Here is my Shelf Awareness review for Jerome Kagan’s The Human Spark: The Science of Human Development. The relationship between nature and nurture has always fascinated me. The idea that nurture confirms or mitigates or triggers what nature bestows is confirmed by current research. The relationship between and “self” is another rich topic and I admire Kagan’s clear distinction between self-awareness and self-respect on the one hand versus self-indulgence on the other, a distinction, he argues, that many young people do not presently learn.
The review in its entirety:
Jerome Kagan, emeritus professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Nature of the Child, is one of the pioneers of developmental psychology and among its most influential thinkers. His focus has been in the area of children’s cognitive and emotional development, especially the genetic or environmental roots of temperament. In the thought-provoking The Human Spark, Kagan identifies the development of cognitive, emotional and moral stages that children reveal at common ages and shows what variances can be traced to environmental factors like parenting, birth order or social norms.
Far more than another round in the nature/nurture debate, Kagan describes how flawed research based on cultural assumptions can lead to widely accepted conclusions that influence public policy. For example, he presents research that disproves infant determinism, the common notion that certain negative early childhood experiences doom a child to an unhappy adulthood. In one of many fascinating asides, he suggests that this idea developed out of a larger historical trend favoring a middle class with nuclear families, where a new class of stay-at-home mothers were given social responsibility for infant emotional and intellectual development and behavior–an idea that continues to drive policy and shape cultural expectations.
Authoritative and surprising, Kagan guides us through the most current research in the field, tracing its shifting intellectual fashions from emphasizing “nurture” to the current reliance on neuroscience and showing how these fashions play out culturally. This wise and affirming book is essential reading for anyone interested in what makes us human.