A Balance Between Nature and Nurture In the debate between nature and nurture, journalist and social activist Gloria Steinem believes we are asking the wrong question. She says we are an unpredictable mix of both, a mix that creates endless possibilities for a better future.

A Balance Between Nature and Nurture

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Unidentified Man #1: I believe in the power of love.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe that a generation of young people...

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe it deeply and sincerely.

Unidentified Man #3: I believe in the importance of passing this knowledge on.

Unidentified Woman #2: I believe that everyone wants to love and be loved.

Unidentified Man #4: All of these add up to my belief in the dignity of the individual.

Unidentified Man #5: I believe in people.

Unidentified Man #6: This I believe.


In the 1950s, the radio series This I Believe featured several activists for women's causes. Today our essay comes from one of the leading advocates of women's rights of this era, Gloria Steinem. She's a writer and the founder of Ms. Magazine. Here's our series curator, independent producer Jay Allison.

JAY ALLISON reporting:

Gloria Steinem's mother was a newspaperwoman and her grandmother a suffragette, so her path in journalism and activism was perhaps preordained. Heredity aside, her course has been guided by a complex set of experiences. Her current philosophy recognizes that complexity. These days she says she is guided by the principle of balance, which by its nature does not align with one side or another. Here's Gloria Steinem with her essay for This I Believe.


Is it nature or is it nurture, heredity or society? In that great debate of our time, conservatives lean toward the former and liberals towards the latter. But I believe both are asking the wrong question. I believe it's nature and nurture, and this is why.

I didn't go to school until I was 12 or so. My parents thought that traveling in a house trailer was as enlightening as sitting in a classroom. So I escaped being taught some of the typical lessons of my generation; for instance, that this country was discovered when the first white man set foot on it; that boys and girls were practically different species; and that Europe deserved more textbook space than Africa and Asia combined. Instead I grew up seeing with my own eyes, following my curiosity, falling in love with books and growing up mostly around grown-ups, which, except for the books, was the way kids were raised for most of human history.

Needless to say, school hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn't prepared for gender obsessions, race and class complexities or the new-to-me idea that war and male leadership were a part of human nature. Soon I gave in and became an adolescent hoping for approval and trying to conform. It was a stage that lasted through college.

I owe the beginnings of rebirth to living in India for a couple of years, where I fell in with a group of Gandhians, and then I came home to the Kennedys, the civil rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam. But most women, me included, stayed in our traditional places until we began to gather, listen to each other's stories and learn from shared experience. Soon a national and international feminist movement was challenging the idea that what happened to men was political but what happened to women was cultural; that the first could be changed but the second could not.

I had the feeling of coming home, of awakening from an inauthentic life. It wasn't as if I thought my self-authority was more important than external authority, but it wasn't less important either. We are both communal and uniquely ourselves, not either-or.

Since then I've spent decades listening to kids before and after social roles hit. Faced with some inequality, the younger ones say, `It's not fair.' It's as if there were some primordial expectation of empathy and cooperation that helps the species survive. But by the time kids are teen-agers, social pressures have either nourished or starved this expectation. I suspect that their natural cry for fairness or any whisper of it that survives is the root from which all social justice movements grow.

So I no longer believe the conservative message that children are naturally selfish and destructive creatures who need civilizing by hierarchies or painful controls. On the contrary, I believe that hierarchy and painful controls create destructive people. And I no longer believe the liberal message that children are blank slates on which society can write anything. On the contrary, I believe a unique core self is born into every human being, the result of millennia of environment and heredity combined in an unpredictable way that could never happen before or again. The real answer is a balance between nature and nurture.

What would happen if we listened to children as much as we talk to them? Or what would happen if even one generation were raised with respect and without violence? I believe we have no idea what might be possible on this spaceship Earth.

ALLISON: Gloria Steinem with her essay for This I Believe. Steinem said in crafting this essay the words came slowly--she compares her writing speed to tombstone engraving--but that composing her beliefs was a satisfying exercise.

If you would like to undertake that exercise, please visit our Web site, npr.org, where you can find information on submitting your writing and hear all the essays in our series. For This I Believe, I'm Jay Allison.

SIEGEL: Next Monday on "Morning Edition," an essay from writer Rick Moody.

(Funding credit)

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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