The Retrospective Act

Ellsworth Faris 
University of Chicago


The teacher in the school is concerned with what the children do. Their work and play, their relations with each other, and the performance of their school tasks are all held to be of importance. Some of the acts of the children involve violent and strenuous exertion, other actions are made with a more moderate use of energy as they move around or handle things, while still other acts consist of writing or talking or thinking. We must include thinking in the class of actions, for what people think is very important and it is clear that when people think they are doing something. Some of the actions of children are, therefore, visible and audible, some are visible but silent, others are audible but not visible, while the acts we call thinking and reflection are neither visible nor audible. Yet all are actions and are the concern of educators.

Acts may, of course, be classified in an indefinite number of ways and any classification may be useful if it serves to clarify human conduct. With respect to the ease of performance, we may suggest briefly another classification in addition to the one above.

I. Immediate acts. To see a pin and pick it up does not usually call for planning or thought. The attitude represented by an interest in pins is aroused by the sight of one and with no check or difficulty the little object is retrieved. Oft-repeated habitual actions tend to fall into this class. Such an act may be said to have a beginning and an end, but no middle, or mediating, phase. It is an immediate act.

2. The delayed act. As defined here, this class of actions may be said to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It has a middle because there is delay in reaching the end, a delay that requires some adjustment, foresight, or reasoning. The delayed act, as here defined, presents a problem or difficulty and the delay is occasioned

( 80) by the necessity of resolving the problem or overcoming the difficulty so that the act can proceed and the end be reached or achieved. For when there is obscurity or uncertainty or difficulty the matter must be thought out. Life is full of these and every one can recall instances. If a traveler finds himself off the road and realizes that he has lost his way, it is necessary to consult maps, recall directions, or seek advice. His conduct cannot immediately go on for he does not know how to go on. This act is also called the reasoned act or the rational act. There are many of these in school and the office of the teacher includes the presenting of problems that the pupils can reason out, care being had that the tasks are within the power of the developing child.

3. A third category is the frustrated act. This is the act that has failed or has been so long delayed that its lateness is equivalent to failure—as a man who arrives at the station but too late for the train. Acts which begin with a purpose in mind or an end in view are finished when the purpose is realized or the end achieved. The frustrated act does not reach the goal. We may say that the frustrated act has a beginning and a middle but no end. This class of actions is very important since in the wake of frustration follow many disorganizing possibilities. The competent teacher will be on the alert to offer wise and prudent help when needed in order that the sense of failure may be avoided and, when this outcome cannot be prevented, to redirect the energies into compensating and ameliorative activities. Unless this is done, results of the most serious nature may be the outcome.

One of these unfavorable results is daydreaming. Of course, a certain amount of anticipatory fantasy is universal and pleasant and may lead to fortunate outcomes and to high and worthy ambitions. But daydreaming may become a habit and the child may dwell on the pleasant emotion of imagined success so persistently that the result is an ineffective personality. Frustration can be shown to be antecedent to this sort of avowed imagining.

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Not all frustrations result in daydreaming. Often the child turns to something else, substituting what can be obtained for that which is beyond his reach. When this substituted end is more highly esteemed, it is sometimes called sublimation, but often the substitution is of a lower level. Like Omar, we take the cash and let the credit go. It is indeed necessary to accept the inevitable but in the process a child needs guidance. Substitution as the result of frustration and failure calls for vigilance on the part of teachers.

Aggression may be the result of frustration if the frustration is due to the opposition or interference of another person. And this aggression can be turned against the teacher as an object, as every one knows. And, as every one also knows, this aggressive feeling may not be obvious. It does have its serious aspects, however, and should receive attention, and preventive methods are called for.

