This post reviews Patricia M. Greenfield, “Linking Social Change and Developmental Change: Shifting Pathways of Human Development” in Developmental Psychology 45, no. 2 (March 2009): 401-418
Greenfield is a luminary in the field of psychocultural research, the comparative study of psychology across geographic and ethnic boundaries. She is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA and Associate Director of the Children’s Digital Media Center, Los Angeles (CDMCLA).
In this fascinating article Greenfield constructs a broad theory to explain how changes in society interface with changes in child development. In this review I will briefly summarize her theory and then explain how it connects to homeschooling.
She begins by rehearsing the familiar distinction of Ferdinand Tönniesbetween gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. The distinction is a convenient way of naming the difference between rural, pre-industrial societies and modern, industrialized ones. She parallels it to Redfield’scontrast between folk and urban societies. We might also note its similarity to Maine’s Status and Contract societies or Riesman’sTradition and Inner direction. Discussion of the merits and demerits of this basic dichotomy has been an obsession of cultural anthropology and sociology since their beginnings.
Greenfield accepts the distinction and understands recent human history to be mostly the shift from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft as societies move away from subsistence agriculture and village life to a more urban, industrialized economic order. Importantly for homeschooling, she does acknowledge that minority factions within a given society sometimes resist the shift and seek self-consciously to maintain or return to the more communal, familial ways of gemeinschaft.
Her particular concern in this article is with how the shift described above affects child psychology. Greenfield summarizes many interesting anthropological studies conducted among a wide range of population groups and finds that in general as societies move away from communal village norms to urban, industrial ones family practices shift significantly, profoundly affecting child development. Family size shrinks. Nuclear family is less connected to extended family. Formal schooling increases. Literacy rates climb. IQ scores go up. Children’s individuality is nurtured even as familial commitments (such as that older children care for younger or that children care for elderly relatives) wane.
This process does not occur overnight. It has a generational component. Adults who were raised in a more gemeinschaft context often try to parent in the old way even though the broader social context has shifted. This can lead to tensions within families. For example, parents may seek to perpetuate the ethos of a subsistence village by requiring all sorts of chores of their children when what the children really want is remunerative work so they can buy consumer goods.
As the cultural shift takes place, children change. Gesellschaft children become better at recognizing abstractions (as opposed to memorizing details), handle novel situations more nimbly, think of themselves more as individuals (especially the girls, whose life choice options are significantly expanded), value sharing less and ownership more.
Greenfield concludes the article by contrasting her theory to several other theories, most notably modernization theory. She makes it clear that she is not celebrating the move toward gesellschaft nor does she see the shift as progress or an historic inevitability.
So what does all of this have to do with homeschooling? Two things. If we were to assume Greenfield’s account of social change we would come up with two explanations for why homeschooling happens.
For one group of people, homeschooling may be one of the vestigial parenting patterns adults have inherited from their own more gemeinschaft upbringing. As these adults join the money economy and move to areas with more population diversity and density, they may nevertheless still hold on to older village values like the sanctity of kinship relations, the need for children to have disciplined character (as opposed to autonomous personality), the evils of exposure to foreign customs, ideas, or people groups, and so on. Homeschooling becomes a strategy used to soften the impact and slow the transition of the family from gemeinschaft to gesellschaft. Children who grow up in this way will likely have to deal with a good bit of inner struggle as they seek to navigate between this traditional home life and the openness of individual autonomy that beckons from outside. The struggle is likely to be even more intense the more mom and dad themselves rely on the industrial money economy for their livelihood.
For a second group of people homeschooling may be one strategy among several used to try and overcome perceived deficits of the gesellschaft society. Consumerism, self-referential morality, absense of communal norms and relationships, hunger for family, history, religion–these and many other critical reactions commonly occur among the denizens of gesellschaft who often feel lonely amidst the crowds and rootless amidst the opportunities. Greenfield explains it like this,
Sometimes groups consciously try to maintain a more Gemeinschaft milieu by forming homogenous, self-contained groups at the interior of a more Gesellschaft environment. A case in point is urban Orthodox Jewish communities. The theory predicts corresponding differences in socialization practices and developmental pathways compared with the broader society. Such cases are small minorities and are reactive against the surrounding culture.
Seen this way, homeschoolers’ predeliction for tight social networking (and the tendency of such networks to segment along ideological lines) makes a lot of sense. So does the gradual emergence of multi-generational homeschooling. Especially among the most conservative Christian homeschoolers, families with homeschooled children are increasingly betrothing their children to one another, moving closer and closer to being a truly self-contained alternative society rather like the Orthodox Jews or the Amish.
Greenfield’s model predicts that such children would likely do very well with tests and competitions that reward memorization skills (i.e. spelling and geography bees) but less well with projects requiring synthesis or intellectual creativity.
Greenfield only mentions homeschooling in her text in passing as an example of one of these antimodern reactions, but the theory she articulates does capture pretty well I think what has driven much of the interest in homeschooling for the past 35 years.
What it fails to capture, however, is that other sort of homeschooling that is also happening, a homeschooling that is itself entirely consistent with gesellschaft society. Her account assumes institutional schooling to be a permanent part of gesellschaft when it could be the case that it was part during gesellschaft‘s early stages but becomes increasingly ineffective as gesellschaft ratchets up to the light-speed information economy we have today. Greenfield’s account captures the traditionalist motives for homeschooling very well. But it misses the high end homeschooling of the Creative Class.