Monday, June 12, 2006

Two for the Ages

This spring , Yale University Press has published summary works by two distinguished Americans in different fields that address attitudes and actions forming our common world : the famed psychologist and writer Jerome Kagan, and the veteran expert on public opinion and social values research, Daniel Yankelovich. Both books are of special interest to their disciplines but in this era of boundlessly bounded expertise, both are of immense value to a wider readership. This relevance reflects the careers and lifelong concerns of both authors to relate their work to the general welfare, and to the major public dialogues of their times.

Jerome Kagan’s An Argument For Mind is structured around autobiography, beginning with his graduate work in psychology in 1950. Kagan describes his own state of mind and views, as well as the state of psychology in the context of relevant public events and dominant ideas of the time. Without jargon or smothering detail, he creates a generous and thoughtful history of the discipline over the past half century.

Psychology is a field where battle lines have long been drawn between those who rely strictly on experiments and statistics and other data, and whose therapies usually involve drugs, and those whose observations are more general and contextual, and whose therapies involve “talking” and applying concepts in active partnership with patients. There’s conflict between those who emphasize environmental factors, and prescribe cognitive or behavioral therapies as well as particular parenting procedures, and those who emphasize genetics and brain chemistry, prescribing drugs and other methods of manipulation and control.

Kagan not only uses insights and techniques from all camps, based on his own researches, but further relates his observations in this book to characters and situations in literature, movies or shared popular culture, accessible to all of us.

Kagan is renowned for his work in developmental psychology and how children learn. He is not afraid to use concepts such as virtue and morality in describing aspects of his findings and conclusions, without getting mired in judgments. This willingness to use broadly known concepts also contributes to making this book more accessible and relevant to public debate as well as personal insight.

In his concluding chapter, Kagan writes about the limitations and the relevance of biology to psychology, of (among other things) brain to mind. In writing about these issues as well as others of general concern in a field that continues to have vast direct and indirect importance to all of us, he displays a quality much missed since the passing of the founding giants of modern psychology: wisdom. You (like me) may not agree with every conclusion, but Kagan writes with the authority, clarity and generosity that gives us the information and context to grasp the issues and make up our own minds.

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