was seen as the most effective way of achieving cultural change. Reformers often deployed an engineering-related metaphor to suggest that their campaign against traditional culture was in fact a technically neutral policy of ensuring that education and socialisation were conducted according to the principles of science and rationality. Even the domain of morality was subjected to this form of rationalisation. Dewey, the doyen of progressive education, regarded ‘educational practice as a kind of social engineering’. Though in his 1922 essay, ‘Education as engineering’, Dewey complained that ‘there is at present no art of educational engineering’, he was optimistic that it was only a matter of time before this ambition would be realised.354 As noted previously, he referred to the use of educational techniques as a form of ‘moral engineering’.355

Dewey extolled the virtues of ‘constructive social engineering’, which relied on the adoption of the techniques of scientific inquiry in the classroom. As was the case with professionals drawn towards social engineering, Dewey’s interest in education was reinforced by the conviction that children played a critical role in the realisation of social change. As one study explained, ‘Dewey argued that the most fruitful breeding ground for social improvement was to be found in the relatively flexible and immature, rather than in adults whose “habits of thought and feeling” were more or less fixed, and whose environment was relatively rigid’.356

The famous Jesuit saying, ‘give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man’, appeared to be taken to heart by Dewey and other social engineers. This sentiment was recast in a secular and scientific hue by psychologists and curriculum engineers who advocated the view that human beings were malleable creatures, whose behaviour and attitude could be made better through the application of progressive techniques of education and socialisation. Consequently, the environment of children became an important target of intervention for them.

During the last decades of the 19th century there were numerous calls for the establishment and promotion of child-study. One of its British advocates claimed that college and schools should train their students in paedology – the science of the child – instead of wasting their time learning Greek, Latin or trigonometry. Writing in 1894, he praised Stanley Hall for the establishment of ‘The National Association for the Study of Children’ the previous year, and approvingly cited the prophecy that some of us ‘will live to see the day when the Science of the Child will have taught the world more in fifty years about the child than the world learned during the preceding five thousand years’.357 The explosion of interest in the study of children eventually led to the labelling of the 20th century as ‘The Century of the Child’.

In 1900, the Swedish social reformer Ellen Key published her book, The Century of the Child. This influential book – which was translated into English in 1909 – offered a coherent exposition of a worldview that promoted the child as the medium for the realisation of social and cultural change. It enthusiastically projected a vision of the malleability of human beings:

While earlier days regarded man as a fixed phenomenon, in his physical and psychical relations, with qualities that might be perfected but could not be transformed, it is now known that he can re-create himself. Instead of a fallen man, we see an incompleted man, out of whom, by infinite modifications in an infinite space of time, a new being can come into existence. Almost every day brings new information about hitherto unsuspected possibilities; tells us of power extended physically or psychically.358

Key stated that what stood in the way of the creation of a ‘higher type of man’ was the influence of prevailing cultural norms. ‘In no respect has culture remained more backward than in those things which are decisive for the formation of a new and higher race of mankind.’359 The prerequisite for the emergence of a ‘new and higher race’ of people was the scientific education and socialisation of the child.

Outwardly, The Century of the Child comes across as an enlightened celebration of children, and most accounts of this text and its influence underline this interpretation of the text. To be sure, statements like ‘the time will come in which the child will be looked upon as holy’ – which are celebrated throughout the book – lend credence to this assessment. However, this book is much more than a sacralisation of childhood. In places, it reads like a soft social engineering version of Plato’s Republic. It idealises the rule and authority of the expert and communicates a barely disguised sense of contempt towards the rest of society. Key’s book is under the sway of eugenic ideals that called for the need for racial improvement. In her praise of Francis Galton, one of the founders of eugenics, ‘the science of the amelioration of the race’, she exhibits the paternalistic instincts associated with this movement.

