Saturday, August 11, 2007

Eric Erikson's fading legacy

One of the high points of a gerontology course I was privileged to take was an impromptu presentation by Dr. Betty Segal, now retired president of Kennesaw University, in which she presented without notes a flawless summary of Eric Erikson's stages of childhood development. Having been exposed to Erikson years ago I was blown away by her command of his work. Unfortunately Erikson's work along with a gifted generation of professionals is is fading from consciousness. His approach to understanding human development, with those of other heirs of the Freudian school, are being lost to a more measurable approach to human behavior deriving from both drugs and a more easily understood cognitive approach.

The recent passing of Albert Ellis underscores the trend to what many consider a more scientific approach to behavioral therapy (it's now bad form to use words like mental...too fuzzy) and human (as opposed to childhood) development. This is the thrust of an essay by Robert Fulford in Canada's National Post. [Disregard the parenthetical snarks...those are mine, not Fulford's.]

This year, Erikson is the subject of a poised and sympathetic study by Daniel Burston, an Israeli-born, Toronto-raised psychologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Erik Erikson and the American Psyche: Ego, Ethics, and Evolution (Rowman & Littlefield) not only describes why he once mattered but why, in many places, he ceased to matter.

It's a monument to a now neglected figure and a demonstration of how quickly intellectual fashion changes and fame flees. People dominate the cultural landscape and then, almost overnight, vanish into what Burston calls "a dim recess of the collective psyche." Burston's last chapter "The Erasure of Erikson," cites Gore Vidal's summary of the U.S. as "the United States of Amnesia."

Arts and Letters Daily provided the link that set me to tracking this obscure corner of human understanding. I have been interrupted several times putting together this post so I will now stop. No one but me is interested, but it is possible that some wayward Google searcher may need what I have posted thus far.

It is regrettable that more people will not be exposed to the insights of this man. His posthumous analytical sketches of Martin Luther and Mohandas Gandhi are without parallel in the literatures of history, psychology or social science. The same can be said for the production of Robert Coles, his disciple and biographer. Together they represent a flash of insight into human development as it intersects with spiritual influences that comes as close as modern man comes to Divine revelation. Coles' personal interviews of Dorothy Day and subsequent biography was one of the most important sources of my own spiritual growth.

I have too much to read already so I won't be buying Burston's book. Besides, it would be like preaching to the choir in my case. I do hope, however, that it will advance and protect Erikson's legacy and find a wide and influential audience.

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