The Mental Attitude of the Educated Classes

Franz Boas1
PROUD of his wonderful achievements, civilized man looks down upon the humbler members of mankind. He has conquered the forces of nature and compelled them to serve him. He has transformed inhospitable forests into fertile fields. The mountain fastnesses are yielding their treasures to his demands. The fierce animals which are obstructing his progress are being exterminated, while others which are useful to him are made to increase a thousand-fold. The waves of the ocean carry him from land to land, and towering mountain-ranges set him no bounds. His genius has moulded inert matter into powerful machines which await a touch of his hand to serve his manifold demands.

With pity he looks down upon those members of the human race who have not succeeded in subduing nature; who labor to eke a meagre existence out of the products of the wilderness; who hear with trembling the roar of the wild animals, and see the products of their toils destroyed by them; who remain restricted by ocean, river, or mountains; who strive to obtain the necessities of life with the help of few and simple instruments.

Such is the contrast that presents itself to the observer. What wonder if civilized man considers himself a being of higher order as compared to primitive man, if he claims that the white race represents a type higher than all others!

Before accepting this conclusion which places the stamp of eternal inferiority upon whole races of man, we may well pause, and subject the basis of our opinions regarding the aptitude of different peoples and races to a searching analysis. The naive assumption of the superiority of the European nations and their descendants is obviously based upon their wonderful achievements. We conclude that, as the civilization is higher, the aptitude for civilization is also higher; and, as the aptitude for civilization presumably depends upon the perfection of the mechanism of body and mind, the inference is drawn that the white race represents the highest type of perfection. In this conclusion, which is reached through a comparison of the social status of civilized man with that of primitive man, the tacit assumption is made that achievement depends solely, or at least primarily, upon the aptitude for an achievement.   - Franz Boas, 1911

"Forget time and geography, people are the same everywhere - cultures are different!"   - Mark Fleisher, On Boas

When we attempt to form our opinions in an intelligent manner, we are inclined to accept the judgment of those who by their education and occupation are compelled to deal with the questions at issue. We assume that their views must be rational, and based on intelligent understanding of the problems. The foundation of this belief is the tacit assumption not only that they have special knowledge but also that they are free to form perfectly rational opinions. However, it is easy to see there is no type of society in existence in which such freedom exists.

I believe I can make my point clearest by giving an example taken from the life of a people whose cultural conditions are very simple. I will choose for this purpose the Eskimo. In their social life they are exceedingly individualistic. The social group has so little cohesion that we have hardly the right to speak of tribes. A number of families come together and live in the same village, but there is nothing to prevent any one of them from living and settling at another place with other families. In fact during a period of a lifetime the families constituting an Eskimo village community are constantly shifting about; and while they generally return after many years to the place where their relatives live, the family may have belonged to a great many different communities. There is no authority vested in any individual, no chieftancy, and no method by which orders, if they were given, could be carried out. In short, so far as law is concerned, we have a condition of almost absolute anarchy. We might therefore say that every single person is entirely free, within the limits of his own mental ability, to determine his own mode of life and his own mode of thinking. Nevertheless it is easily seen that there are innumerable restrictions that determine his behavior. The Eskimo boy learns how to handle the knife, how to use bow and arrow, how to hunt, how to build a house; the girl learns how to sew and mend clothing and how to cook; and during all their life they use their tools in the way they learned in childhood. New inventions are rare, and the whole industrial life of the people follows traditional channels. What is true of industrial activities is no less true of their thoughts. Certain religious ideas have been transmitted to them, notions as to what is right and wrong, certain amusements, and enjoyment of certain types of art. Any deviation from these is not likely to occur. At the same time it never enters into their minds that any other way of thinking and acting would be possible, and they consider themselves as perfectly free in regard to all their actions. Based on our wider experience, we know that the industrial problems of the Eskimo may be solved in a great many other ways and that their religious traditions and social customs might be quite different from what they are. From the outside, objective point of view we see clearly the restrictions that bind the individual who considers himself free.

