Marx Wartofsky believes that a major shift has taken place in the manner by which theories pertinent to developmental psychology were proposed by key thinkers in the last few decades. According to him, developmental psychology no longer treats “the mind of the child…as a tabula rasa upon which the message of experience is (to be) written.” Instead, psychologists now tend to see “infants and young children “as highly structured organism(s)” who, in their own unique ways, try to “make sense” of their respective experiences in a manner that is active, if not admirably constructive (Wartofksy, 1986, p. 113). The development of each individual, Wilhem Preyer aptly contends, must be understood in the light of two distinct but related contributing forces: the “capital each individual has inherited from his ancestors” on the one hand, and the aggregate of environmental factors that have influenced a person’s standpoints and values on the other (cited in Wartosfsky, 1986, p. 113). If only to argue, these two factors are now being considered as aspects of paramount importance in the filed of developmental psychology. Bruner in fact contends that all theories on psychology “must choose a particular way of dealing with the balance between the inner and outer determination of developmental changes” in human persons (1986, p. 13).
This paper investigates the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. under the lenses of developmental psychology. As such, what this paper hopes to achieve is to successfully present the various hereditary and environmental influences which may help shed light into the viewpoints and values that this person – esteemed and respected as he is in the eyes of the larger American society – has had in his lifetime.
A Briefer on the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (d. 1968) is now known to be one of America’s greatest historical figures. More than a civic rights leader who vigorously fought against the evils of racial discrimination, King is widely considered to be a very charismatic figure that “inspired the conscience the American public” (McElrath, 2008). But King’s past was not as extraordinary as one would normally assume. Born in January 15, 1929 to Alberta Williams King and the late Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. in Atlanta Georgia, King Jr. – whose first name was really Michael – descended from a line of pastors that started in 1914, when his grandfather took over the struggling community of Ebenezer Baptist Church to become its head. King, if only to mention, was to become a successful minister himself. But early on in life, he was said to exhibit an extraordinary intelligence, seen glaringly in the admirable manner by which he “skipped” ninth and twelfth grades, excelled prominently during his high school days, finished a sociology degree in college in no time, and impressed his professors at the Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (McErlath, 2008).
Martin Luther King, Jr. woke up in a world stratified between the superior whites and the inferior blacks. As with everyone of his kind, King’s childhood was not sheltered from the ugly face of racism that reared its discouraging head over his otherwise innocent childhood. His parents were nevertheless an inspiring force behind all these. It was said that King, Jr.’s father was profoundly influential to the unmistakable intolerance (against racism) he would later on manifest in life (Gale). The gentleness of his mother meanwhile was said to be force that made King, Jr. a very civil and gentleman leader. King’s immediate and extended family lent inspiration and support all throughout. In an essay he wrote, King once quipped, “It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present” (cited in Gale). All things considered, Martin Luther King Jr.’s stance on his fight as an embrace of the doctrine non-violence can be best explained as directly resulting from his the personal learning his further studies afforded him.
Two Theories of Personality
This section now attempt to assess which psychological theory proposed by noted thinkers best explains the behavior and life achievements of Martin Luther King Jr. Specifically, Erik Erikson psychosocial theory of personality and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development shall be briefly cited.
On the one hand, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development “considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood” (www.learning-theories.com). The theory contends that every stage of human life is marked by the need to revolve conflicts to obtain favorable outcomes. Infants at their tender stage for instance are confronted with the basic issue involving the development of trust or mistrust. If he or she is unable to establish a fundamental trust with his immediate world (parents and siblings), the drawback manifests in his or her being unable to fully trust someone later on in life. Erikson’s theory maintains that contrasting binary issues – such as autonomy vs. shame for toddlers, initiative vs. guilt for preschoolers, industry vs. inferiority for school-age children, identity vs. diffusion for adolescents, intimacy vs. isolation for young adults, generativity vs. self-absorption for middle-aged adults, and integrity vs. despair for elderly peoples – are key factors that determine the life-defining behaviors and values one takes on in life (www.learning-theories.com).
On the other hand, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of personality is intricately knitted to how one successfully develops his or her moral reasoning as one grows up. Kohlberg’s definition of moral reasoning is however not equivalent to how contemporary ethics – a study social and religious norms, or conduct of right living – defines it. Instead, Kohlberg believes that each person is confronted with “moral dilemmas” that pertains to ordinary affairs on a day to day basis – the shoulds and should nots” (DePalma & Foley, 1975, p. 2). Unlike Erikson’s model which takes the growth of an individual in the context of one’s interactions with the larger society, Kohlberg seems to adequately understand the personality of an individual based on the definitive choices one makes for oneself. Among others, there are identifiable motives which are said to influence a person in the unique way one responds to situations; namely, punishment, self-interest, conformity, authority, sociality and universal principles (Daeg de Mott, 2008).
By Way of Conclusion: Erikson’s Model as a More Viable Option
After the discussions that were developed, it needs to be asked which theoretical approach best sheds light into Martin Luther King Jr.’s behavior and life achievements. If I were to be asked, I would say Erik Erikson’s model is a more viable option to consider. I base my choice on the way Erikson’s theory allows for an insightful glimpse into a person’s interaction with the outside world, as a way to learn his personality. Especially for Martin Luther King Jr., I have realized that the greatness of his life takes possible roots from the affection and care that was shown to him by his family, as he himself had to settle life-defining issues that came with growing up as a black man. To be sure, King himself was confronted with fundamental issues such as trust, identity, inferiority, and ultimately, integrity. In the end however, it was his grace and remarkable heroism that emerged triumphant.
Bruner, J. “Value Presuppositions of Developmental Theory”. Leonard Cirillo & Seymour Wapner, editors. (1986). Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Daeg de Mott, D. “Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Reasoning”. Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence. Retrieved 20 July 2008 from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_g2602/is_0003/ai_2602000337
DePalma, D. ; Foley, J. (1975). Moral Development: Current Theory and Research. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum.
Learning Theories Knowledgebase (2008). “Erikson’s Stages of Development”. Retrieved 18 July 2008.
McErlath, J. (2008) “Martin Luther King, Jr.” African-American History. Retrieved 18 July 2008, from http://afroamhistory.about.com/cs/martinlutherking/a/bio_mlk.htm
Thomas Gale Biography Resource Center. “Martin Luther King, Jr.” Black History. Retrieved 18 July 2008.
Wartofsky, M. “On the Creation and Transformation of Norms of Human Development”. Leonard Cirillo ; Seymour Wapner, editors. (1986). Value Presuppositions in Theories of Human Development. Hillsdale, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.