Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reading :: Growing Up in New Guinea

Growing Up in New Guinea: A Comparative Study of Primitive Education
By Margaret Mead

I recently reviewed Mead's first book, Coming of Age in Samoa, and enjoyed Mead's storytelling while harboring grave reservations about her methodology. Mead's second book, describing the six-month New Guinea ethnography that Mead and her new husband Reo Fortune conducted as her first book went to press. This second book has many of the virtues and vices of the first.

In this ethnography, Mead lives in the Manus village of Peri, where she conducts "six months' concentrated and uninterrupted field work" in which she focuses on how Manus children grew up (p.12). The village is situated in a shallow lagoon, with houses on piles and people circulating via canoes that they learn to pilot at a young age. Mead studied the children through observation, but also by collecting their spontaneous drawings, asking them to interpret ink blots, collecting interpretations of events, and posing problem questions (p.210). Although six months may seem quite short for an ethnography of children's education, Mead explains that it is adequate: Whereas "our own society is so complex, so elaborate, that the most serious student can, at best, only hope to examine a part of the education process," she assures us that "in a simple society, without division of labour, without written records, without a large population ... it is possible for the investigator to master in a few months most of the tradition which it takes the natives years to learn" (p.8). I have my doubts.

But nevertheless it's clear that Mead learned a great deal, enough to produce a vivid cultural sketch that makes this book very readable. Mead describes how the Manus teach their children basic safety early (swimming, canoeing, fire, hygiene), then spoil them endlessly (especially the fathers) while leaving them largely to their own devices. This constant indulgence, she says, produces the predictable result: the children regard their parents with contempt and expect them to make sacrifices with no return. Consequently, Mead says, the Manus are a society of self-reliant individuals, materialistic and acquisitive, and with middling respect for their ancestors.

One might suspect that Mead's conclusions, based on six months of fieldwork, are overdrawn. Those concerns are not assuaged in Mead's last four chapters, in which she draws equivalences between the Manus society and that of the United States. The Manus are acquisitive, constantly thinking about how to acquire dogs' teeth, which serve as their currency; people in the US are acquisitive too! The Manus spoil their children; so do we! And she also provides less flattering contrasts, arguing that the Manus do a better job of teaching respect for property than parents in the US do: they don't treat different kinds of property differently, like "American parents who let the child tear the almanac and the telephone book and then wonder at its grieved astonishment when it is slapped for tearing up the family Bible" (p.28). When Mead makes such rough generalizations about her own culture, not even considering its considerable class and region differences, I begin to suspect rough generalizations about the Manus too.

Nevertheless, the book is absolutely fascinating and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Mead has managed to pack in a lot of detail about Manus culture, from marriage to birth to childhood and adolescence. As with her previous book, I wouldn't take this one as a model in terms of methodology, but I'd still recommend it.

1 comment:

Clay Spinuzzi said...

PS: There's a just-so quality to Mead's first two books. After the review, it occurred to me what they remind me of: Gulliver's Travels.