Harvard Educational Review
  1. In Over Our Heads

    By Robert Kegan

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994. 396 pp. $29.95; $15.95 (paper)

    In his previous book, The Evolving Self (1982), Robert Kegan elaborated a theory of the "evolution of consciousness" in which he attended to the development of meaning making throughout the lifespan. In his most recent book, In Over Our Heads, Kegan draws upon the theoretical framework presented in The Evolving Self to examine the quality of fit between the developmental demands of modern culture and the actual developmental capacities of adolescents and adults. In essence, Kegan claims that there is a misfit — that is, modern culture makes a claim upon the minds of most adolescents and adults of which they are not yet capable. Furthermore, Kegan contends that while the cultural curriculum generously offers extensive challenges to adults and adolescents in all arenas of their lives — partnering, parenting, working, learning — what seems to be lacking are the necessary supports that would enable them to embrace such challenges.

    According to Kegan, the danger of this misfit is found both in the individual's experience of himself or herself in relationship to a cultural curriculum that exceeds one's mental capacities and in the perception held by others, such as one's partner, boss, teacher, therapist, or parent, of the individual's behavior or feelings in the face of such a challenge. Kegan claims that there is a tendency in our "culture as school" to view the individual who is unable to meet the demands of the cultural curriculum as "a loser, an incompetent person, and one who by reason of stubbornness, inability or illness, is unable to come through for us, evoking our pity or hostility" (p. 38). Kegan warns the reader of the dangers of a "culture as school" that simultaneously criticizes or belittles the individual who is unable to master the curriculum and provides him or her with no support. He states,

    If his difficulty lies, as it may, in his inability to master the hidden curriculum of his culture's school, whose problem is this? Whose fault is it? It would be a cruel school indeed that would think first to blame the student for his/her inability to master the curriculum. (p. 77)

    In an effort to provide an alternative to "blaming the student," Kegan suggests that two understandings are paramount: first, an explicit understanding of the developmental demands of modern culture; and second, an explicit understanding of the supports necessary to enable adults and adolescents to meet those demands. In parts two and three of his book, Kegan chronicles the different expert literatures on adult life — the literatures on parenting, partnering, work, therapy, learning, multiculturalism — and highlights the "hidden curriculum," or the developmental demands common to them all. Kegan suggests that an understanding of the developmental demands of the cultural surround, combined with an understanding of men and women's developmental capacities, has the potential to inform notions of how men and women might best be supported in their sincere efforts to meet these demands. In essence, he suggests that these understandings have the potential to yield a better vision. In 1982, Kegan stated in The Evolving Self,

    If this book is apparently about a way of seeing others, its secret devotion is to the dangerous recruitability such seeing brings on. So perhaps the book should carry a warning. Though it is aimed at our vision, at helping us to see better what it is that people are doing, what the eye sees better the heart feels more deeply. We not only increase the likelihood of our being moved; we also run the risks that being moved entails. For we are moved somewhere, and that somewhere is further into life, closer to those we live with. . . . It is our recruitability, as much as our knowledge of what to do once drawn, that makes us of value in our caring for another's development, whether the caring is the professional caring of a teacher, therapist, pastor, or mental health worker, or the more spontaneous exercises of careful parenthood, friendship, and love. (pp. 16–17)

    Thus, the capacity for professionals in the position of supporting adults in their sincere efforts to be good "students" of the "curriculum" to "see better" has the potential to engender greater sympathy and respect for the ways in which their "students" are making sense of the "curriculum." Furthermore, this understanding has even greater potential to enable adult educators to attempt to create rich environments (i.e., the cultures of home, work, school, and therapy) that simultaneously support and challenge, and that lead to vital engagement in order to promote the growth of the adult mind. Kegan's "In Over Our Heads" is a valuable resource to professionals who seek to foster the creation of such environments.

    K.S.
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