To the Editor:
Shocked onlookers to Sheila K. Johnson’s terrorist bombing of a famous international bridge [“A Look at Margaret Mead,” March] must surely wonder what leads fanatics to engage in senseless destruction. The answer here, as always, is dogmatic politics. Mrs. Johnson wants us all (anthropologists and natives alike) to abide by a particular system for the ascription of status in anthropology. She doesn’t understand the complicated system that we natives (or even the simpler one which anthropologists themselves) do in fact use, but she knows that we are stupid for using it. That is not only unsuccessful politics, but bad anthropology as well.
Besides, Mrs. Johnson doesn’t understand stools, either. The whole history of stools strongly suggests that between each two stools is a third that some people will deny is there because it doesn’t have a name yet.
Robert G. Anderson III
To the Editor:
I strongly disagree with Sheila K. Johnson’s observations about Margaret Mead, whom I believe to be one of the most rational and lucid interpreters of our present society. . . .
Dr. Mead appears to be an excellent spokesman for the present generation of youth precisely because of her life experience, her sociological knowledge, and her articulateness. One hears the same views expressed by young people on campuses, in television discussions, and on the streets, but with less clarity and perspective. The young cannot have the perspective of one who has lived seventy-two years, and among the “grandparent generation” there are always those few who seem intuitively to have the ability and imagination to share the wave-length of the young. . . .
The present generation gap is different from previous generation gaps in that revolutionary changes have taken place with extreme rapidity as compared with the pace of earlier historical developments. One does not need statistical documentation and “control groups” to develop philosophical theories. Such studies and their results can be used in various ways to prove varying points of view. In the end, one’s acceptance of a particular philosophy must be subjectively influenced, or there would not be so many different schools of thought. I opt for Margaret Mead’s.
To the Editor:
. . . What emerges from Sheila K. Johnson’s article is a fluent exposition of the pettiness long heard among graduate students of anthropology and among Margaret Mead’s less successful colleagues. . . . Dr. Mead is accused of having generalized and popularized, to say nothing of not having sacrificed herself upon the high altar of “scientific method,” and, seemingly worse, of having put her nose in areas in which she did not have a Ph.D.—namely, her audacity some years ago in telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there would be no peace dividend after the Vietnam war . . . because those in power would not, rather than could not, attend to our domestic ills. . . .
Anthropology is a field which to have any practical value must generalize from the panorama of social, economic, and political arrangements and thoughts of various groups in various environments. One may, using the “scientific method,” state precisely that the Arapesh use more or less bones in their stew than the Tchambuli, but the “verified data” fed back by the “method,” while making interesting reading in specialized journals, will, for example, avail us little in understanding the Chinese, Russians, Vietnamese, or ourselves.
Dr. Mead has contributed . . . more to people’s understanding of themselves and others than anyone in her field. Without these contributions, many of the departments which house her critics would doubtless not exist. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
Sheila K. Johnson’s comments on Margaret Mead are well taken, but Mrs. Johnson appears to accept an explanation of the current generation gap which is just as simplistic as Margaret Mead’s theory. Today’s generation gap involves much more than the usual, natural gap between parent and child. It is ironic that Margaret Mead in her comparative study of New Guinea cultures touched on the key to the current gap when she noted that underlying each culture is an “assumption” about the nature of man which determines the shape of the culture. Each of man’s cultures does reflect a particular concept of human nature, which has been arrived at or evolved in a myriad of ways. Today, the concept of human nature underlying our culture is changing, and this change is the real reason for the generation gap. The older group is essentially a product of a culture which reflected the concept that man’s instincts were his baser side and that he needed to be protected from them. The younger group is evolving a culture based upon the concept that man’s instincts as reflected in his feelings are good (humanizing), and that he, therefore, needs to be free to follow them. In between, the middle-age group reflects varying hues of these two extremes. Perhaps out of this dichotomy will come the understanding that while our instinctive drives do help us survive as human (i.e., capable of loving), we are free from specific instinctive guidance and limitations on how to recognize and respond to these drives. . . . Perhaps eventually mankind will come to accept the fact that human nature is not plastic but distortable, and that the degree to which a culture fosters or interferes with human development is directly related to the degree of accuracy of the particular concept of human nature which underlies the culture.
Sheila K. Johnson writes:
I find it intriguing that none of the four letter-writers takes issue with my basic assertion that Margaret Mead is to be appreciated chiefly as a deft popularizer and moralizer. What they seem to resent is my attitude toward this phenomenon: Marilyn Kramer and Elinor Groban because I am not sufficiently impressed with Mead’s philosophy of life; Frederic Wile and Robert G. Anderson because they suspect me of being involved in academic wars fought over “who is more purist than thou.” For the record: I hold no university post and I was not trying to issue a ukase against popularizations, interpretations of our society, or contributions to people’s understanding of themselves. I merely thought that it was time for someone in the field of anthropology to point out to a more general audience what is well-known within anthropological circles: that Margaret Mead’s work is not very theoretically rigorous and that she is by no means an “expert” on everything under the sun. Sara Sanborn [“An American Family,” May] makes much the same point concerning Mead’s trumpetings on behalf of “An American Family.” In short, I find Margaret Mead’s opinions stimulating and sometimes acute, but when she ventures into areas where she has little or no special knowledge I am no more inclined to take her seriously than I am Benjamin Spock’s pronouncements on the Vietnam war, Linus Pauling’s views about Vitamin C, or Edward Teller’s fulminations about Communism.