Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How Values are Acquired

The values we absorbed in childhood remain with us our whole life long. They are in the culture all around us. And the values concretely expressed in our families and in our early schooling mark us most potently; those in the wider society, more mildly; and adults will see social values through the lens they fashioned in their childhood. The values thus acquired may be positively or negatively experienced. A childhood of neglect and of abuse? Negative toning. A nurturing, caring home? Positive.

The observations of Maria Montessori (1870-1952) are a clue to this. She observed that children pass through periods of heightened sensitivity when their minds are absorbent. They literally acquire all that is about them through the skin—not least their physical surroundings—so that, later in life, they are never really content unless they live in a region that matches the climate and landscape of the one where they spent their sensitive years. All other learning they experience, as young adults and onward, has a less compelling, potent quality. They are imprinted, as it were—not just with the culture and its values but also with their innate reactions to it.

When the values of a culture gradually thin out—say they are deformed, mechanized, edited to conform to some rising fashions—the children who receive that culture through the skin will later manifest it in their lives and thus they also pass it on. The process also works in reverse. A shallow culture may also deepen, usually because of upheavals and sufferings experienced by large collectives. And thus a richer, more meaningful culture may be acquired naturally by the children born into such times.

In modern thought this indelible “imprint” tends to be ignored. Modern thought is marked by the cerebral, mechanical, procedural, and programmatic; intuition is too messy. But the imprint is all-important. The education will not take if the inner culture of the child, the heart, does not resonate with it. If the absorbed culture is good, it acts as an antidote to decadence; if weak, it acts to dilute the strength even of excellent higher education.

We notice this phenomena as we age. One’s own childhood experience, that imprint, forms a kind of benchmark against which all that happens later is compared. And here, again, the quality of that early experience is crucial. If the future deepens, the individual will embrace the good if he or she experienced it potently in childhood. If not, the good will be resisted.

Having said this, I note next the virtual impossibility of “engineering cultures.” Cultures are too complex to be formed by deliberate public actions. Children can’t be left behind if they were properly formed in the first place. Nor can they be promoted if not. Culture is a given, a simple brute datum. It keeps changing not by programs, curricula, and advertising but by something mysterious—and it is mysterious because it is too vast to track.


  1. We need both for best results: Nature's gifts and nurture's models.

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