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Did you hear about the car aerial that married a satellite dish; the wedding was a bit boring but apparently the reception was brilliant. Sadly, I can’t apply this adjective to the response I received for my set of posts over the New Year about entitlement. Yet, unabashed by the evidence that the longer I talk about an issue the less convincing I become, I am this week planning to write a series of posts on aspects of human development…..

Last Thursday I chaired an event at which Richard Sennett spoke about his new book Together. As tends to be the case with Richard’s work the book is often fascinating, sometimes inspiring and occasionally baffling. His core thesis certainly struck a chord.

Sennett joins many other thinkers in identifying both the importance of collaboration to human prospects in the 21st century but also the challenges of living and working with people - often very different to ourselves in values, backgrounds and lifestyles - in a fast moving, shrinking world. He suggests three attributes which people need to be able successfully and enduringly to function together (and alongside these, three apparently similar attributes they must supplant).

First, we must seek dialogic rather than dialectic communication (in essence this means conversation which accepts and negotiates different perspectives rather than seeking to find a single shared view). Second, we should aim for a subjunctive rather than a declaratory form of expression. Sennett writes:

‘The subjunctive mood counters Bernard Williams’ fear of the fetish of assertiveness by opening up instead an indeterminate mutual space, the space in which strangers dwell with one another…’.

Third, the sentiment that suits modern togetherness is empathy rather than sympathy:

‘Both sympathy and empathy convey recognition, and both forge a bond, but one is an embrace the other an encounter…Sympathy has usually been thought a stronger sentiment…I feel your pain puts a stress on what I feel; it activates one; own ego. Empathy is a more demanding exercise, at least in listening; the listener has to get outside him- or herself’.             

Rather like the objects in an impressionist painting the edges of Sennett’s concepts tend to blur into each other, but what struck me was the congruence with the idea of self-authorship developed by developmental psychologist Robert Kegan. Using a similar framework to Jean Piaget’s pioneering work on child cognitive development,  Kegan’s masterwork is The Evolving Self, in which he describes the stages of psychological development, each subsuming the one before, which take place not just in childhood but throughout life.

Kegan argues not just that we should aspire to greater self-awareness but that we need to reach a higher, more empathic, level of functioning to meet the practical requirements of twenty-first century citizenship. In particular, successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles “requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them”. Kegan writes of an ability to “resist our tendencies to make ‘right’ or ‘true’ that which is merely familiar and ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ that which is only strange”. In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the OECD, Kegan concluded than only one in five people across the world have achieved the competencies necessary for what he termed a ‘modernist’ or self-authoring order of consciousness.

The view that there is both the need and the scope for human beings to develop to a ‘higher’ level of functioning has many adherents. Another version lies in my articulation of the RSA strap-line ‘twenty first century enlightenment’. But many questions arise?

How distinct is such a view from well-meaning but vacuous view that it would be a better world if we were all better people?

Among the different accounts of human beings need to develop to thrive in the modern world, what are the important similarities and differences?

How credible is the view that human development can enhanced. Perhaps it happens anyway (cf the Flynn effect or Steven Pinker’s recent evidence of declining violence) or perhaps, as John Grey would no doubt argue, we flatter ourselves with the idea we can somehow transcend the flawed character of our species.

Broadly, what routes to enhanced human development hold out the greatest promise: education, culture, institutional innovation, spiritual awakening?

Specifically, what examples are there of sustained improvements in human psychological and behavioural development and can these examples be scaled?

As a strong advocate of a necessary human development thesis, my aim here is to sharpen the case rather than find holes in it. I was excited last week to be contacted by Robert Kegan himself who has said some very generous things about the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment thesis. But I am also impatient of making the same broad case time and again but not yet feeling it carries sufficient conviction let alone a concrete set of policies and practices.  Of the questions above my sense is that the last is both the most important and the hardest.


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