Key was more restrained than some of the hard-core eugenicists who believed that before people could marry and become parents they needed permission from experts, but she nevertheless believed that people should behave in accordance with the laws of eugenics. ‘Man must come to learn the laws of natural selection and act in the spirit of these laws’, she wrote.360 She was particularly scathing of parents who did not share her ethical outlook and miseducated their offspring, and denounced those who ‘can transmit to their children all kinds of intellectual mutilation and bodily unsoundness’ and who were ‘without the slightest conception of that morality which will mould the new mankind’.361 She cited with approval a statement attributed to Mary Wollstonecraft, to the effect that ‘if children are not physically murdered by their ignorant mothers, they are ruined psychically by the inability of the mother to bring them up’.362

Key’s focus on the child was to a significant extent influenced by the instrumental project of harnessing society’s concern with children to achieve wider social and political objectives. Her outlook was widely shared by many would-be paidologists, who looked upon children as the instrument for the realisation of progress. Many of them embraced psychology as the medium for understanding children’s problems, solving them and influencing them. This stance towards children was codified by the Mental Hygiene movement. One of the aims of this movement, which was originally founded in 1909, was the ‘investigation of the psychological factors related to education’,363 During the decades to follow, the Mental Hygiene movement broadened its scope and developed the idea of positive mental hygiene, which aimed to assist children to develop healthy personalities. As one of its advocates explained in 1928:

At the present time it might be said that mental hygiene is interested not only in the prevention of the various forms of maladjustment but in the development of the best possible type of personality. This aim might be called ‘positive mental hygiene’.364

This movement called for early intervention in childhood since it found that human pathologies and ‘maladjustments’ could be ‘traced further and further back into childhood and infancy’.365 It advocated a science that stressed the importance of early socialisation. As one study observed, ‘the mental hygiene paradigm originated with the premise that society could be perfected through the socialization of children’.366

In Britain, the tendency to invest in children and hopes about building a better world in the future also gained influence in the early decades of the 20th century. One historian of psychology pointed out that ‘the promise of remaking man through a new education epitomised by Edmund Holmes’ What is and What Might Be (1911), was attractive to those disenchanted by a socialism that was losing such a dimension’.367

The Child Guidance movement, which was founded in Chicago in 1906, shared many of the objectives of the Mental Hygiene movement.368 Child Guidance swiftly spread to Britain and other parts of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. This movement promoted psychological intervention in the process of socialisation in order to ‘promote children’s mental well-being’.369 Given its interest in socialisation it reoriented its focus from ‘the clinic to the school’ and in the process contributed to the medicalisation of education.370

Arendt was certainly right when she reflected in 1959 that ‘the idea that one can change the world by educating the children in the spirit of the future has been one of the hallmarks of political utopias since antiquity’.371 This sentiment bound Plato’s idealisation of an authoritarian city-state to the various social engineering projects initiated in the 20th century. It is worth noting that the premise that ‘you can never intervene in childhood early enough’ continues to dominate social policy to this day. Mental hygienists adopted this outlook and concluded that ‘by the time children came to the attention of psychiatrists and social workers, it was too late’. They therefore claimed that ‘in the interests of prevention it was critical to reach children before they became “problems”’.372

Gaining influence over the early years of a child became a central objective of social engineering. As Frank argued;

It is now becoming evident that the process of early education of the child, which ordinarily takes place in the home and family, gives rise to the basic character structure as a persistent way of organizing and interpreting experience and reacting affectively toward life. To the extent that both clinical and experimental studies are showing how various cultural traditions and certain time-honored methods of rearing children tend to foster distortions of the personality and persistent affective reactions, destructive to social order and to the individual, it would appear that in this area of early childhood education we have one of the most significant opportunities to modify the predominant personality difficulties and distortions characteristic to our society.373

Early childhood education was and remains to the present time the key instrument of social engineers determined to turn children into new and enlightened versions of adults.

Back in 1921, the American psychiatrist William Alanson White coined the phrase ‘the golden period for mental hygiene’ to refer to the early phase of childhood, when intervention could be most effective. For social engineers, the golden period of early childhood represented a moment when expert intervention could prevent the acquisition of various personality pathologies and ensure that young people adopted the right kind of values. Similar sentiments were voiced by progressive educators and child professionals. The influence of these pressure groups had a massive impact on education – first in the United States, then in other parts of the world. As one study of this movement explained, ‘few intellectual and social movements of this century have had so deep and pervasive an influence on the theory and practice of American education as the mental hygiene movement’. According to its author, Sol Cohen:

The mental hygiene movement provided the inspiration and driving force behind one of the most far-reaching yet little understood educational innovations of this century, what I call the ‘medicalization’ of American education. I mean by this metaphor the infiltration of psychiatric norms, concepts and categories of discourse – the ‘mental hygiene point of view’ – into virtually all aspects of American education in this century, epitomized in the idea of the school’s responsibility for children’s personality development.374

