Social Process

Chapter 6: Opportunity

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE most evident differentiation in the process of human life is that into persons, each of whom strives forward in a direction related to but never quite parallel with that of his neighbor. And this onward striving, when we regard it largely, is seen to be an experimental and selective process which is maintaining and developing the social organization. Its general direction is continuous with the past, our will to live and to express ourselves being moulded from infancy by the system which is the outcome of ages of development. We feel our way into this system, and in so doing become candidates for some one of the functions of society. There are generally other candidates, and we have to struggle, to adapt ourselves, to renounce and compromise, until we reach some kind of a working adjustment with our fellows. The whole may be regarded as a vast game, the aim of which is to arouse and direct endeavor along lines of growth continuous with the past. The rules of the game, its scale, and the spirit in which it is played, change from year to year and from age to age; but its underlying function remains.

Society requires, in its very nature, a continuous reorganization of persons: any statical condition, any fixed

(56) and lasting adjustment, is out of the question. One reason for this is that with every period of about fifty years there is a complete change in the active personnel of the system; man by man one crew withdraws and a new one has to be chosen and fitted to take its place. When we reflect upon the number of social functions, the special training required for each, and the need that this training should be allied with natural aptitude, it is apparent that the task is a vast one and the time short.

It is not merely the death of persons or the decay of their faculties that calls for reorganization, but also the changes in the social system itself, to which persons must adapt themselves-the new industrial methods, the migrations, the transformation of ideas and practices in every sphere of life. These do not conform to the decay of individuals but often strike a man in the midst of his career, compelling him to begin again and make a new place for himself in the game — if he can.

All this comparison and selection cannot be managed without a large measure of competition, however it may be mitigated. It would seem that there must always be an element of conflict in our relation with others, as well as one of mutual aid; the whole plan of life calls for it; our very physiognomy reflects it, and love and strife sit side by side upon the brow of man. The forms of opposition change, but the amount of it, if not constant, is at any rate subject to no general law of diminution.

If we are, to make the process of life rational there is nothing which more requires our attention than the adaptive organization of persons. At present it is, for the most part, a matter of rather blind experimentation, un-

( 57) -equal, from the point of view of individuals, and inefficient from that of society. The child does not know what his part in life is, or how to find it out: he looks to us to show him. But neither do we know: we say he must work it out for himself. Meanwhile the problem is solved badly, in great part, and to the detriment of all of us. Moreover, since it becomes daily more difficult with the growing complexity and specialization of life, the unconscious methods upon which we have hitherto relied are less and less adequate to meet it.

The method, however we may improve it, must remain experimental, involving comparison and selection as well as co-operation. The only possible alternative, and that only a partial one, would be a system of caste under which the function of the son would be determined by that of his father. If the social system were stationary, so that the functions themselves did not change, this method would insure order without conflict, after a fashion; but I need not say that it would be an inefficient fashion and an order contrary to the spirit of modern life. For us the way plainly lies through the acceptance of the selective method, and its scientific study and reconstruction.

What the individual demands with reference to this reorganizing process is opportunity; that is, such freedom of conditions that he may find his natural place, that he may serve society in the way for which his native capacity and inclination, properly trained and measured with those of others in fair competition, will fit him. In so far as he can have this be can realize himself best, and do most for the general good. It is the desirable condition from both the personal and the public points of view.

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But if we ask just how this freedom is to be had, we find that there is no simple answer. It differs for every person and for every phase of his growth, and is always the outcome not of one or two circumstances, but of the whole system in which he lives. We cannot fix upon any particular point in a man's history as the one at which he is, once for all, given or denied opportunity. He needs it all his life, and we may well demand that he have it during his prenatal development as well as after birth; or, going back still further, we may try, by controlling propagation, to see that he has a good hereditary capacity to start with.

Supposing that we begin at birth, we may regard newborn children as undeveloped organisms, each of which has aptitudes more or less different from those of any other. These differences of aptitude are the basis of the future social differentiation, but we have no means of knowing what they are. Opportunity, if it is to be at all complete, must begin right away; it should consist, apparently, in a continuous process, lasting from birth to death, which shall awaken, encourage, and nourish the individual in such a way as to enable his highest personal and social development. The study of it means that our whole society must be considered with a view to the manner in which it aids or hinders this process.

The trend of social development is such as to make opportunity more and more a matter of intelligent provision, less and less one which can take care of itself. Recent history present-, the growth of a complex, specialized system, offering, as time goes on, more functions and requiring more selection and preparation to perform them rightly. I say "rightly" because many of them

(59) may be and are performed, after a fashion, with very little selection or preparation; but the full human and social function of the individual normally requires a personal development proportionate to the development of the whole.

