Tuesday, September 7, 2010

HUMAN TRAITS AND THEIR SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE



In walking down a street with a friend, for example, one may be attracted by the array of bright colors, of flowers, jewelry and clothing in the shop windows, blink one's eyes in the glare of the sun, feel a satisfaction in the presence of other people and a loneliness for a particular friend, dodge before a passing automobile, be envious of its occupant, and smile benevolently at a passing child.
The human being, born into a world where there are many things to be learned both of natural law and human relations, is, as it were, fortunately born ignorant. He has instincts which are pliable enough to be modified into habits, and in consequence socially useful habits can be deliberately inculcated in the immature members of a society by their elders.
The whole process of education is a utilization of man's prolonged period of infancy, for the deliberate acquisition of habits. This is all the more important since only by such habit formation during the long period of human infancy can the achievements of civilization be handed down from generation to generation. Art, science, industrial methods, social customs, these are not inherited by the individual as are the instincts of sex, pugnacity, etc.
Man's "innate tendency to fool" is notorious, a tendency particularly noticeable in children. Objects are responded to, not as means to ends, not with reference to their use, but simply for the sheer satisfaction of manipulation. Facial expressions, sounds, gestures, are made almost on any provocation; they are the expressions of an abundant "physiological uneasiness." The two-year-old is a mechanism that simply must and will move about, make all kinds of superfluous gestures and facial expressions, and random sounds, as it were, just to get rid of its stored-up energy.
An important part of man's social equipment is his susceptibility to the praise and blame of his fellows. That is, among the things which instinctively satisfy men are objective marks of praise or approval on the part of other people; among the things which annoy them, sometimes to the point of acute distress, are marks of disapproval, scorn, or blame. This is illustrated most simply and directly in the satisfaction felt at "intimate approval as by smiles, pats," kindly words, or epithets applied by other people to one's own actions or ideas, and the discomfort, amounting sometimes to pain, that is felt at frowns, hoots, sneers, and epithets of scorn or derision.
An individual, to a certain extent, makes his own environment. What kind of an environment he will make depends on the kinds of capacities and interests he has to start with. Similarity of original tendencies and interests brings men together as differences among these keep them apart. The libraries, the theaters, and the baseball parks are all equally possible and accessible features of their environment to individuals of a given economic or social class. Yet a hundred individuals with the same education and social opportunities will make themselves by choice a hundred different environments. They will select, even from the same physical environment, different aspects. The Grand Canyon is a different environment to the artist and to the geologist; a crowd of people at an amusement park constitutes a different environment to the man who has come out to make psychological observations, and the man who has come out for a day's fun. A dozen men, teachers and students, selected at random on a university campus, might well be expected to note largely different though overlapping facts, as the most significant features of the life of the university.
The environment is the less important in the moulding of character, the less fixed and unavoidable it becomes. If an individual has the chance to change his environment to suit his own original demands and interests, these are the less likely to undergo modification. This is illustrated in the animal world by the migratory birds, which change their habitations with the seasons. Similarly human beings, to suit the original mental traits with which they are endowed, can and do exchange one environment for another. There are a very large number of individuals living in New York City, in the twentieth century, for example, for whom a multiplicity of environments are possible. The one that becomes habitual with an individual is a matter of his own free choice.
Original nature thus sets the scope and the limits of an individual's character and achievement. It tells "how much" and, in the most general way, "what" his capacities are. Thus a man born with a normal vocal apparatus can speak; a man born with normal vision can see. But what language he shall speak, and what sights he shall see, depends on the social and geographical situation in which he happens to be placed. Again, if a man is born with a "high general intelligence," that is, with keen sensory discriminations and motor responses, precise and accurate powers of analysis of judgment, a capacity for the quick and effective acquisition and modification of habits, we can safely predict that he will excel in some direction. But whether he will stand out as a lawyer, doctor, philosopher, poet, or executive, it is almost impossible from original nature to tell.