Through the medicalisation of education, schools became focused on the personality of the child. This reorientation of schooling was based on the premise that ‘the personality development of children must take priority over any other educational objective’.375

The trend towards the medicalisation of education and socialisation should not be interpreted narrowly as representing merely a form of public health intervention. Its aim was the ‘adjustment’ of a child’s personality, and to achieve this objective social engineers were determined to insulate young people from the negative influence of customs and values that prevented children from adjusting to the outlook they advocated. This was a cause which some of the leaders on the National Committee for Mental Hygiene fought as if it were a cultural crusade. One of the leaders of the NCMH, the psychiatrist Adolph Meyer, articulated this sentiment when he indicated that his organisation was waging an ‘educative war’ on behalf of mental hygiene.376

Outwardly this ‘educative war’ appeared to have little to do with competing ideologies. It often presented itself as a morally neutral form of therapeutic intervention in children’s lives. However, these movements were not simply motivated about the need to improve the welfare of children – they were also deeply devoted to the task of re-socialising children to the point that they could serve as instruments for changing society. From their perspective, it was not only children who were maladjusted but also society.377 Helping children to adjust was linked to the hope that society, too, would be cured of its sickness.

For social engineers, psychology promised to provide the most effective instrument for influencing and shaping the personality of children. That is why they have continually sought to offer psychological solutions for the educational problems of children. They were and remain relatively indifferent to the content of schooling and of socialisation, and instead concentrate on tackling the psychological obstacles to learning and the development of a healthy personality. Studies of the history of progressive education indicate that, through its concern for the psychological development of children, its greatest legacy was the medicalisation of education. According to one account, by the 1930s its psychological emphasis meant that the progressive movement’s ‘potential anti-intellectualism came to the fore’.378 Leading progressive educators like William Kirkpatrick embraced mental hygiene and argued for the freeing of children from the ‘artificial demands of subject matter requirements’. Kirkpatrick believed that shielding children from the imposition of a robust regime of disciplinary knowledge would prevent their ‘personality maladjustment’.379

Mental hygienists possessed an unapologetic anti-intellectual stance towards schooling. As Cohen explained, they ‘invariably depict the academic curriculum in pejorative terms: the “rigid curriculum,” the “academic menu,” the “old scholastic ideals of education,” the “mere acquisition of knowledge”’. They also attacked ‘the academic subject-matter-centred curriculum as a Procrustean bed, resulting in disaffection, failure, behavior problems, or personality maladjustment: “the reason for misfit children was a misfit curriculum”, they argued’.380 Typically, they ‘urged teachers to de-emphasize content and subject- matter and pay more attention to the child’s personality development as opposed to his intellectual development’.381

Hostility to academic subjects was pronounced among American curriculum engineers and psychologists. In the early 20th century, these subjects were not only denounced as irrelevant to the experience of children but also as positively harmful to their health. Stanley Hall criticised the ‘ideal of knowledge for its own sake’ and asserted that ‘children’s health and well-being were almost always jeopardized by traditional schools studies’.382 The sentiment that traditional academic education actually undermines children’s health and well-being was a reoccurring theme promoted by the medicalisers of the curriculum. It was in this vein that Caroline Zachary, a leading progressive pedagogue, dismissed the academic curriculum as a ‘relic that no longer served any useful purpose and that impaired students’ personal development’.383

The assertion that academic learning can have an adverse impact on children’s well-being and on their mental health was based on the conviction that much of what children do in school is unnatural and therefore stultifies their personal development. Often the very formality of education was condemned for curbing children’s natural inclinations and causing them mental distress. Such concerns have been regularly raised in relation to the alleged risks to children caused by homework. In 1900 Edward Bok, editor of The Ladies’ Home Journal, launched a campaign against homework. He alleged that the ‘mental health of American children was being destroyed’ by it.384 Others targeted discipline, rote learning and the inflexibility of the curriculum. Dewey stated that too much focus on literacy caused ‘undue nervous strain’ and he warned of a ‘sad record of injured nervous systems and muscular order and distortions’. As far back as 1898, he denounced attempts to teach 6- and 7-year-old children to read because it ‘cripples rather than furthers later intellectual development’.385

