Abraham Maslow: A life devoted to maximising human potential
Abraham Maslow is one of the most influential educational theorists in the field of humanist psychology. He is well known for his self-actualisation theory of Psychology, which argued that the primary goal of psychotherapy should be the integration of the self.
Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, to poor Russian Jewish parents Samuel and Rose Maslow, who had immigrated from Eastern Europe to flee persecution and secure a better future for the family. Maslow’s childhood was not a happy one – he had poor relationships with his parents. In addition, he found himself the target of anti-Semitic hatred as he was the sole Jewish boy in the community. This increased his feeling of isolation and loneliness. He spent most of his time in the library where he developed his academic gifts.
Maslow attended the Brooklyn High School where he became an active member of several academic clubs. He edited the school’s Latin magazine and the school’s physics paper for a year. Martin L. Hoffman, renowned American psychologist, has opined that like many youngsters who come from difficult backgrounds, Maslow’s early education experiences “inexorably shaped his world view.”
Despite his differences with his family, Maslow initially chose a route that would satisfy his parents. After leaving school, he attended City College, New York, to study law. However, he struggled with his studies.
After getting transferred from City College to Cornell University, and then back to City College, he decided to quit law. After that, Maslow attended the University of Wisconsin to study Psychology. According to Willard B. Frick, Maslow was initially interested in philosophy, but he grew frustrated with its inapplicability to real-world situations and switched his focus to psychology.
Maslow started his studies in the field of behaviourist psychology, a strand of psychology that was prevalent at the time, through the works of famous psychologists like Watson and Skinner. Later, he was influenced by the work of Alfred Adler and Harry Harlow.
Maslow’s stint in Brooklyn College led him to encounter a number of eminent European intellectuals who were then migrating to the United States.
Harry Harlow, renowned behaviourist, later become Maslow’s doctoral advisor. However, Maslow turned his attention to a new school of thought – humanism – believing this to be a more positive way to look at people.
Maslow began teaching at Brooklyn College in 1931 and he continued in this position until 1951. During his time at Brooklyn College, Maslow conducted a pioneering study on women’s sexuality.
According to Martin L. Hoffman, this was the earliest indication of Maslow’s interest in human behaviour. Maslow’s stint in Brooklyn College led him to encounter a number of eminent European intellectuals who were then migrating to the United States. Most notable among them were Max Westheimer and Ruth Benedict. It was their influence that led Maslow to his ground breaking studies of self-actualising people.
Maslow developed and refined his hierarchy of inborn needs throughout the 1940s by attempting to understand and explain human motivation. He first proposed his theory in the paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, in 1943. His findings were not formally published until the publication of his landmark book Motivation and Personality in 1954, documenting 15 years of theorising about human nature.
Hierarchy of needs and self-actualisation
Maslow’s greatest contribution to the field of humanist psychology came in the form of the hierarchy of needs, a diagrammatic representation of the physiological and psychological needs, which humans must pass through on the path to self-actualisation. In his book Motivation and Personality, Maslow stated: “What a man can be, he must be. This we call self-actualisation.”
Maslow presented his ideas in the form of a pyramid, with psychological needs forming the base followed by safety and security, love and belonging, and esteem needs.
According to the book Understanding & Using Challenging Educational Theories written by Karl Aubrey and Alison Riley, while creating the hierarchy of needs, Maslow broke away from traditional thinking, as he sought to determine which factors brought about a state of good psychological health. He was concerned with the factors that motivate people. He identified two kinds of motivation: deficiency motivation – which demanded the need to reduce psychological tensions such as hunger or thirst, and growth motivation – which was concerned with the satisfaction of the needs to be loved and to belong.
Maslow presented his ideas in the form of a pyramid, with psychological needs forming the base followed by safety and security, love and belonging, and esteem needs. He categorised these as lower-order needs or deficiency needs.
He proposed that once lower-level basic needs are met, then the human psyche naturally looks to satisfying higher needs. According to Maslow, these needs must be met before a person could aspire to the growth needs at the top of the pyramid. By its nature, the pyramid becomes less stable the further one ascended, necessitating the need for a strong foundation.
Maslow also identified that as people progress through the pyramid, the need for love and belongingness also become prevalent. Even though these are referred to as deficiency needs, they become more about personal growth with individuals seeking respect, attention and affection.
While he believed that most individuals are aspiring towards the feeling of good self-esteem and high self-worth, he also acknowledged that as an individual ascends the pyramid, the strength of each need is reduced and they may stop striving towards higher need if a lower-level need is activated.
In 1962, Abraham Maslow published his second book on human needs, Towards a Psychology of Being. Maslow’s relentless work was interrupted when he suffered a heart attack in 1967. Though his health problems persisted, Maslow continued his work. He died on June 8, 1970, at the age of 62.
Maslow’s work is eminently applicable in classroom and it can be seen in a variety of teaching and classroom management in use today. Though he didn’t set out to directly influence classroom practices, his theories have been adopted in educational settings both consciously and unconsciously. Maslow’s work centred on maximising human potential and the conditions for maximising it included the desire to learn. In the article Maslow in the Classroom and the Clinic, M.L. DeMarco and E.R. Tilson say that according to Maslow’s theories, the role of the educator is to ensure that learner’s physiological needs have been addressed. Because the most inspirational educator wouldn’t be able to reach the learner if his/her lower-level needs are not met. One cannot assume that a child entering the classroom has already had these needs fulfilled.
The importance of a child feeling happy and a part of the classroom remains throughout the period of education. Maslow had already theorised that a sense of belonging is essential and it is a prerequisite human need, which needed to be met before achieving a sense of self-worth. Let us take a look at an example. If a teacher ensures that children’s views are heard, and listens and responds to them individually, it will create a sense of belonging in them. This sense of belonging is crucial in creating a good learning environment.
Abraham Maslow was driven by a desire to help people live their lives true to their potential. Shaped by his experiences in his childhood and during World War II, Maslow has left a lifelong legacy devoted to maximising human potential.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How would you describe the term “self-actualisation” to your students?
Can you think of how the works of Abraham Maslow influenced the education system?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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