Growing Up at Harvard

Five Lives at Harvard by Stanley H. King Harvard University Press, 219 pp., $7.95

EVERY YEAR, Harvard Yard becomes an experiment in social engineering. The casting is done by the Admissions Office and the choreography detailed by University Hall. When the class has been chosen, and the suites homogenized and the entries mixed, the administrators sit back and watch a few hundred high school valedictorians battle it out.

Five Lives at Harvard, a new book by Stanley H. King, lecturer in Psychology and Social Relations, is a report on two late-sixties Yard experiments. The book is the result of the Harvard Student Study, which gathered data from interviews and psychological testing conducted on 500 members of the Classes of 1964 and 1965.

King takes issue with the "crisis model" of adolescent development, which is predominant in adolescent psychological theory and implicitly guides social experiments like the Yard. This model "emphasizes that significant growth occurs more frequently when there is a period of disruption and turnmoil."

In his data, King found no evidence of important crises or disturbances which sparked new insight or quickened personal development. Instead, King found evidence of a slow adaptive process, unmarked by profound changes or powerful experiences--a "continuity model" of development.

He does not seek to supplant the crisis model, but merely to divert some attention to his continuity thesis. He aims his work at "a better balance in psychological theories about development in adolescense and early adulthood, leading to less emphasis on turmoil and disruption as the expected pattern." Because of its modesty, King's argument is persuasive and well-taken.


HOWEVER, there are important biases which mar his work. King's subjects left Harvard before the political turmoil of 1969--the youngest of King's subjects were almost graduates when University Hall was occupied by students in April. King admits that his data gave him no inkling of the climate of political activism and rapid change which swept into Harvard in the wake of the strike. King claims that "recent experience with Harvard students in a nonresearch capacity" leads him to believe that "the contrast between our subjects and students of the present day is one primarily of form or content, not of process." The strike was a crisis for many students and King has missed out on data which could prove crucial to his argument.

King's conclusions are also foreshadowed by the context in which he defines maturation. His variables--especially his stress of career goals, interests and control of emotions and energy--are oriented towards conventional mores. In his analysis, both sports and political activity are viewed as relaxants for tense students. "Team sports can be useful in management of tension through the sharing of strong feelings... and through peer pressure for individual fortitude in the face of physical or emotional pain... These qualities can come, of course, from other kinds of group activity; some students may be finding them today in political groups that are actively confronting the problems of society."

He exhibits a strong bias, reflecting his data, in favor of those with clearly defined notions of future careers. "The goalless person has a difficult time adapting because he is so much at the mercy of events around him," King writes. On this point also, King's study has missed the latest trends--a growth in both professional school applications, and the number of undecided people in each Harvard class.

THE FIVE lives that King has chosen to review in detail in his book illustrate his conclusions well, closely reflecting the pattern of gradualism which conforms to the continuity model. He has assembled a familiar cast of Harvard characters: a small-town jock, a grind, an intellectual, a writer, a dilettante. They are easily recognizable, if sometimes boring.

Under the Freudian influence of their parents and their pasts, they strive towards careers, and in most cases, marriages. Through their four years at Harvard, they change little. "Our data impressed us with the ties our subjects had to the past," King writes.

Although they do not deviate from their former patterns, King's students were most impressed by the freedom that Harvard offered them. "The nice thing about Harvard is that it let me become what I wanted to be... free to do what I wanted to do, no social pressure," said one. King stresses the working out of family conflicts during the college career. College is not a place for rebellions, but a setting where students learn to accept their parents' outlook while they are physically separated from home. King's Freudian bent leads him to stress the father-son relationship. Of one student, he writes, "The major psychological event for Joseph in his college years appeared to be the acceptance of his identification with his father."

The other important impact of Harvard on King's students was a broadening of interests and a sharpening of cognitive ability. Academic experiences and exposure to the Harvard community at large served to increase the amount of knowledge available to each student and allowed them to experience cultural and academic values which they might not have encountered elsewhere. King found that a combination of "freedom and elitism" caused students to raise their occupational expectations and their estimates of their own competence for difficult jobs.

Harvard's effect on personality development, King found, was far less significant than its effects on intellectual growth. Only the minority of students who came with "problems with early identification figures and had hostility toward male figures" were prone to crises during their college years. For the others, personality development went on relatively unaffected by the Harvard environment.

If nothing else, Five Lives is valuable as a snapshot of what Harvard life was like in the late sixties, before the advent of political activism. Harvard was more a confirmation of the past than a confrontation with the future. Now that the fires of politics are banked, this may again be true.