Dewey’s pedagogy was opposed to what he described as the ‘indoctrination’ going on in schools. Writing in 1937, he commented that ‘parents (especially those from upper classes) are often accomplices in such indoctrination and demand that the school system maintains the status quo and transmits the accepted social and moral values’.386 Dewey’s solution to this problem was not to explicitly challenge the values of the status quo but to rely on pedagogic and psychological techniques to encourage the ‘healthy differentiation’ of children ‘from their families of origin’.387

For progressive educators like Dewey, the psychic distancing of children from their families and their cultural influences was one of the supposed benefits of the medicalisation of education. The psychic distancing of children from their parents was most systematically promoted by Swedish Social Democratic social engineers. The sociologist and prominent public figure Alva Myrdal was in no doubt that the goal of educational reform was to achieve children’s early independence from parents.388

A study of the history of the medicalisation of education indicates that the growth of its influence paralleled that of social engineering. Stanley Hall boasted in 1908 that ‘the doctor now follows the child into the school’.389 In 1917, Life Magazine depicted the public school as a clinic, ‘monitored by medical inspections, sanitized and charged with the mandate of “medical moralization”’.390 Medical moralisation – with its emphasis on the mental health of the child – implicitly sought to undermine the influence of customs and values that it believed harmed a child. Invariably such customs and values were ones through which cultural continuity gained definition.

The medicalisation of education was not simply an intervention designed to assist the development of children’s personalities. It was also implicitly directed against the cultural norms thought to be responsible for damaging and distorting children’s personalities. Frank called for the ‘critical scrutiny of the traditional ideas and beliefs about human nature, about human conduct, our ethical and moral teachings and an exposition of how these either block or actually threaten integrated personality development’. He stated that ‘the prevailing practices of education of children call for similar examination and exposition of their consequences’. Concluding with a note of reassurance, he added that ‘it might be suggested that the psychiatrist is uniquely competent to tell us how to practice the Christian injunction to love little children’.391

The emphasis on the unique expertise of therapeutic professionals represented a call for bringing the socialisation of the young under their management. Parental incompetence in this domain was unfavourably contrasted with the expertise of psychiatrists and educational psychologists. This outlook was most systematically elaborated in the influential writing of Talcott Parsons, who claimed that each ‘phase of the socialization process’ was ‘analogous to a therapeutic process’.392 Parsons recognised the importance of the socialisation of children, but since he tended to view it as a technical process he assumed that its realisation depended on the quality of contribution of technical experts.

Targeting culture

From the 1930s onwards, arguments for the re-engineering of childhood often relied on the insights provided by cultural anthropologists with their emphasis on the variability of childrearing practices. They argued that childrearing played a central role in shaping the character of society at the same time as children’s character was seen to be determined by their culture. Modifying or changing culture through the adoption of new techniques of socialisation was often advocated as the prerequisite for building an ideal democratic world. This issue preoccupied Mead, just as the US was about to enter the Second World War in 1942:

we are faced with the problem of building a new world; we have to re-orient the old values of many contrasting and contradictory cultural systems into a new form which will use but transcend them all, draw on their respective strengths and allow for their respective weaknesses. We have to build a culture richer and more rewarding than any that the world has ever seen …. This can only be done through a disciplined science of human relations. (Emphasis added)393

Science was the medium for the realisation of cultural renewal. For Mead and her colleagues, the building of a rich culture required a fundamental reorientation of western values and norms, particularly as they pertained to the socialisation of the young.

One of the first important studies that drew attention to the deficits of the childrearing practices of western society was John Dollard’s Frustration and Aggression (1939). The frustration-aggression hypothesis of Dollard contained an implicit critique of the American regime of socialisation. It claimed that this regime made children frustrated, which in turn led to aggressive behaviour among the youth. Though written in an understated tone, Frustration and Aggression unfavourably contrasted the socialisation practices in America with the supposedly freer and more permissive childrearing styles of non-western cultures. This study became arguably the most important study on socialisation in the late 1930s and 1940s, and influenced discussion on the subject for years to come. Coinciding with the eruption of the Second World War, this book’s claim that parenting was responsible for enhancing the frustration and aggression of their children found a ready-made audience among policy makers and commentators.