Formerly a boy growing up on a farm, let us say, had his social possibilities in plain sight: he could either continue on the farm or apprentice himself to one of several trades and professions in the neighboring town. Nowadays a thousand careers are theoretically open to him, but these are mostly out of sight, and there is no easy way of finding out just what they are, whether they are suitable to him, or how he may hope to attain them. The whole situation calls for a knowledge and preparation far beyond what can be expected of unaided intelligence.

If we are really to have opportunity we must evidently make a science of it, and apply this science to the actual interworking of the individual with the social whole.

It is a well-known principle of evolution that the higher the animal in the scale of life the longer must be the period of infancy. That is, the higher the mental and social organism the longer it takes for the new individual to grow to full membership in it. The human infant has the longest period of helplessness because he has most to learn.

Following out this principle, the higher our form of society becomes the more intelligence and responsibility it requires of its members, and hence the longer must be the formative period during which they are getting ready to meet these requirements. A civil engineer, for example, must master a far greater body of knowledge now

( 60) than fifty years ago. It is true that specialized industry offers many occupations which, though they contribute to a complex whole, are in themselves very simple, such as tending the automatic machinery by which screws are made. But it cannot be regarded as a permanent condition that intelligent labor should be employed at work of this kind. Intelligence is greatly needed; there is never enough of it; and to leave it unused is bad management. "A man is worth most in the highest position he can fill." Mechanical work should be done by machines, and will be so done more and more as men are trained for something higher. The lack of such training I take to be one of the main reasons why men are kept at tasks which do not use their intelligence. And even at such tasks they are rarely efficient unless they understand the meaning of what they are doing, so that they can fit it into the process as a whole. The man who lacks comprehension and adaptability is of little use; and it is precisely to gain these that preparation is required.

Moreover, beyond the technical requirements, we have the need that a man should be prepared for social function of a larger sort, to make his way in the vast and open field of modern life, to find his job, to care for his family, to perform his duties as a citizen. That many are plunged into the stress and confusion of life without such a preparation is an evil of the same nature as when recruits are sent into battle without previous instruction and discipline. The process of learning in action will be destructive.

In early childhood, opportunity means all kinds of healthy growth-physical, mental, moral, social. This, no doubt, is best secured through a good family. But we

( 61) cannot have good families without a good community, and so it calls for general measures to create and maintain standards of life. it seems a simple truth, but is one which we disregard in practice, that "equality of opportunity " cannot exist, or begin to exist, except as it extends to little children, and that it cannot extend to them except through a somewhat paternal, or maternal, vigilance on the part of society.

Our principal institution having opportunity for its object is education, and accordingly this has an increasing function arising from the increasing requirements that life makes upon it. Where it does not perform this function adequately we see the result in social failure and degeneration-armies of stunted children, privilege thriving upon the lack of freedom, the poor tending to become a misery caste, the prevalence of apathy and inefficiency.

Since opportunity is a different thing for every individual, and requires that each have the right development for him, it is clear that education should aim at a study and unfolding of individuality, and that, in so far as we have uniform and wholesale methods, not dealing understandingly with the individual as such, we are going wrong.

I recall that an able woman who had been a teacher in a state institution for delinquent girls said to me that every such girl had a desire, perhaps latent, to be something, to express an individuality, and that the recognition of this was the basis of a better system of dealing with them. This is only human nature, and one way of stating nearly all our social troubles l.-, to .;ay that individuality has not been properly understood and evoked, has not had the right sort of opportunity. To find a response in life, to discover that what is most inwardly you,

(62) is wanted also in the world without, that you can serve others in realizing yourself; this is what makes resolute and self-respecting men and women of us, and what the school ought unfailingly to afford. The people who drift and sag are those who have never "found themselves."