It is hardly necessary to give many instances of these occurrences. It seems desirable however to illustrate the great strength of these ideas that restrict the freedom of thought of the individual, leading to the most serious mental struggles when traditional social ethics come into conflict with instinctive reactions. Thus among a tribe of Siberia we find a belief that every person will live in the future life in the same condition in which he finds himself at the time of death. As a consequence an old man who begins to be decrepit wishes to die, in order to avoid life as a cripple in the endless future, and it becomes the duty of his son to kill him. The son believes in the righteousness of this command but at the same time feels the filial love for his father, and many are the instances in which the son has to decide between the two conflicting duties—the one imposed by the instinctive filial love, the other imposed by the traditional custom of the tribe.

Another interesting observation may be deduced from those somewhat more complex societies in which there is a distinction between different social classes. We find such a condition, for instance, in North America, among the Indians of British Columbia, in which a sharp distinction is made between people of noble birth and common people. In this case the traditional behavior of the two classes shows considerable differences. The social tradition that regulates the life of the nobility is somewhat analogous to the social tradition of our society. A great deal of stress is laid upon the strict observance of convention and upon display, and nobody can maintain his position in high society without an adequate amount of ostentation and without strict regard for conventional conduct. These requirements are so fundamental that on overbearing conceit and a contempt for the common people become social requirements of an important chief. The contrast between the social proprieties for the nobility and those for the common people is very striking. Of the common people are expected humbleness, mercy, and all those qualities that we consider amiable and humane.

Similar observations may be made in all those cases in which, by a complex tradition, a social class is set off from the mass of the people. The chiefs of the Polynesian Islands, the kings in Africa, the medicine men of all countries present examples in which a social group’s line of conduct and of thought is strongly modified by their segregation from the mass of the people. On the whole, in societies of this type, the mass of the people consider as their ideal those actions which we should characterize as humane; not by any means that all their actions conform to humane conduct, but their valuation of men shows that the fundamental altruistic principles which we recognize are recognized by them too. Not so with the privileged classes. In place of the general humane interest the class interest predominates; and while it would be wrong to say that their conduct is selfish, it is always so shaped that the interest of the class to which they belong prevails over the interest of society as a whole. If it is necessary to secure rank and to enhance the standing of the family by killing a number of enemies, there is no hesitation felt in taking life. If the interests of the class require oppression of the rest of the people, then they are oppressed. If the interest of the class requires that its members would not perform menial occupations but should devote themselves to art or learning, then all the members of the class will vie with one another in the attainment of these achievements. It is for this reason that every segregated class is much more strongly influenced by special traditional ideas than is the mass of the people; not that the multitude is free to think rationally and that its behavior is not determined by tradition, but that the tradition is not so specific, not so strictly determined in its range, as in the case of the segregated classes. For this reason it is often found that the restriction of freedom of thought by convention is greater in what we might call the educated classes than in the mass of the people.

I believe this observation is of great importance when we try to understand conditions in our own society. Its bearing upon the problem of the psychological significance of nationalism will at once be apparent; for the nation is also a segregated class, albeit segregated according to other principles; and the characteristic feature of nationalism is that its social ethical standards are considered as more fundamental than those that are general and human, or rather that the members of each nation like to assume that their ideals are or should be the true ideals of mankind. At the same time it illustrates clearly that we should make a fundamental mistake if we should confound class selfishness and individual selfishness; for we find the most splendid examples of unselfish devotion to the interests of the nation, heroism that has been rightly praised for thousands of years as the highest virtue, and it is difficult to realize that nevertheless the whole history of mankind points in the direction of a human ideal as opposed to a national ideal. And indeed may we not continue to admire the self-sacrifice of a great mind, even if we transcend to ideals that were not his, and that perhaps, owing to the time and place in which he lived, could not be his?

Our observation has also another important application. The industrial and economic development of modern times has brought about a differentiation within our population that has never been equaled in any primitive society. The occupations of the various parts of a modern European or American population differ enormously; so much so, that in many cases it is almost impossible for people speaking the same language to understand one another when they talk about their daily work. The ideas with which the scientist, the artist, the tradesman, the business man, the laborer operate are so distinctive that they have only a few fundamental elements in common. Here it may again be observed that those occupations which are intellectually or emotionally most highly specialized require the longest training, and training always means an infusion of historically transmitted ideas. It is therefore not surprising that the thought of what we call the educated classes is controlled essentially by those ideals which have been transmitted to us by past generations. These ideals are always highly specialized, and include the ethical tendencies, the aesthetic inclinations, the intellectuality, and the expression of volition, of past times. Their control may find expression in a dominant tone which determines our whole mode of thought and which, for the very reason that it has come to be ingrained into our whole mentality, never rises into our consciousness.