There are many other possible outcomes of frustration but one more may be mentioned here. Sometimes there is a confusion of wish and fulfillment with the result that a delusion appears. The wish is father to the thought and what the deluded soul wanted to be and could not, he imagines he is, in spite of the way others treat him. In the institutions for mental disorders can be seen the extreme cases, pathetic patients who imagine that they are presidents or kings or great heroes, because they have failed so miserably in life and have not been able to face the world in which men live. Another and even more serious delusion is called the delusion of persecution which results from a tendency to find excuses for one's own failure in the imagined opposition or hostility of some one else. Extreme cases of dementia in the asylums may be seen, some of them cowed in terror over the plots of imaginary enemies while other cases involve hostility and aggressive rage against those who never did anything against the patient but who are thought, in the delusion, to have been the cause of all the difficulties and lack of success. For every one who is confined to an institution there are perhaps hundreds who have such delusions in a form so mild that serious dis-

( 82) -organization does not result. The effect is very unfavorable to the personality, however, and they could be nipped in the bud if teachers and parents were possessed of adequate skill and insight. In the mental hygiene of children this matter is of obvious importance.


The discussion thus far is introductory to the topic of this article, which is the retrospective act. Other actions have ends or goals to be attained; the retrospective act has for its end the consideration of a former act. We may assume that there is a tendency for every action that is interesting or emotional to return to consciousness in retrospect, to be lived over again in enjoyment, or to be better understood if it is puzzling or annoying or disturbing. It is not the mere frustration of an act which 'produces any of the results which have been enumerated above. It is only if there is subsequent recall, reflection, and definition of the disturbing event that any final result is to be expected in the developing personality.

While this paper was in preparation the writer and another trained observer recorded careful observations over a period of three weeks of the behavior of a healthy normal infant of eight months. B. could sit alone and could pull himself up into a standing position. His toys would often roll out of the bars of his pen beyond his reach, especially a celluloid ball which was his favorite plaything. Attempts to stand up would often be frustrated when his legs were tangled up the wrong way. Active interference with his actions frequently occurred when he got hold of objects outside, particularly the grass and weeds when his pen was set up on the lawn. Numerous frustrations took place in connection with his feeding and experimental annoyances were introduced in the interest of science. It is to be recorded that the frustrations produced a brief protest, followed promptly by a period of equilibrium and the initiation of another act. B. gave every evidence of a complete lack of hostility, aggression, or resentment. It is the assumption of this paper

( 83) that the explanation is to be found in the fact that infants of this age have not acquired a conception of self and that retrospection and recall could not take place.

Whether this interpretation be accepted or not, it is certain that when personality is achieved there is the retrospective tendency. When we are in the presence of our fellows and companions the retrospection takes place in the form of "talking it over" as long as it continues to be interesting or until a solution is arrived at, if the matter has been disturbing. After an exciting ball game or prize fight or drama, friends can be heard discussing the interesting phases and reliving, if only very briefly, what has been enjoyed. If there has been a serious disturbance to the life of the group then there are councils, conferences, and discussions in the effort to make clear what was not clear.

It would doubtless be desirable from the standpoint of mental hygiene if all our retrospective acts took the form of conversation and discussion with our friends and companions. But whether this be true or not, many and perhaps the greater number of these actions are performed alone and in silent thought. In the absence of others to listen, we go over the matter in our own minds. Because those at hand might not understand or might be unsympathetic, we recall the disturbing event without letting any one know what we are doing. Having no one to talk to, we talk to ourselves, and having no one to answer, we answer ourselves, and then find a response to that response and so go on and on, the act recurring over and over if no good way out is found.

It is to George Mead that we are indebted for an understanding of the manner and importance of this solitary activity. In recalling a past unpleasantness, for example, we begin by thinking of what was said to us, recalling the words of the other and our own reply, then the response of the other to what we said, and so on to the end. But sometimes there is no end. There may be left a feeling of injury which should have its proper satisfaction but no way is in sight to

( 84) even the matter up. And so the whole process is gone over again and yet again. This we call brooding, and to brood over one's self and the wrongs that have been suffered is to prepare the way for disorganization, sometimes of the most extreme character. To brood over one's self and one's wrongs is sometimes to ripen for the committing of murder or suicide or less tragic deeds.

