Term Paper: Human Development in the Environment

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¶ … Asher Lev

Just as one can develop a sociological analysis of the development of a person in the environment in which he or she was raised and make certain judgments about what influenced that development and how, so can one do the same thing with a fictional character, assuming the author has provide sufficient data that can be used for this purpose. A novel that is detailed enough to make such an analysis and that also involves an interesting milieu in which the central character is raised is My Name Is Asher Lev by Potok (2003).

Lev is a fully developed character living in a community that is largely unfamiliar to most Americans, the Ladover Hassidic community in Brooklyn. This is a highly religious community, but it exists within the mixed religious world of New York and especially within the more secular world of that city. Asher himself will walk the line between the religious and the secular throughout his life, even more so than might have been true because of his predilection for art and the art world. His talent separates him from his parents and is a point of contention between him and them as well as between him and his Jewish community. The leader of that community is the Rebbe, for whom Asher's father works. Asher is formed by his childhood experiences to a great degree and especially by his relationship with his mother and father, but that relationship is strained as he grows to manhood and exhibits his artistic ability and his desire to be an artist.

Indeed, as this novel shows, the individual lives in many communities in a lifetime, not merely by moving from one place to another but by being part of the different worlds of work, family, community, friends, and more. The conflict Asher experiences is multiplied by his intense desire to please his father against his intense need to be an artist, which is not a decision that pleases his father. Asher is also in conflict with some in the religious community, for that community is formed around certain ideas of conformity and the placement of the community above the individual, while the world of the artist focuses on individual expression and also on the community of art as a higher calling and a more pervasive influence on how choices are made.

Asher's development as a human being follows the normal course as set down by theorists of developmental psychology. Piaget and his theory are explained by Miller (1989), and he notes that the stages of development described by Piaget shows how the child's knowledge of the world changes as his or her cognitive system develops, a view that also holds that knowledge is biased. This means that experience is always filtered through the current understanding of the child, and this understanding also changes over time. Miller says that "as the mind develops, it becomes more in tune with reality" (Miller, 1989, p. 36). Piaget's theory addresses how the organism adapts to its environment, showing both a biological and psychological adjustment as Piaget shows how cognitive growth is like embryological growth as "an organized structure becomes more differentiated over time" (Miller, 1989, p. 37).

Another developmental explanation was offered by Erikson (1963). Piaget addresses childhood development, while Erikson offers a pscyhosocial theory of development that describes a series of eight stages in the development of the individual throughout life. This developmental structure is based on the interaction of biological, psychological, and social processes, and it is the interaction of these processes that accounts for the "psycho" (inner) "social" (external) character of development. The stages are indeed described by Erikson as psychosocial "crises," and the reason for this is that they are intended to represent periods when the individual is particularly sensitive or vulnerable to certain developmental issues. Each of the crisis stages is described in terms of its positive outcome or strength "versus" its negative outcome or weakness. Each stage relates to every other stage. Erikson's formulation of the eight stages has roots in Freud, but Erikson has added various innovative dimensions. Freud presented an important model of psychosexual development, and he felt that during the first five years of life, the individual was confronted with a series of conflicts which he or she would resolve with varying degrees of success. Freud did not emphasize development to the same extent after this first five-year period, and Erikson has tried to conceptualize these later periods in greater detail and has also developed an analysis of man's over-all development in these eight stages.

In the eight stages cited by Erikson, each critical encounter with the environment will dominate at a particular period in the life cycle. The conflicts are not completely separated -- all eight conflicts are present in the individual at birth, and each of the conflicts continues to play a role, if a minor one, throughout life. The first stage is basic trust vs. mistrust as the infant must develop sufficient trust to let its mother out of sight without anxiety. The second stage is that of autonomy vs. shame and doubt, and this sense is usually developed through bladder and bowel control and parallels the anal stage of traditional psychoanalytic theory. The third stage is that of initiative vs. guilt, the last conflict experienced by the preschool child and occurring during what Freud called the phallic stage. The child now must learn to appropriately control feelings of rivalry for the mother's attention and develop a sense of moral responsibility. The fourth stage is industry vs. inferiority, the conflict beginning with school life or the onset of formal socialization. The child must apply himself to his lesson, begin to feel some sense of competence relative to peers, and face his own limitations if he is to emerge as a healthy individual. The fifth stage is identity vs. role confusion. Identity here refers to the confidence that others see us as we see ourselves, and if an identity is not formed, role confusion may occur, often characterized by an inability to select a career or to further educational goals. The sixth stage is that of intimacy vs. isolation. It occurs in young adulthood when people are expected to be ready for true intimacy and when they must develop cooperative social and occupational relationships with others and select a mate. The seventh stage is that of generativity vs. stagnation -- the individual needs to be needed and to assist the younger members of society, and generativity is concerned with guiding the next generation. The last stage is that of ego integrity vs. despair, and this is the time when the way the other conflicts were decided has an influence. If the preceding conflicts were not suitably handled, despair may result in later life. If the person has developed each of the adaptive qualities of the other seven stages, he or she will be able to become psychosocially adjusted and have a lasting sense of integrity.

Asher in the novel passes through the fourth stage as he goes to school, torn in his thinking by the conflict that often shows between the secular teachings of school and the religious teaching of the Rebbe. The boy is vulnerable because of the illness of his other and the inflexibility of his father. The boy learns a great deal from his father, notably gaining an appreciation of Russia and a trust in the Rebbe. The childhood of Asher as described by Potok shows the sort of developmental changes cited first by Piaget and later by Erikson. Asher's environment as a child is enclosed by his parents and his community, though there are always certain forces that are more internal and that manifest as he observes the world and expresses a certain artistic sense others in his community do not have. His growing awareness of his own difference is part of the environment that shapes him. In part, he gains this awareness by his own observation, but he also gains it as others, notably his parents and the Rebbe, suggest how he should think when they perceive that he thinks differently than they themselves, that he sees the world less in their religious terms and more in is own aesthetic terms. The thinking of the boy was shaped by his early experiences with his parents, and his devotion to his parents leads in later life to his deep-seated desire to please his father.

The boy's early years are spent with his parents in a colony as his father works with the Russians and the boy begins to show the artistic talent that will shape his life later. Bowlby (1988) notes the way Freud and others saw childhood as the starting point for mental health later in life, though he also notes how research into his idea has been difficult and disappointing. More recently, developmental psychologists have used an ethologically based theory of socioemotional bonds to test these ideas and Bowlby's own research suggests that a person's… [END OF PREVIEW]

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