To the very young the world seems an unprecedented novelty. It seems scarcely older than their own memories, which are few and short, and their own experience, which is necessarily limited and confined. Through education our experience becomes immeasurably widened; we can vicariously live through the experiences of other people through hearing or reading, and can acquire the racial memory which goes back as far as the records of history, or anthropological research. As we grow older we come to learn that our civilization has a history; that our present has a past.
We inherit the past in a more vital sense. We inherit ways of thought and action, social systems, scientific and industrial methods, manners and morals, educational bequests and ideals, all that we have and are. Without these, each generation would have to start anew. If the whole of existing society were destroyed, and a newborn generation could be miraculously preserved to maturity, its members would have to start on the same level, with the same ignorance, uncertainties, and impotence as primitive savages.
We are thus to a very large extent conditioned by the past. It is as if we had inherited a fortune composed of various kinds of properties, houses, books, automobiles, warehouses, musical instruments, and in addition, trade concessions, business secrets, formulas, methods, and good-will. Our activities will be limited in measure by the extent of the property, its constituent items, and the repair in which we keep it.
Everyone has felt more or less keenly this sense of being a link in a great tradition, whether of a college, family, or country. Sometimes this sense for tradition takes an esthetic form, as in the case of ritual, whether social or religious. Old streets, ivied towers, ancient rooms, become symbols of great and dignified achievements; ceremonies come to be invested with a serious beauty and memorable charm. They become reminders of a "torch to be carried on," of a spirit to be cherished and kept alive, of a history to be carried on or a purpose or an ideal to be fulfilled. This sense for the past, which, as Santayana says, makes a man loyal to the sources of his being, have both its virtues and vices. It is of immense value in preserving continuity and cultural integration, in keeping many men continuously moving toward a single fixed end. It may also wrap dangerously irrelevant habits and institutions in a saving—and illusive—halo.
There are, on the other hand, individuals with very little sense for tradition. This may be accounted for in some cases by a marked esthetic insensibility, which sees in ritual, ceremony, or habit, merely the literal, without any appreciation at all of its symbolic significance. In other cases, individuals are unsusceptible and hostile to tradition, because they have themselves been socially disinherited. This is illustrated not infrequently in the case of foreigners who, for one reason or another, have left and lost interest in their native land, and become men without a country.
The extreme form of uncritical veneration of the past may be said to take the position that old things are good simply because they are old; new things are evil simply because they are new. Institutions, Ideas, Customs are, like wines, supposed to attain quality with age. A custom, a law, a code of morals is defined or maintained on the ground of its ancient—and honorable—history, of the great span of years during which it has been current, of the generation after generation that has lived under its auspices. The ways of our fathers, the old time-tested ways, these, we are told, must be our ways. That there are no imperfections, in manners, politics, or morals, in our present social order, that there are no improvements which good-will, energy, and intelligence can effect, few will maintain without qualification. To do so implies, when sincere, extraordinary blindness to the facts, for example, of poverty and disease, which, though they do not happen to touch a particular individual, are patent and ubiquitous enough.
In civilized life, also, the greater part of human energy must be spent in necessary or instrumental business. Men must, as always, be fed, clothed, and housed, and the fulfillment of these primary human demands absorbs the greater part of the waking hours of the majority of mankind. Our civilization is predominantly industrial; it is devoted almost entirely to the transforming of the world of nature into products for the gratification of the physical wants of men. These wants have, of course, become much complicated and refined: men wish not only to live, but to live commodiously and well. They want not merely a roof over their heads, but a pleasant and comfortable house in which to live. They want not merely something to stave off starvation, but palatable foods. In the satisfaction of these increasingly complicated demands a great diversity of industries arises. With every new want to be fulfilled, there is a new occupation, pursued not for its own sake, but for the sake of the good which it produces.
(Adapted from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Human Traits and their Social Significance, by Irwin Edman, PhD, Instructor in Philosophy, Columbia University)


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