In those cases in which our reaction is more conscious, it is either positive or negative. Our thoughts may be based on a high valuation of the past, or they may be a revolt against it. When we bear this in mind we may understand the characteristics of the behavior of the intellectuals. It is a mistake to assume that their mentality is, on the average, appreciably higher than that of the rest of the people. Perhaps a greater number of independent minds find their way into this group than into some other group of individuals who are moderately well-to-do; but their average mentality is surely in no way superior to that of the workingmen, who by the conditions of their youth have been compelled to subsist on the produce of their manual labor. In both groups mediocrity prevails; unusually strong and unusually weak individuals are exceptions. For this reason the strength of character and intellect that is required for vigorous thought on matters in which intense sentiments are involved is not commonly found—either among the intellectuals or in any other part of the population. This condition, combined with the thoroughness with which the intellectuals have imbibed the traditions of the past, makes the majority of them in all nations conventional. It has the effect that their thoughts are based on tradition, and that the range of their vision is liable to be limited. Even the apparent exception of the Russian intellectuals, who have been brought up under the influence of West European ideas, does not contradict our general conclusion.

There are of course strong minds among the intellectuals who rise above the conventionalism of their class, and attain that freedom that is the reward of a courageous search for truth, along whatever path it may lead.

In contrast to the intellectuals, the masses in our modern city populations are less subject to the influence of traditional teaching. They are torn away from school before it can make an indelible impression upon their minds and they may never have known the strength of the conservative influence of a home in which parents and children live a common life. The more heterogeneous the society in which they live, and the more the constituent groups are free from historic influences, or the more they represent different historic traditions, the less strongly will they be attached to the past.

It would be an exaggeration if we should extend this view over all aspects of human life. I am speaking here only of those fundamental concepts of right and wrong that develop in the segregated classes and in the masses. In a society in which beliefs are transmitted with great intensity the impossibility of treating calmly the views and actions of the heretic is shared by both groups. When, through the progress of scientific thought, the foundations of dogmatic belief are shaken among the intellectuals and not among the masses, we find the conditions reversed and greater freedom of traditional forms of thought among the intellectuals—at least in so far as the current dogma is involved. It would also be an exaggeration to claim that the masses can sense the right way of attaining the realization of their ideals, for these must be found by painful experience and by the application of knowledge. However, neither of these restrictions touches our main contention, namely, that the desires of the masses are in a wider sense more human than those of the classes.

It is therefore not surprising that the masses of the people—whose attachment to the past is comparatively slight and who work—respond more quickly and more energetically to the urgent demands of the hour than the educated classes, and that the ethical ideals of the best among them are human ideals, not those of a segregated class. For this reason I should always be more inclined to accept, in regard to fundamental human problems, the judgment of the masses rather than the judgment of the intellectuals, which is much more certain to be warped by unconscious control of traditional ideas. I do not mean to say that the judgment of the masses would be acceptable in regard to every problem of human life, because there are many which, by their technical nature, are beyond their understanding. Nor do I believe that the details of the right solution of a problem can always be found by the masses; but I feel strongly that the problem itself, as felt by them, and the ideal that they want to see realized, is a safer guide for our conduct than the ideal of the intellectual group that stands under the ban of an historical tradition that dulls their feeling for the needs of the day.

One word more, in regard to what might be a fatal misunderstanding of my meaning. If I decry unthinking obedience to the ideals of our forefathers, I am far from believing that it will ever be possible, or that it will even be desirable, to cast away the past and to begin anew on a purely intellectual basis. Those who think that this can be accomplished do not, I believe, understand human nature aright. Our very wishes for changes are based on criticism of the past, and would take another direction if the conditions under which we live were of a different nature. We are building up our new ideals by utilizing the work of our ancestors, even where we condemn it, and so it will be in the future. Whatever our generation may achieve will attain in course of time that venerable aspect that will lay in chains the minds of the great mass of our successors and it will require new efforts to free a future generation of the shackles that we are forging. When we once recognize this process, we must see that it is our task not only to free ourselves of traditional prejudice, but also to search in the heritage of the past for what is useful and right, and to endeavor to free the mind of future generations so that they may not cling to our mistakes, but may be ready to correct them.

  1The essay presented below first appeared in the September 5, 1918 issue of The Dial.