Courtney Nelson

June 20, 2002 

1. Human development, as a profession, offers substantial promise for new and more effective ways of dealing with seemingly intractable human problems.

Recent significant theoretical advances in the field of human development psychology have revealed a new perspective on many of the individual and social problems of our day, but these insights remain, at this time, academic. We have at least a beginning understanding of the course of intellectual, moral, and emotional development across the life span, and the time has come to seek the dissemination and application of that knowledge to the larger problems of human life.

          Granting that human development psychology still has much to learn, it also has much to contribute even in the present state of the field. With insights from human development knowledge, the approach to many social problems including delinquency, drug use, crime, health care, and management systems would differ from current practice. Moreover, and most importantly, human development may be an avenue for approaching the major challenges of our time: overpopulation and environmental deterioration.

These claims may seem extravagant, but once human development concepts become part of conventional wisdom, as elementary economic concepts are now, a different view of human problems will be inevitable.  

2. The professionalization of the discipline is overdue.

          Professionalization describes an attitude shift from an academic focus, where the object is the increase of knowledge, to a service orientation, where the practical application of specialized knowledge and training for the benefit of individuals or communities is the goal. Human development psychology, as a discipline of applied knowledge, belongs with the professions of medicine, education, political science, management and sociology.

          The general professional dissemination and cross-pollination of developmental psychology would have broad benefits. Many professionals who could gain from knowledge of human development, including health workers and teachers, have never been exposed to developmental theory and research. Even psychiatrists remain relatively untutored in the contributions that knowledge of human developmental processes might make to the success of their endeavors.

The general dissemination of information gleaned from the study of human development has lagged behind the growth of that knowledge. Because funding sources, academic institutes, and professional journals have emphasized the importance of basic research rather than the application or dissemination of theory, those involved in the development of this knowledge have had little incentive to move beyond the sphere of the university.  

3. Applications

          We are currently in a position to make some fairly confident statements about the direction and tempo of human psychological development, including in the adult years, and to begin to speculate about the conditions that support or impede such growth. The implications of this work for the development of the human species as a whole and for the possibility of taking part in the unfolding of the future are immense.

We now know, for example, that the ability to grasp and manipulate abstract problems (formal operations, in Piaget's term) is a product of adolescence and is most likely to appear in the presence of conventional secondary education in developed nations. It rarely occurs in social settings that do not offer structured secondary education, or where trade and barter are more central to everyday life than the abstract monetary systems that characterize the developed nations. Formal operations are requisite to rational, scientific thought, and to the ability to take the point of view of another in a systematic way.

Most of the larger problems of human life, from war and violence to overpopulation and famine, are problems greatly exacerbated, if not wholly created, by human beings. In order to grasp the implications of such problems for the future well-being of the species as a whole, formal operations, at a minimum, are necessary. Yet formal operations are not prevalent among many third world populations, and are not the norm even in most industrialized countries.

The developed world has, generally, taken macro-economic approaches to interventions in less developed countries. It has tried to support the growth of third world economies, the development of free trade, and the democratization of political processes. It has provided medical and subsistence aid to countries in crisis. There has never been a consistent application of psychological or human developmental principles to the problems of development on the national and international scale.

Yet the development and survival of the species depend upon the development and survival of individual members. Furthermore, these macro-economic / social programs have not always been successful. By failing to value human development as dearly as economic development, interventions frequently exacerbate the problems they are meant to treat.

Theories of human development would suggest that some of these failures have to do with the imposition of ideals and programs that are either too far ahead of the intellectual and social development of individuals within a society, or are not sufficiently embedded in the conditions of everyday life to affect individual development. The development of societies is an iterative process, from this viewpoint. It entails parallel advancement of individuals and the organizations in which they learn and work, and by which they are governed. Moreover, the interaction between the individual and the collective can be structured so that both are stimulated to grow and progress.

Theory in the field of human development is now advanced enough for us to begin a systematic program of research and action that might move beyond the individual level, taken alone, to address the systemic problems of creating growth-enhancing environments in which society can function. Individual, economic, social and political development can be viewed as interrelated variables, each impacting on the other. Advancement along all four fronts is desirable, but no single element of the process can be promoted without consideration of the impact on the other three. For example, the use of the terms "human capital" and "social capital," currently in vogue, gives an economic slant to concepts which are much more profound than their attributes as factors of production.

A program to enhance the usefulness of human development theory would include support for continuing research on the variables that create the potential for intellectual, moral, and emotional growth. We know, for example, that the opportunity to take varied social roles is critical to the development of empathy and, therefore, higher stages of moral judgment. We also know that the use of reasoning and judgment at precisely one level above the current function of an individual is most likely to create the potential for growth from a lower to a higher stage. What might a systematic program based on these two principles produce in a setting where social opportunities are now limited and where little attention is currently paid to the level of reasoning in use? These are the larger, more programmatic issues that must now be addressed.

The dissemination and application of knowledge in this field would affect professionals in many fields. In addition to fostering a new level of awareness of the importance of human development for methodologies, it could stimulate recognition of the value of organizing human efforts in all fields so as to encourage and not depress human development. Certainly, the involvement of developmental psychologists in evaluating program strategies could improve the effectiveness of attempts to improve women's and children's health, to design effective elementary education, to organize and manage production facilities, and to train managers, social workers, teachers, and policy makers.

Why do these kinds of work typically go forward uninformed by human developmental theory and research? Part of the answer lies in the institutional infrastructure in which developmental study is embedded. Because we have focused our efforts on the building of theory and the testing of that theory in controlled laboratory and quasi-experimental research, it has been very difficult to find funding sources. This is particularly true of the study of adolescent development and adult life. While infants and the elderly are considered critical populations, development in the greater part of the life-span has been largely ignored, with the exception of "problem-centered" studies like juvenile delinquency, adolescent drug use, and the like. Certainly, the study of normal, positive development has never been a priority.

Only as we begin to face the limits of our survivability as a species does it seem critical to expend our efforts on understanding who we are as human beings, and how quickly we might expand our general understandings of ourselves and the world around us. If we do not turn our attention to everyday development, we are likely to succumb to the problems we create every day, from overpopulation to toxic waste and the depletion of non-renewable resources.

How do people understand and react to these problems? This is the kind of question developmental psychology has sought to answer. How can we change the understandings and reactions people have? This is where developmental psychology leads. The study of human development has always focused on these questions and possesses some fascinating, if relatively untried answers. With stronger support for application, these answers can be tested and modified to treat the most pressing problems of our time.

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