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Robert J. Havighurst (1900–1991)

Best known for his conceptualization of human development as mastery of a series of age-related cultural tasks, Robert J. Havighurst was an avid researcher, a prolific writer, and a civil rights activist. As a researcher, he conducted cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of the social, emotional, and moral development of children and adolescents in various American subcultures (including Native Americans) as well as in several other countries. To illustrate his writing proficiency, a student pushed a large wheelbarrow filled with Havighurst's publications into the banquet hall during a celebration of his sixty-fifth birthday. His 1964 survey of the Chicago public schools drew national attention for its farsighted yet controversial plan for school and community integration. Many of the twenty-two recommendations offered by the committee concerned the need for organizational and structural changes in the Chicago public schools. A key recommendation called for extensive decentralization of authority; another, for the creation of the modern day equivalent of "schools-within-schools."

A member of a distinguished academic family, Robert J. Havighurst was born the son of Freeman Alfred Havighurst, who was on the faculty of Lawrence College, and Winifred Weter Havighurst, who had been on the faculty until her marriage. He was the oldest of five children–four boys and one girl–and attended public schools in college towns in Wisconsin and Illinois. Following high school he attended Ohio Wesleyan University, receiving his B.A. degree in 1921. He enrolled at Ohio State University, receiving his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1924. Following receipt of his Ph.D., he went to Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow, studying the structure of the atom and publishing papers in journals of physics and chemistry. He then spent a year on the faculty of chemistry at Miami University.

In 1928, he accepted a position as assistant professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin. He also served as an adviser in the Experimental College there. Largely as a result of his experience with the Experimental College, his interest in the problems of adolescents grew, eventually surpassing his interest in teaching the natural sciences. He left the University of Wisconsin in 1932, taking a faculty position in education at the Ohio State University Laboratory School.

In 1934 he became the assistant director for programs in science education for the General Education Board of the Rockefeller Foundation. It was here, under the guidance of Lawrence Rank, that he became involved in the study of children and adolescents. Within three years, Havighurst became the director of the board. In that role he was instrumental in the funding of research programs in child development at major universities and research centers in the United States. He was also able to provide funds to enable refugee European scholars to resettle in the United States. Among those assisted were Bruno Bettleheim, Peter Blos, Erik Erikson, and Fritz Redl.

In 1941 Havighurst was appointed professor of education and executive secretary of the Committee of Human Development at the University of Chicago. For the next forty years, Havighurst conducted research and wrote on a variety of topics and issues.

From 1948 to 1953 he developed his highly influential theory of human development. The centerpiece of this theory was the developmental task. He defined a developmental task in the following manner:

A development task is a task which arises at or about a certain period in the life of the individual, successful achievement of which leads to his happiness and to success with later tasks, while failure leads to unhappiness in the individual, disapproval by society, and difficulty with later tasks. (1953, p.2)

As a concept development tasks were able to merge the relative influences of nature and nurture. As Havighurst wrote:

Nature lays down wide possibilities in the developing of the human body, and which possibilities shall be realized depends on what the individual learns. This is true even of such crude biological realities as feeding habits and sexual relations, while the more highly social realities of language, economic behavior, and religion are almost completely the product of learning at the hands of society. (1953, p. 1)

To foster development, then, educators had to introduce students to these critical tasks at the "right time." This "right time" was described as the "teachable moment." "When the body is ripe, and society requires, and the self is ready to achieve a certain task, the teachable moment has come" (1953, p. 5).

In the 1950s and 1960s Havighurst directed a decade-long study of middle and old age. The results of this study, combined with his subsequent research, altered conventional wisdom about the aging process. His interest in life-span development continued throughout his life. He studied changes in the sex role behavior of men and women over fifty, the adaptation to the retirement process by male sociologists and psychologists, and alternative work schedules for older workers.

From 1967 through 1971, Havighurst directed the National Study of Indian Education, which was funded by the U.S. Office of Education. Native Americans were involved in planning the study as well as in the field work and data analysis. The results indicated that education for Indian youth across the United States varied widely according to numerous factors such as sources of funding, location, curriculum, faculty, degree of isolation, and cultural differences. Recommendations included finding ways for Indians to have an increased voice in their education and the establishment of a national Commission on Indian Education.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Havighurst focused his attention on the problems of urban education. He conducted a study of public high schools in the forty-five largest cities in the United States, examining educational goals, school structure and organization, staff characteristics, curriculum, student activities, student activism, and school-community relations. He concluded that there was more and deeper segregation and separation of high school students of different socioeconomic and ethnic groups in 1969 to 1970 than there was ten or twenty years before. In 1977, at age seventy-seven, he coedited a book in which he developed a series of policies and practices for the improvement of bigcity schools based on his research.

Havighurst continued to engage in research and writing well into his eighties, publishing six journal articles between 1980 and 1986. In his last published article, "The Challenge: 1985–2000," he argued that the challenge for the future of a democratic society is to develop educational programs that foster development in the areas of race and ethnic relations, civil rights, international relations, and gender role. At age eighty-six, there were still new developmental tasks. And, at age eighty-six, Havighurst was still looking toward the future.


FUCHS, ESTELLE, and HAVIGHURST, ROBERT J. 1973. To Live on This Earth: American Indian Education. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

HAVIGHURST, ROBERT J. 1953. Human Development and Education. New York: McKay.

HAVIGHURST, ROBERT J. 1970. A Profile of the Large-City High School. Washington, DC: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

HAVIGHURST, ROBERT J. 1986. "The Challenge: 1985–2000." Educational Forum 50:307–308.

LEVINE, DANIEL U., and HAVIGHURST, ROBERT J., eds. 1977. The Future of Big-City Schools: Desegregation Policies and Magnet Alternatives. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.

NUCCI, LARRY P. 1997. "Havighurst, Robert J." In Biographical Dictionary of Psychology, ed. Noel Sheehy, Anthony J. Chapman, and Wendy Conroy. New York: Routledge.


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