Why History of Psychology?

Poet and civil rights activist James Baldwin wrote:

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

If any of us wish to understand ourselves,

our nation, or our world, we must, as Baldwin wrote, understand our history. What is writ large in society is also writ small in the sciences. So to understand Psychology, we must understand its history.

I discovered my own passion for the history of psychology almost at the same time I discovered my passion for psychology. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the 1970s, I loved my psychology classes. Being the geek or nerd (at my age I am not sure I understand the distinction) that I was, I also read lots of psychology books outside of class. By my last semester in 1976, I took a History of Psychology course as an elective. The many subfields of psychology that I had explored in my different classes now started to come together. I glimpsed, vaguely, the connections between psychology’s past and present, between the field of psychology and the broader society.

To say I discovered my passion for psychology…

and its history is to use a misleading metaphor. More accurately, I was very interested in these topics, and cultivated that interest, first in my courses and reading. After a three year break from university, two years of which I spent working in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer, I returned to graduate school to study developmental psychology, an area of psychology which examines the history of individuals and the historical forces that shape us. While studying developmental psychology, I also studied the history of the field.

When I began a tenure-track position in 1985 I was assigned the history of psychology course. Excited to share my love for the history of psychology with my students, I ran into a brick wall. Most of them had no interest in history, much less the history of psychology. While they were very interested in psychology, they did not understand why they had to know its history. “How boring!” one of my first students shared, “Why do we have to study this history stuff?”

Teaching a subject has a wonderful effect on the teacher —

It deepens and clarifies knowledge and leads to a lifetime of learning. Over the 35 years I have taught history of psychology, I used a variety of the standard textbooks, primary sources, and many active learning strategies such as role playing, debates, and demonstrations. Many of my students discovered their own interest in the history of psychology and glimpsed some of the underlying connections between their various courses on the specialized fields of psychology. The problem, I realized, was not in the history of psychology, but in our textbooks and pedagogies.

Around 2005 I started to write and then use my own textbook. Most history of psychology books use E.G. Boring’s History of Psychology as a model. Boring’s text had a strong political agenda, to show the ancient roots of psychology in philosophy and to avoid as much as possible contemporary developments. It was a work both of impressive scholarship and political propaganda—an effort to legitimize the field in the eyes of other scholars and the public at large.

Boring’s model,

emphasizing the roots of the science in ancient philosophy and the early years of the science, hides more than it reveals and alienates the present from the past. Students respond quiet naturally with boredom and a feeling of disconnection from their studies. Connections: A history of psychology as science takes a different approach. It isn’t Boring any more!

While not ignoring the roots of the science of psychology in philosophy and especially in the scientific advances of the 19th century, the text focuses on the birth of the science of psychology (traditionally dated as 1879) to the end of the 20th century. Students also learn about the history of the specialized fields in psychology that came to dominate the field after World War 2.

But wait! There is more.

The key figures in history of psychology are presented as real live humans, with warts and all, in their particular historical context. The interesting and colorful lives they lead, filled often with heroism or scandal, come to life. Broader issues are also explored: the triple marginalization of women and people of color, the connection of psychology to corporations and the military, the influence of psychology on broad cultural trends, such as sexual liberation, and on pop culture.

The book has grown and evolved over the last 15 years based on student feedback and my own ever evolving understanding. While still a work in progress, I want to now share it with a broader audience. My students over the last five years report that the book gives them a new understanding and a deeper love of psychology. I hope it does the same for you.

I dedicate this book to my wife and daughter.

Both attorneys, they each endured countless hours of my rambling on about some exciting (to me) tidbit of history. While their eyes glazed over occasionally, they most often put up with my passion with bemused kindness. I owe an incredible debt to my history of psychology students over the last 35 years. The book owes something to each and everyone of them. I hope some of them are still interested in the history of psychology, and that this book helps cultivate that interest. Finally, my colleague at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, especially those in the Psychology Department, have provided me with an intellectual home that was both supportive and stimulating. I could not have asked for a better community of scholars.

Connections: A History of Psychology as Science