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Independent School
Fall 1999
Vol. 59, Issue 1, p. 104

Posted with permission on judithrichharris/tna
Copyright (c) 1999 National Association of Independent Schools
May not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission.

About Books
In Brief

by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press)

by Richard Barbieri

Revolution or forgotten footnote? Reading The Nurture Assumption, one fears the first option, but hesitates to vote for the second. Harris's theory, that parental behavior hardly matters to the way children grow up, and that the peer group forms a person's character (along with the parental genetic contribution), seems at first wildly implausible. But she provides evidence -- the blunders committed by social scientists for the past hundred years, the inadequacy of their testing methods, and the actual paucity of concrete data to support nongenetic parental influence -- that makes it hard to dismiss her views, especially because they are bolstered by both common sense and anthropological data: that children usually grow up in a child-filled environment, and that their wellbeing depends far more on conforming to the norms of that group than on taking on the mores of their parents.

Her eagerness to build her case, however, actually undermines it. Harris's position is so extreme -- that we would have exactly the same children if we kept everything else constant in their lives, and "switched all the parents around" -- as to provoke quick rejection (perhaps as a pioneer she believes that only such extremes can get her a hearing). And she depends heavily on an evolutionary view, connecting us so totally to our prehistoric ancestors as to deny human differences either in our nature or our aims. She defends physical punishment, for example, because "big hominids have been hitting little ones for millions of years."

Yet Harris has many useful insights. She eases the guilt and nervousness that some parents find an overwhelming burden. And she shows that schools are the place where most children develop their social selves through interaction with peers, that teachers have an extraordinary opportunity to affect such development, and that independent schools have a special chance because they can select and shape a peer group in ways not open to most institutions.

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