Early Childhood Education

Maslow, Abraham (1908-1970)


Personality theorist Abraham Harold Maslow is best known for his contributions to the humanistic psychology movement, most notably his Hierarchical Theory of Motivation. Credited with cofounding the humanistic movement (along with Carl Rogers), Maslow conceptualized motivation as the human tendency to strive for a rewarding and meaningful life. Early childhood educators, who traditionally concerned themselves with children’s affective development, found important support for their point of view in Maslow’s theory.

Maslow was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Jewish immigrant parents. Isolated as a child, in part due to his mother’s mental illness, Maslow grew up in libraries among books. Not well educated himself, his father pressured his eldest son to attend law school. After a short-lived attempt to comply, Maslow next attended Cornell University and later the University of Wisconsin, where he obtained formal training in psychology (B.A. 1930; M.A. 1931; Ph.D. 1934). Early mentors included Harry Harlow, famous for his attachment studies, and behavior- ist Edward Thorndike at Columbia University, whose work had initially attracted Maslow to psychology. Maslow’s excitement about behaviorism, however, subsided as he raised his two daughters—an experience that confronted him with the complexity of human behavior (Maslow, 1968, p. 55).

Maslow taught next at Brooklyn College in New York City where he came into contact with distinguished European scholars, many of whom had fled Nazi Germany. Luminaries Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, Max Wertheimer, and Erich Fromm numbered among those who shaped Maslow’s intellectual growth during this period and laid the groundwork for his later humanistic views. In 1951, Maslow accepted an appointment to chair the Psychology Department at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Here he remained for the duration of his career. His influential book Toward a Psychology of Being was published in 1962.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, a pyramid-shaped diagram with self-actualization at the apex, proposed that human motivation can be understood as a life quest toward fulfillment. However, basic human needs must be sufficiently well met before one could conceivably express one’s unique potential. Each level of Maslow’s hierarchy described these basic needs in terms of psychological tensions that one must resolve in order to move toward self-actualization. First, one’s physiological needs must be met; safety needs form the second layer, followed by love and belongingness needs at the third. As one travels toward the top of the pyramid, the need for esteem and, finally, for actualization emerge. Those rare few who achieve self-actualization may also experience transcendence, a state of being where one becomes ecstatically aware of human potential in the cosmic sense. This heightened awareness, although joyous, also creates profound sadness, for, in understanding human potential in its grandest sense, one must also confront human frailty and the undeniable human tendency to bungle opportunities for growth.

Maslow’s optimistic view of personality development held that children will grow in a positive direction so long as their legitimate needs are sufficiently well met. Under the right circumstances, desirable qualities of self-direction, openness to experience, trust in one’s abilities, and, ultimately, creativity will emerge, allowing the self-enhancing individual to contribute constructively and harmoniously to group life. Maslow’s personality theory represented a contemporary rendering of ideas introduced into early childhood education years before by Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s and Friedrich Froebel’s similar philosophies of development “unfolding” across the life span.

In the spring of 1969, Maslow took a leave of absence from Brandeis College to become a resident fellow of the W. P. Laughlin Charitable Foundation, Menlo Park, California. Here he freely pursued his passionate interest in democracy and ethics.

On June 8, 1970, at the age of 62, Abraham Maslow, having suffered a history of chronic heart disease, died of a heart attack. Abraham H. Maslow: A Memorial Volume, compiled with the assistance of his wife and high school sweetheart, Bertha Goodman Maslow, was published posthumously in 1972.

Further Readings: Abraham H. Maslow: A memorial volume (1972). Monterey, CA: Books/Cole. Conversation with Abraham Maslow (1968). Psychology Today 2 (35-37), 54-57; Maslow, Abraham (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand; Maslow, Abraham (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York: Viking.

Ann C. Benjamin