When, after hearing and reading many discussions about the conduct of schools, I ask myself what I should feel was really essential if I were intrusting a child of my own to a school, it seems to me that there are two indispensable things: first, an intimate relation with a teacher who can arouse and guide the child's mental life, and, second, a good group spirit among the children themselves, in which he may share. The first meets the need we all have in our formative years for a friend and confidant in whom we also feel wisdom and authority; and I assume that we are not to rely upon the child's finding such at home. The second, equal membership in a group of our fellows, develops the democratic spirit of loyalty, service, emulation, and discussion. These are the primary conditions which the child as a human being requires for the growth of his human nature; and if I could be sure of them I should not be exacting about the curriculum, conceiving the harm done by mistakes in this to be small compared with that resulting from defect in the social basis of the child's life. And it is the latter, it seems to me, which, because of its inward and spiritual character, not to be ascertained or tested in any definite way, we are most likely to overlook.

it is apparent that our present methods are far too uniform and impersonal, that we too commonly press the child into a mould and know little about him except how nearly he conforms to it. And no doubt a tendency to

(63) this will always exist, because it can be avoided only by a liberal expenditure of attention, sympathy, and other costly resources, to save which there is always a pressure to fall back upon the mould. Opportunity cannot be realized without the ungrudging expenditure of money and spirit in the shape of devoted and well-equipped teachers, working without strain.

The study and evolution of the individual should be both sympathetic and systematic. There is a movement, which seems to be in the right direction, not only to have more and better teachers but to continue longer the relation between the teacher and the particular child, so that it may have a chance to ripen into friendship, instead of being merely perfunctory. And, on the side of system, a continuous record should be kept which should accompany the child through the schools, preserving not only marks but judgments of his character and ability, and so helping both others and himself to understand him; for I see no reason why the subject of such documents should not have access to them.

At present the school does not commonly act upon the child as a whole dealing with a whole, but makes a series of somewhat disconnected attempts upon those phases of him which come into contact with the curriculum, the latter, rather than the individual, being the heart of the organization. In this respect education is hardly so advanced as the best practice in charity, which keeps a sympathetic history of each person, and of his family and surroundings, making this the base of all efforts to help him.

One who gives some study to current theories and practice in education might well conclude that we were in a state of confusion, with little prospect of the emergence

( 64) of order. He may discover, however, one thread which all good teachers are trying to keep hold of, namely, that of adapting the school more understandingly to the mind and heart of the child. Indeed our way of escape from the distraction of counsels probably lies in focussing more sympathy and common sense upon the individual boy or girl. This calls for more good teachers and more confidence in them as against mechanism of any sort.

The later years of school life need a gradual preparation for definite social function, the aim being to discover what line of service is most probably suited to one's capacities and inclinations, and to train him for it. This preparation is itself a social process, and one into which we cannot put too much intelligence, sympathy, and patience. Parents and teachers can aid in it by interesting the child in the choice of a career, offering suggestions and helping him to learn about his own abilities and the opportunities open to them. He must feel that the problem is his and that no one else can work it out for him. Psychological tests should be of considerable help, and will no doubt become more and more penetrating and reliable. I think, however, that methods of this sort can never be more than ancillary to the process of "trying out," of gradual, progressive experimentation as to what one can actually do. We must still feel our way into life, but by doing this largely before we leave school, and in a more intelligent way, we can prevent the rift between the school and the world from being the alarming and often fatal chasm it now is.

Unless we can have real opportunity in the schools through study of the individual, training, culture, and vocational guidance, we cannot well have it anywhere else.

( 65) That is, if education does not solve at least half the problem of selective adaptation there is little hope of rightly solving the other half in later years. The absence of suitable preparation makes competition unfair and disorderly. A boy leaving school at sixteen, without having learned his own capacities or received the training they require, is in no case to compete intelligently. It is a rare chance if he finds his right place in the immense and complex system. For the most part he takes up whatever work offers itself, too commonly a blind-alley occupation which leads nowhere.

It is even worse with girls, who, regarding their work as temporary, commonly take little interest in it. Anna Garlin Spencer, in her Woman's Share in Social Culture, describes the usual state of the working girl as untrained, unambitious, shirking, and careless, and speaks of " the positive injury to the work sense, the demoralization of the faculty of true service, that her shallow and transitory connection with outside trade occupation so often gives."[1]

Competition means freedom and opportunity only on condition that the individual is rightly prepared to compete. Otherwise it may mean waste, exploitation and degeneracy, and this is what it does mean to a large part of young men, and a larger part of girls and women.

Rational adaptation should be in operation everywhere, and not merely in the schools. Employment bureaus, public and private, should afford trained and sympathetic study of individuals and an honest effort to place them where they belong. Vocational guidance bureaus will without doubt be greatly extended in scope and efficiency,

( 66) and private industries will give more attention not only to the expert choice, placing, and promotion of their employees, but also to affording them recreation, technical instruction, and culture. As we come to see better what opportunity means, public opinion and private conscience will demand it in many forms now unthought of.


  1. In chapter V of her work.

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