NUMBER 1058 • 5 OCTOBER • SELFISHNESS / ALTRUISM
The central position of this book is that young people can develop self-worth, significance, dignity, and responsibility only as they become committed to the positive values of helping and caring for others. While this philosophy appears to be missing in many of today’s education and treatment programs, the general concept has a rich place in history. Shakespeare observed that “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely help another without helping himself.” Most major religions extol the virtue of service to others. An ancient Hindu proverb advises “Help thy brother’s boat across, and lo, thine own has reached the shore.” The Christian, Jewish, and Moslem faiths all stress the value of extending kindness to others, even if they are strangers.
In the 1800s, the American educational philosopher, Horace Mann, argued that childhood should be an apprenticeship in responsibility, preparing children for the moral attitudes of self-government and service to others. During the same period, a pioneer in the work with troubled youth, S. D. Brooks, recognized their great potential for service. As superintendent of a New York training school in the mid-nineteenth century, his enthusiasm was unbounded as he declared, “The very qualities of sagacity and daring which formerly rendered them a terror to the community will push them forward in their new career of virtue, honor, and usefulness.”
However, the optimism of the 1800s gave way to the reality of the urbanized, industrialized twentieth century. Social critics marked the depersonalization of life, the failures of our societal institutions, and the emptiness of childhood and adolescence. The anthropologist Benedict 11 I observed that contemporary society does not provide meaningful role opportunities for youth; rather, it prevents them from assuming adult responsibilities and then blames youth for their irresponsibility and belligerence.
When the first edition of Positive Peer Culture was written in the early 1970s, young people in our society were seen by many as the “me generation.” It was as if the Jeffersonian concept of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had been mutated to mean freedom to “do one’s own thing” and “look out for number one” in a climate of consumption and indifference to social responsibility. Sadly, many of our schools and treatment institutions, and even our theories of human behavior, still support this self-centered irresponsibility.
In a most penetrating analysis of this phenomenon, Michael and Lise Wallach (10) of Duke University indict the major theories of human psychology as promoting selfishness.
There is currently in our society an enormous emphasis on the self ... narcissism, self-concern and preoccupation with “me”. . . . A surprisingly broad and influential range of psychological theory turns out to legitimatize selfishness. Although this is usually far from what is intended, support is lent by academic thinkers as well as clinicians, by Freudians as well as anti-Freudians, by behaviorists as well as contenders against behaviorism, and by psychologists who investigate altruism as by those who deny its existence (p. ix).
They observed that the classic psychoanalytic position reduces human behavior to innate drives that are satisfied by the pleasure principle; self-sacrifice, once seen as a virtue, is presumed to be motivated by neurotic guilt. The behaviorist sees altruism as a special case of self-reinforcement where individuals engage in efforts on behalf of others in order to promote themselves. Even humanistic psychologists are caught in this “error of egoism” by assuming that the most worthy human goal is the quest for self-expression.
In this kind of cynical, psychological world view, there is no real place for gratitude since no one is really genuinely concerned. Even if you really wanted to help someone else, the ultimate basis of your motivation is what you expect to gain by doing so. In such a climate, work that contributes to the welfare of others is devalued. Commitment to a spouse in marriage is undermined, and sacrifices for one’s children or parents are suspect because they may interfere with self-expression and freedom. Concluding that therapy need not be cast only in forms that encourage selfishness, the Wallachs call for alternatives. They note a scattered but powerful alternative view within psychology. Allport, Mowrer, Adler, and Frankel all support the idea that it is essential for a person to step outside of himself to care for other humans without thought of return, and such acts of service can heal psychological wounds. Menninger observes that major religions identify self-centeredness as the central human problem and love as the means of overcoming it-self-preoccupation is displaced by assuming responsibility beyond one’s self.
The field of education has also been preoccupied with the self to the detriment of building a climate of cooperation. Johnson and Johnson (7) note that the three major formats for learning are cooperation, competition, and individualization. Competition is the dominant pattern in regular classrooms as student is pitted against student in a struggle of educational fitness. Rejecting competition, special educators turn instead to precisely measured individual objectives; but even as they seek to meet the needs of the individual child, they often fail to address the goal of developing caring interpersonal behaviors. As in psychology, there are hopeful signs of a course correction from the “self-ish” toward the interpersonal approach that seeks to build communities of caring. This is seen in the renewed interest in topics such as peer tutoring or counseling (6) social skill instruction (4), the social psychology of learning (9), and moral and value development (8).
The Carnegie Foundation studies of the problems and needs of youth in this nation emphasize the crucial importance of involving young people in helping others. Noting that a vast industry serves youth with schooling, entertainment, and goods of all kinds, our society offers limited opportunities for the young themselves to be of service to others (3). Perhaps high technology economies do not have the capacity of absorbing a mass of youth in formal employment roles; nevertheless, widespread opportunities for volunteer service exist by involving young people in helping one another and in meeting other needs that exist in every community. In a major study of American high schools, the Carnegie Foundation called for all of the nation’s secondary schools to establish involvement in some volunteer service activity as a requirement for high school graduation (2)
The authors are most encouraged by recent trends in the fields of education and treatment that show promise of directing young people away from narcissism and conflict toward a spirit of concern and service for others. It is our sincere hope that this book can make a contribution in this regard. As with our earlier edition, we strive insofar as possible to maintain a simplicity of style of presentation, directing our remarks to the practitioner. However, this is not to say that developing positive caring cultures of young people is a simple process. Therefore, we have felt it important to add material to this edition that seeks to clarify some of the misunderstandings that have arisen as various persons have sought to implement this methodology. Other additions to this revision include a new chapter on the development of positive peer culture in school settings and a discussion of programs for creating service-learning programs that generalize helping beyond the peer group to the community. In the final chapter, we discuss issues related to evaluation and quality control in peer-group programs and provide an overview of the literature concerning the impact of positive peer culture.
Young people who populate our nation’s schools and youth institutions are in desperate need of an antidote to the narcissism, malaise, and antisocial life-styles that have become so prevalent. As Gallup and Poling (5) conclude from their survey of contemporary youth, the emerging generation is more than hinting, now almost screaming, to be used in some demanding cause. This book seeks to provide a way of meeting this cry of youth.
HARRY VORRATH AND LARRY BRENDTRO
Vorrath, H., Brendtro, L., K. (1985) Foreword to Postive peer culture: Second Edition. Hawthorn, New York: Aldine de Gruyter. pp. xi – xiii