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Robert J. Havighurst (June 5, 1900–1990) created a body of knowledge that continues to influence education and psychology today. By the time of his death, he had authored or coauthored more than 50 books, in addition to hundreds of monographs, book chapters, journal articles, and reports on a wide range of topics. Born in DePere, Wisconsin, Havighurst was the oldest of five children. He grew up in the Midwest, attending public schools in several towns where his father was a pastor. He graduated from Ohio Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1921. He continued to study chemistry in graduate school at The Ohio State University and earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. He was successful early in his career in science and was named a National Research Council fellow in physics at Harvard.

Havighurst was an assistant professor of chemistry at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) for one year, and in 1928, became assistant professor of physics at the newly created Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin. He remained at the Experimental College for four years before he returned to The Ohio State University as an associate professor of science education and a teacher at the University Laboratory School.

In 1934, Havighurst switched to administration when he began working for the General Education Board (GEB) of the Rockefeller Foundation. He was assistant director for its programs in science, and later for its programs in general education and child study. Havighurst strongly supported research programs in child development at Teachers College, Columbia University, Western Reserve University, and the University of California Berkeley. During his tenure, the experimental education programs in adolescent education conducted by the Progressive Education Association and the American Youth Commission also enjoyed substantial support from the GEB. Due to his influence at the GEB, the academic foundations of the fields of child and adolescent development were established.

When Havighurst joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1941, he began a journey of collaboration with colleagues that resulted in the development of interdisciplinary programs in Human Development. Havighurst’s own academic research, which also was interdisciplinary, ranged from small-town communities to large cross-national studies and from the realms of childhood to old age. His varied interests led to research in the areas of anthropology, sociology, and education. The result was a body of divergent, but related work over the next four decades.

As executive secretary and chair of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Human Development, Havighurst had the opportunity for several multidisciplinary collaborations among academic departments. Havighurst worked with anthropologist Allison Davis on a cross-sectional and longitudinal study of child-rearing practices that demonstrated that social class, rather than race only, was the major factor associated with differences in intellectual and social development. This finding has been replicated many times by other researchers to form a bedrock principle in sociology and education.

Havighurst first delineated developmental tasks for each stage of a person’s life cycle—from birth to old age—in 1948. He characterized developmental tasks as points between a theory of development in which the child develops best if left to complete freedom and a development theory in which the child must learn to become a worthy and productive adult through restraints placed on him by society.

His work was not limited to the study of children. Havighurst redefined the conceptual realm of developmental psychology to include aging and adulthood. In the early 1940s, he collaborated with sociologist Ernest Burgess in studying community work samples of older persons in small cities. This work resulted in the first major books on the sociology and psychology of aging. Through these studies Havighurst and Burgess demonstrated that multiple patterns for successful aging exist, and refuted many popular stereotypes of aging.

Havighurst conducted a 10-year study on how well a cohort of boys and girls performed the tasks of maturing with attention to their social backgrounds and personal characteristics. This study, Growing up in River City, contributed to the understandings of how social class interacts with human development from childhood into adulthood.

Havighurst first became intrigued with cross-national research while teaching at Canterbury University in New Zealand as a visiting Fulbright scholar. He continued to pursue international study for several years in South America, working mainly on social-psychological studies with Brazilian and Argentinean colleagues. While a Fulbright Visiting Professor at the Brazilian Government Center for Educational Research in Rio de Janeiro, Havighurst completed work on Society and Education in Brazil (1965).

Havighurst’s interdisciplinary work affected thought and practice in the fields of sociology, psychology, and education. In 1977, he was recognized by the Society for Research in Child Development for the research he championed in child and adolescent development. He also was cited for extending the study of continuity and change to include adulthood and old age, thereby creating a new conception of human development.

Havighurst’s interdisciplinary work and writing for education has influenced the nature of schooling in the United States. In Human Development and Education (1953), Havighurst extended the concept of developmental tasks to education. In Society and Education (1957), which has been widely used as an education textbook, he addressed factors that influence American education, such as the growth of urban areas and fluctuation in population. A supporter of racial integration, his 1964 survey of the Chicago public schools attracted considerable attention for its plan for desegregation.

Havighurst also was an active public servant. Each year, he was involved in several boards, committees, and advisory panels at local, state, and national levels. He was well known as a civil rights activist from the 1940s through the 1960s and chaired the National Committee for Peaceful Alternatives (to the Atlantic Pact) in 1951. He was President of the Gerontology Society, Chair of the Division of Maturity and Old Age for the American Educational Research Association, and served on the National Planning Committee of the 1971 White House Conference on Aging.

At a banquet to honor him on his 65th birthday, a student pushed a heavy wheelbarrow overflowing with one copy of each of the books and papers that Havighurst had written. Ringing out among the crowd, his own laughter could be heard above the others. Havighurst maintained a full schedule of writing, advising, and lecturing into his mid-80s. Appropriately, a man who so diligently studied human aging and the life of work was an exemplar in his zeal and dedication for the furtherance of knowledge and education.

Contributed by Jennifer Porter, The University of Texas at Austin

Havighurst, R. J. 1953. Human development and education. New York: Longmans, Green.

Havighurst, R. J. 1962. Growing up in River City. New York: J. Wiley.

Havighurst, R. J. 1972. Developmental tasks and education. New York: David McKay Company.

Havighurst, R. J., and J. R. Moreira. 1965. Society and education in Brazil. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Havighurst, R. J., B. L. Neugarten, and J. M. Falk. 1967. Society and education: A book of readings, 3rd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Manaster, G. J., and R. J. Havighurst. 1972. Cross-national research: Social-psychological methods and problems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Neugarten, B. L. 1993. Robert J. Havighurst (1900–1991). American Psychologist 48 (12): 1290-91.

Nock, S. L. 1992. The life-cycle approach to family analysis. In Developmental psychology: An advanced textbook, 3rd ed, ed. M. H. Bornstein and M. E. Lamb, 151–204. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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