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A Plea for Humility in the Self-Assessment of Our Knowledge

Reflections from a 96 year old former Social Worker

Mr. Harry Finkelstein (Middle), Woodbourne’s Executive Director from 1957-1966. Mr. Finkelstein was responsible for integrating Woodbourne’s population. He has published several journal articles and at 95, submitted another to be published! via Facebook

One does not have to be a serious student of history to know there was a time when people knew that the Earth was flat and the center of the universe.  Some even believed that the Chicago Cubs would never win a World Series.

Today, we know better. In February 1966, after 10 years as Executive Director of the Woodbourne Children’s Center in Baltimore, a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescents, I resigned and entered the bureaucratic world of the Children’s Bureau, at that time a part of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).

Today, long retired from HEW and in my tenth decade of life, I find myself looking back at my time as Executive Director, and mulling over some of my positive accomplishments (e.g., racial integration of staff and population); some things I probably should have done differently; and some I probably should not have done at all.

Unless the field of social work has changed significantly in the past 50-plus years, there are probably a number of my former colleagues who are now analyzing these words in an effort to determine why a 96-year-old man would:

1. assume that he had anything of value to impart to his youthful colleagues and
2. invest the time and effort to do so

As I get older, I increasingly believe that age deserves respect, I seek the reader’s indulgence – just for a moment – to veer into what may appear to be unrelated territory, but which I feel would be helpful in proving a point – or at least drawing a parallel.  I promise you: At the end, all loose ends will be tied together.

The unrelated territory to which I refer relates to supermarkets – more specifically, the publications found in supermarkets.  Anyone who has been to one recently must be aware of the number of publications arrayed at the checkout counters.  The best known (most notorious?) of these is probably the National Enquirer.  Each week, these publications carry a trove of stories that follow a predictable pattern.  There is usually a report of an unidentified flying object spotted over New Jersey (or was it West Virginia?) and a story about a child who was reared by animals.  In addition, each issue usually features a diet.

One week the diet may simply be called that – The Diet.  The following week, however, there may be an Improved Diet, followed a week later by a Superlative Diet, and eventually by the Ultimate Diet.  This proliferation of eating recommendations begs the question: If this week’s diet is inferior to those to be published in the ensuing four, five, 10 (pick a number) weeks, what does that say about the current diet?  A diet that can be improved week after week can’t have been very good to begin with.

What has all this got to do with the residential treatment of children?

During my tenure at the Woodbourne Children’s Center, I participated in a number of conferences that produced some very firm recommendations.  Some of these were commonsense; others required a leap of faith, possibly an “aha!” moment. I recall one recommendation made by the psychiatric consultant at my own agency.  He suggested that at each meal, the cook prepare 30 percent more food than the children would consume.  At the time, we did not have a name for this therapeutic approach, but in retrospect “saturation therapy” would probably be appropriate.

I seldom ignored a recommendation by our consultant, but I did not implement this particular one, primarily because I abhor seeing food wasted.  I understood the rationale behind the consultant’s thinking – that children who have been deprived in so many areas of their lives for so long a time have greater needs than does the average child – but “saturation therapy” did not seem the way to go.  Maybe the efficacy, or lack of efficacy, of this form of treatment will become evident in years to come. If saturation therapy is currently an accepted form of treatment, I plead ignorance because of my 50-year absence from the field, and I beg your indulgence.

What point am I trying to make?

I can best answer this question with another question.  How many social workers have left conferences imbued with the feeling that they now really know the truth, only to learn in subsequent sessions that new truths had emerged?

There are things we don’t know and things we don’t know that we don’t know.  What are some of the things we can agree on?  No one would dispute a child’s need for food, clothing, and shelter.  Children need time to work and time to play.  They need a set of rules that are understandable and equally enforced.  But will a residential center that provides each child a monetary allowance twice as large as that of another center have more successful outcomes?  I don’t think this has been demonstrated.

I mean no disrespect when I compare the efforts of professional social workers, particularly in the area of residential treatment, with those of tabloid sensationalists.  I am not suggesting that social workers did not know anything when I was in the trenches 50 years ago or that they have learned nothing since that time.  I only caution that we cannot know everything.  I am certain there are some aspects of residential treatment that are as true today as they were 50 years ago.  But “some” does not mean “all.”  My plea is simply that we never become overwhelmed by our own perceived brilliance.

The take-home message: 

We can’t not do anything until we’re absolutely certain of everything.  But, a little modesty never hurt anyone.  After a lifespan of 96 years and an almost half-century out of the field of social work, I plead for some humility in the self-assessment of our knowledge.  In brief, we may not know as much as we think we do.

Written by Harry Finkelstein


Harry Finkelstein was Executive Director of the Woodbourne Children’s Center in Baltimore from 1957-1966. He received his M.S. (Social Work) from Columbia University in 1953, M.B.A. from the City College of New York in 1950, and B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1942.

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