The study hinted darkly at the ‘forbidding atmosphere of our patriarchal family’ which was ‘expressed in the precept “honor thy father and mother”’.394 It asserted that ‘this commandment alone is a warrant for a general aggressive parental program against the aggressive behavior of the child itself’.395 What was significant about Dollard’s argument was not merely his criticism of the American patriarchal family but his contention that there were cultures that did a much better job at raising their children.

Dollard pointed to cultures where the frustration-aggression pattern of adolescent development did not exist because they ‘allowed relatively free expression of sex instigation that appears at maturation’. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, he concluded that where these ‘ideal’ conditions are present ‘there is apparently little conflict at pubescence’.396 He cited the work of Mead, ‘who has conducted the most extensive studies of post-pubescent behaviour in primitive societies’ and who reported that ‘in Samoa free expression of the sex drive is uninhibited and there is a marked reduction of adolescent conflict’. Dollard also cited the work of the London School of Economics anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, ‘who found that there is no neurotic behaviour among the Trobriand Islanders’ – as opposed to neighbouring tribes where ‘sexual activity is rigidly tabooed’.397

Remarkably, the objections that professional socialisers hurled against the traditions of the past did not apply to the very traditional cultures of non-western society. The studies based on the fieldwork of cultural anthropologists often implied that the traditional values and customs of Pacific Island communities could serve as models for rapidly changing non-traditional western societies. There was something of a utopian naivety about Dollard’s description of happy teen-agers enjoying a fulfilling life of sexual permissiveness in Pacific Islands. In part this gullibility towards exotic cultures was influenced by a mood of estrangement from western culture. The author even referred to a study, Russia, Youth and the Present-Day World (1934), to claim that in the Soviet Union youths have ‘been given emancipation from sexual restraints’, and have achieved responsibilities that go way beyond those enjoyed by their peers in the West.398 The readiness with which Dollard naively accepted Soviet propaganda about its young people’s emancipation from sexual restraints is itself worthy of study. Mead echoed Dollard, when she cited the ‘spectacular experiment in Russia’ as a possible culture to be emulated by America.399

The exoticism of Dollard was shared by many professional socialisers who were under the spell of the bowdlerised version of the Freudian theory of ‘sexual repression’. In the 1930s, sexual repression prevailing in authoritarian families was perceived as the cause of neuroses and held responsible for the aggressive behaviour associated with fascism and related forms of pathological behaviour. This thesis was forcefully presented in the work of Wilhelm Reich, whose work on the rise of fascism in Germany ‘diagnosed sexual repression by society as a major contributor to the political passivity – repression that instilled in the child a deep anxiety, insecurity, and the need to internalize society’s prescriptions’.400 In the US, advocates of the frustration-aggression thesis hoped that new cultural norms of child training would reduce children’s frustration and thereby ultimately contribute to ‘controlling aggression within modern society’.401

In contrast to repressed western communities, anthropologists found societies where sexual permissiveness appeared to create a culture that appeared to be free from neuroses. Often these romanticised accounts of non-western cultures served as the springboard for criticising the way western societies socialised their young. As one study observed;

Both Malinowski and Mead used the practices of ‘primitives’ to comment on the middle- and upper-class norms of their own societies. Malinowski implicitly applauded the Trobriand Islanders, who had ‘no condemnation of sex or of sensuality as such,’ and contrasted them with the British, whose ‘repressions of the nursery … especially among the higher classes’ led to ‘clandestine inquisitions into indecent things.’ Likewise, Mead found that the Samoans’ ‘knowledge of sex and the freedom to experiment’ contributed to their easy ‘adjustment,’ without the adolescent crises or adult neuroses that she thought marked her own society.402

Ruth Benedict barely disguised her contempt for some of the values she associated with western culture. She was critical of the selfish and individualistic outlook of her society, which she diagnosed as sick. ‘Western civilization’, she wrote, ‘allows and culturally honors gratifications of the ego which according to any absolute category would be regarded as abnormal.’403