The "mechanism" of the retrospect lies importantly in the fact that we take the role of the other and it is by taking the role of the other and only by this method that a conception of the self is formed and the attitudes of a personality and character are organized.

For the self, as experienced, is defined by the actions and responses of others, although the actions and reactions, the responses and gestures of the others are not sufficient in and of themselves to produce the result. In order that the actions and responses of others shall affect the personality it is necessary for the self to assume them on his part. The function of the retrospective act lies just here. It is in the rehearsal of the past event that one takes the attitude of another, because he is repeating what the other has said. This is seemingly the reason the infant in the prelinguistic stage does not feel resentment or hold a grudge. Because there is no language, the past cannot be recalled in symbolic ways. When, however, one can talk to one's self and answer his own talk, he necessarily takes the role of the other for no one can talk without being talked to beforehand. The mother tongue is acquired from the mother and all language is a social product. It is only after some one has spoken to me that I can speak to myself. And when I have learned to speak to myself, I have a self and not till then. A self is best defined as a subject which is its own object. One takes an attitude toward one's self. The "me" appears in experience. The very formation of the self is dependent on the retrospective act.

For it is an act. To recall what some one did to you, to rehearse what was said, to decide what it meant and how it is to be regarded, all this, though it may take place when an observer could not detect

( 85) the twitching of a muscle nor any one hear the slightest sound, is to be regarded as action just as literally as knocking a home run or spinning a top.

It is in the retrospective act, then, that objects are defined, attitudes formed, personality determined, and character organized. And since many if not most of the retrospective actions of children are performed in silence and relative immobility, the act and its outcome are often inaccessible to the teacher and the parent. But since the importance of this form of activity is so great it would seem that those who have to do with children should consider seriously its importance.

There is an apparent paradox that appears in the cases of delusion and negativism. Although the self is defined by the actions of others and the self is normally a "looking glass self" as Cooley has called it, yet from the insane asylums clear down to the schoolroom there are those who have a conception of themselves at variance with the way in which they are regarded or ever have been regarded. It is suggested here that the explanation may be found in isolation and solitude, when, for any reason, there is a lack of adequate sympathetic social contacts. We all know that it is possible to be very lonely in the midst of many people, if they do not know us or do not like us. Many a child in a large school is very completely isolated. There is no one whom he is "close to." Such an isolated personality will be less likely to discuss his troubles with others than if he had many friends and intimate companions. But he must discuss his troubles and so he discusses them with himself.

Suppose a child has been affronted or insulted and nothing more has been done about it. The solitary one will not talk it over with his friends, thus getting comfort and consolation and, often, a modification of his notion of what has happened. On the contrary, the isolated child will recall the insult and, in all likelihood, rehearse what he might have said and done. This may leave the hurt unhealed and so the matter recurs once more and he again recalls the insult.

( 86) And every time he recalls the insult he is taking the role of the insulter and is being hurt afresh. And so it may come to pass that, instead of being insulted once, he has, in the role of the other, insulted himself twenty times, and to be insulted twenty times is far more painful than to be hurt once.

If he has been belittled and an attack made on his self-respect he will normally seek, in the retrospective act, some defense and justification of what he has done or of what he is. If this self-defense and self-justification is rehearsed again and again, the original social definition gives place to the definition he has made of and for himself in the solitude of his too frequent retrospection.

A graduate student who found it difficult to do the work in the keen competition at the university came up for his examinations and failed to pass them. He was profoundly shocked and disappointed and his isolation was marked. He was able to convince himself that the faculty had not been able to understand his excellent presentation of his material and that they were unfair to him for various reasons. He came to consider himself a distinctly superior person intellectually, and, though he had difficulty in holding any one of the several positions which he managed to secure, the result was always due to the incompetence of the administration who did not know how to appreciate an exceptionally gifted man. This pathetic effort to salvage one's self-respect and high opinion of one's self resulted, as often, in a paranoid type of personality. His definition of himself was different from the social definition, the difference being the result of his repeated retrospections in which he came to his own defense against his detractors again and again till he became convinced that he was right and all the world was wrong.