In one of the earliest cultural anthropological critiques of American culture, Edward Sapir observed in 1924 that ‘it is perhaps the sensitive ethnologist who has studied the aboriginal civilization at first hand who is most impressed by the frequent vitality of culture in less sophisticated levels’. Sapir admired the ‘well-rounded life of the average participant in the civilization of a typical American Indian tribe’ and the ‘creative’ role that people play in the ‘mechanism of their culture’.404 His praise of the vitality of the culture of a ‘less sophisticated’ society contrasted with his disappointment with that of America. He wrote of the ‘chronic state of cultural maladjustment’ in the US, which has ‘for so long a period reduced much of our higher life to sterile externality’.405

In Britain, the sentimentalisation of non-western culture was voiced by the Glaswegian psychoanalyst, Ian Suttie. He claimed that Freud’s arguments about repression and the influence of patriarchy were ‘distortions peculiar to Western civilisation’. Suttie drew on anthropological studies of the Arunta people of Australia to show that there were alternative forms of emotional and social regimes to the psychological distortions that prevailed in the West.406

On re-reading the socialisation literature of the 1930s and 1940s, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of the contributors wished to convey the impression that, at least as far as childrearing was concerned, western cultures were more damaged than others. Writing in 1973 and reflecting back on her motive for writing her first book, The Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Mead noted that its aim was to show that there was a better way of socialising the young. She stated that she hoped ‘it would be intelligible to those who might make the best use of its theme, that adolescence need not be the time of stress and strain which Western society made it; that growing up could be freer and easier and less complicated’.407 As in the 1920s so almost 50 years later, Mead self-consciously adopted the cause of the adolescent as a point of departure for critiquing western culture.

The ease with which the discussion of the problem of socialisation moved on to a critique of western culture indicated that child development served as an ideal vehicle for the questioning of wider social norms. During the 1930s, as an officer with the General Education Board, Frank laid great emphasis on the reconstruction of culture as the ‘primary route to the production of a pacified social order’.408 He viewed ‘the training and care of children’ as ‘the master technique of social progress’.409 He suggested that through the application of social engineering, culture itself could be transformed. As Bryson wrote, for Frank ‘what was needed … was the redirection of culture with a view to producing wholesome, sane, and noncompetitive personalities’:

such a project would combine various approaches, including the critical re-examination and reinterpretation of cultural tradition by specialists and, most importantly, a series of programs aimed at the personalities and outlooks of adolescents, such as the reorienting of the curriculum of secondary education toward ‘human relations’ and the fostering of wholesome aesthetic experience among the nation’s youth.410

Typically, Frank, like most professional socialisers, argued that it was the interest of the child that necessitated the forging of a new culture. In this way, their politicisation of culture appeared as an ideologically neutral doctrine of scientific socialisation.

The goal of establishing a new culture was integral to the social engineering projects of professional groups. The social engineering ambitions of anthropology were explicitly endorsed in 1948 by Bernard Mishkin, who noted that the ‘new anthropology can reduce tensions all over the world’.411

He hailed the ‘new anthropology’ as a ‘branch of social engineering’. For their part, psychiatrists hailed the ‘third revolution’ of psychiatry, which boasted that it could cure not only individuals but also nations and societies. In April 1941, Robert Yerkes, who was a leading member of the US Government’s war-time Emergency Committee in Psychology, stated that he was looking forward to ‘a period of reconstruction during which innovations are likely to be the unescapable order of the day and the fashioning of a new civilization a necessity’.412 This point was echoed by Mead, who wrote that ‘we must see this war’ as a ‘prelude to a greater job – the restructuring of the culture of the world – which we will want to do, and for which, because we are also a practical people, we must realize there are already tools half forged’.413

The demand for a new culture, and its implicit condemnation of western values and customs, gained influence in the 1940s. Its ethos of scientific socialisation gradually acquired institutional support within the newly created international organisations such as UNESCO and the WHO, and among professional bodies promoting mental health and social and educational reform. It also enjoyed significant support among public administrators working in different branches of government in the US, Canada, Sweden, Britain and other parts of Europe.