Attitudes are sustained and strengthened by successful repetitions, as a boy keeps alive and growing his interest in baseball or swimming. But in situations that are new, attitudes may be altered or reversed. Unexpected or surprising or puzzling events make objects uncertain that were formerly well understood, and force a reëxami-

( 87) -nation. This revision and redefinition is the function of the retrospective act. Retrospection is the workshop where the new attitudes are fabricated and the old ones made over. One's whole conception of one's self may be completely revised after such an occasion. A graduate student was invited by a college president to accept an appointment in a college. He had in mind the salary he would ask for, in case the position should be acceptable. The president did not ask him to name a figure but proceeded to offer twice the amount that the student had decided upon. Difficulties arose in the arrangements and the appointment did not go through, but the student revised his estimate of his worth and never thought of himself again as deserving anything less than the surprising stipend which had been offered to him. We get our conception of ourselves from the way others treat us and talk to us.

It would not, perhaps, be necessary to write insistently about the importance of the retrospective act but for the confusion that has been produced by the school of behaviorist psychologists. Although there have been modifications of the extreme statements with which their very vigorous writings formerly abounded, yet even to this day the emphasis on behavior tends to obscure the importance of that which cannot be observed or photographed or recorded. Retrospection of the solitary kind can neither be seen, heard, nor measured. Some writers would consider that, since this is so, we must confine attention to the accessible behavior. But behavior is only part of life. In addition to behavior there is conduct, and conduct is not the same as behavior. We may speak of the behavior of a storm or the behavior of a wild rhinoceros. Men also exhibit mere behavior, as when a man steps on your foot or slips on the ice. But conduct involves behavior with the addition of a judgment on the movements, and this goes deeper than cameras can record.

The importance of the secret springs of action has always been recognized, but the older writers made a sharp distinction between thought and action. Thought and reasoning were in the soul or in

( 88) the mind, while action was assumed to be a function of the larger muscles. It is the position of this paper that thought is quite literally a part of action and that retrospection is, in every way, deserving of this classification. It is true that thinking is often the preparation for action but so is the buying of a railway ticket. It is true that thought precedes action and may be said, in some sense, to be the cause of action, but it is also true that action precedes thought and that action may be the cause of thought. It is far better to consider our thinking as one form of action, sometimes indulged in for its own sake, just as we may at times look at a picture or listen to a symphony with no utilitarian purpose. But whether we think for a purpose or merely indulge in a pleasant reverie, the thinking is what we are doing. The thinking is a form of action. And the thinking we do in retrospection is a very important form of action.

Teachers are able to control with approximate success the behavior of children. Where they may go and when, what they say and how they may say it (at least in the classroom) are not too difficult for a skillful teacher to manage. But the retrospective acts are performed in silence and with a closed mouth. Their control must be indirect but such control is very important.

In autobiographies and life histories are to be found in abundance instances of the undesirable and sometimes disastrous results of the silent and unaided misinterpretation which the children make of the actions of their teachers. One adult reported an incident that occurred when he was in the sixth grade. The bell for the ending of the recess period had rung and most of the children had gone in. He, an overgrown and sensitive lad, ran noisily down the hall only to be stopped by a teacher and ordered sternly to go back outside and then to enter in a proper manner. What the teacher had in mind was the desirability of good habits and the proper form of behavior. What the teacher produced, as the incident was recalled again and again, was an attitude of lasting resentment. In the schoolroom the teacher thought he was studying but what he was really doing was

( 89) living over the event, growing more and more resentful. The teacher was continually disliked during the two years he remained in the community. When the incident was reported, still further mature retrospection had again altered the attitude and all resentment had long since disappeared. But all will agree that the teacher acted unwisely under the circumstances, either in speaking as he did or in not following it up so that the retrospection might not have such undesired consequences.

Analogous instances are by no means rare and the importance of the effort of the teacher in influencing the behavior after the child recalls it in retrospect should not be minimized. One of the sources of confusion and error is the failure to distinguish accurately between habit as a form of behavior which may be controlled and attitude as a tendency toward a generalized mode of conduct. The habit can often be controlled directly if the child is under observation, but the attitude is formed in the retrospective act and may be the very opposite of what it is desired to inculcate.

It seems quite clear that the most favorable condition for the direct transfer of an attitude from one person to another is what sociologists call the primary group relation, by which is meant a situation in which there is face-to-face association and coöperation and in which the "we feeling" is present. In such a situation the chances of a negative attitude developing from retrospection are at a minimum. This type of relation may be seen in any good kindergarten but is often absent in the later years of the school. The traditional practices involve a whole complex of methods of control which include the assertion of authority, the promulgation of formal orders and rigid rules which in their turn imply commands. And there can be no effective commands without explicit or implied threats, and threats necessitate punishment and penalties. That these do operate to secure order and external conformity cannot be denied but that the results are often disappointing is universally admitted. What the child will think and feel about it, when he brings to mind in retro-

(90) -spection the whole incident, is as important as the subsequent observable behavior—some of us think it is much more important.

To place the entire burden of caring for the mental health of children on the school is at once unjust and ineffective. A child has lived several years before the school has seen him. Some of the basic foundation stones of his personality have been already laid down. Moreover the hours spent in the school are hardly one eighth of the total hours in a year, so that outside influences have ample time to undo the best of school influences. Nevertheless, the influence of the school is very great and the opportunity of the teacher is everywhere appreciated. Children may have warped and twisted souls at times in spite of all that the school can do. And yet experience has abundantly shown the possibilities of wise and skillful handling of these problems. Notwithstanding the fact that the school only has a fraction of the day, the children are thinking of school activities much of the time they are at home and in their going and coming. The keen sense of competition which is often so unwisely encouraged by well-meaning teachers has been the cause of much suffering on the part of children and not a little disorganization. A sense of failure on the part of a child is not only a bitter experience for him, it is also a reproach to our knowledge of life and human nature. It is the growing conviction of many specialists that every child, with the exception of the feeble-minded, has some gift or talent which marks him off as slightly superior to others in that one way. Slavish dependence on the ability to manipulate figures and to play with words, which ability is measured by the so-called intelligence tests, will in time, let us hope, be replaced by an appreciation of the unique gifts of each of our children.

The sense of failure eliminated, there remains the problem of isolation. The origin of this may be and usually is quite outside the school but it can receive needed attention by teachers. The greater number of the children will not be in need of any special attention in this regard but for those who do need it there should come wise and

( 91) understanding help. The child who suffers from a feeling of isolation may be hard to reach, but he will usually respond with eagerness to the well-considered approach. If the isolation is overcome, the retrospective act is not prevented, for retrospection is universal and normal. But when wrongs or hurts or failures or frustrations are talked over instead of brooded over, a great gain is had.

And it hardly need be insisted that a wise teacher will not be guilty of a rude command or an ironical retort or a sarcastic affront to any child, whether a lonely sufferer from isolation or a highly socialized and friendly pupil. To do so, as already pointed out, may not produce any immediately visible results but in retrospection the teacher may be defined in terms of the bitterest hostility. More probable is the outcome in which the teacher comes to be regarded as a necessary evil, to be watched and "worked," but whose views and opinions have little or no influence. The retrospective act has, in extreme cases, resulted in a determination to run away from the school and never to return. In still rarer cases, the end of the retrospective act has been the determination to attack the teacher. In not a few cases the end is suicide. But usually the worst result is the loss of influence of the teacher at a time when such influence is in the highest degree important and when it should be at its maximum of strength.

The object of this discussion has been to call attention to the unseen and unheard actions of children which follow every interesting and emotional experience and which are determinative of attitudes and of the organization of personality. Those who deal with children may well pay heed to the possible effects of disciplinary treatment which, though they occur in silence and unobserved, represent the actions in which the structure of the character is erected. Not that this is new, however much neglected in recent years. It is with the thought that retrospective actions are deserving of renewed emphasis that these words have been written.


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