Outwardly the newly established international organisations celebrated western democracy and way of life, and professional bodies tended to support the West against the Soviet Union in the unfolding Cold War. At the same time, they conveyed serious reservation about western culture, and often depicted it as a source of mental health pathologies. This sentiment was clearly communicated by the title of the book Psychosocial Medicine: A Study of the Sick Society (1948), authored by Glaswegian public health investigator James L. Halliday, who claimed that ‘society itself was sick’.414 The representation of society and its culture as sick continued to influence the outlook of sections of the therapeutic professions. The diagnosis of society as the patient was the focus of psychiatrist G.M. Carstair’s BBC Reith Lecture in 1962.415 He called for the adoption of new methods of socialisation and warned that ‘our emotional attitudes are sometimes anachronistic and ill-adapted to the changing realities of our society’.416

From the 1940s the claim that western culture was sick and required the therapeutic intervention of experts was constantly asserted by members of the mental health lobby. Writing in 1968, the psychologist Abraham Maslow summed up this outlook when he stated that ‘sick people are made by sick cultures’.417 The term ‘sick culture’ conveyed the idea that its practices and values were responsible for people’s mental health problems and character defects. This diagnosis suggested that before these problems could be put right, a sick culture needed to be transformed.

The targeting of the sick culture of the West frequently focused on challenging its morality, particularly its alleged deleterious impact on the socialisation of children. Along with other leaders of the newly established post-Second World War international organisations, Julius Huxley, advocate of ‘reform eugenics’, who became the first Director General of UNESCO, played an important role in gaining institutional support for the displacement of traditional morality by what he called ‘scientific humanism’. Huxley and his colleagues dismissed morality as dogma and the exercise of moral judgment was denounced by them as the unthinking imposition of archaic values. Some went so far as to suggest that the idealisation of moral values during the process of the socialisation of young people was responsible for human conflict and the two world wars of the 20th century.

George Chisholm, Director General of the WHO, personified his era’s ambitions of moral engineering. He asserted that people had to be re-socialised to reject their old-fashioned moral outlook. He attacked a moral outlook that relied on the ‘concept of right and wrong’ as the basis of child training. In a widely publicised lecture, delivered in 1946, he asked ‘What drives people to war’ before answering, ‘Only one common factor − Morality’.418 He denounced morality and its imposition on the younger generations.

Chisholm claimed that the task of an enlightened system of education was the ‘eradication of the concept of right and wrong which has been the basis of child training’. He called for the ‘substitution of intelligent and rational thinking for faith in the certainties of the old people’.419 Liberation from the crushing burden of making moral distinctions was presented as essential to overcome the ‘poisonous certainties fed us by our parents, our Sunday and day school teachers, our politicians, our priests, our newspapers and others with a vested interest in controlling us’, argued Chisholm.420 Freedom from moralities was presented by parenting experts, educators and a growing body of therapeutic professionals as the foundation of an open-minded personality.

The main instrument adopted by moral engineers to diminish the influence of traditional morality was through the promotion of mental health. Mental health intervention was no longer simply focused on the individual but on culture as a whole. As Frank argued in 1950, ‘mental health may thereby be given the larger meaning and inclusive significance of a community-wide goal’.421 But the achievement of this goal demanded fundamental cultural change.422 Frank’s call for a cultural revolution required ridding society of its traditional views of human nature and morality. He was determined to ‘“clean up” the cultural environment’ by getting people to rid themselves of old beliefs and replace them with ‘more constructive’ ideas. He was in no doubt that the adoption of mental health intervention as the new form of socialisation would lead to ‘human development’.423

In effect what Frank offered was a form of a science-inspired religion:

A community program for mental health, if it is to have meaning for people and is to draw on the strengths of our culture, must be presented as more than a psychiatric proposal; indeed, it must enlist much of what people mean by their religion. Viewed in these larger terms, we may regard mental health programs as the beginning of a self-conscious effort to reorient our culture and our social order in the light of the awareness, the insights, the understandings now becoming available, to help us advance toward the human dignity which is both the prerequisite to, and the product of, mental health.424

Though infused with optimism, this utopian vision of a new culture was short on detail on what kind of values would prevail. Other than uphold mental health as the foundational value of the new culture, it had little to say about what values serve as the inspiration for socialising children.

Socialisation, which had served as the main terrain for the practice of social engineering since the turn of the 20th century, soon became implicated in a wider conflict over culture. Establishing influence over the cultural values that would be internalised in childhood dominated the vision of the different groups of social engineers. In the narrative of social engineering, transforming culture required the reorganisation of socialisation on non-traditional and scientific principles. They believed that through the process of cultivating the development of healthy personalities, culture itself could be restructured for the good of society as a whole.425 Socialisation had acquired a counter-cultural impulse.

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