What lies in the future of teaching the history of psychology? *





Gira Bhatt and Randal G. Tonks
Department of
Camosun College


The Context

            Over a decade ago, when we were graduate students, we made a mistake (!) of pondering over the "big picture" of psychology.  Before we knew it, we had the bug in our system and we were obsessed with psychology's history, the nature of the discipline, the philosophy of science, Danziger…and so on.  While we riveted in our obsession, we also suffered.  Our fellow graduate students made snide remarks about us, and called us "those theoretical types".  Some faculty members also drew humor from our interest.  But we survived.  Graduate school sure makes you a hardy bunch! 

When we got jobs and got to teach the undergraduate history of psychology courses, we felt secure and delighted in the thought that we had finally "arrived".  After all Guru Danziger had assured us of a promising future for the history of psychology.  However, beginning around 1994 we witnessed a series of events at two psychology departments which shook us from our security zone.  We noticed that the retired history of psychology positions were not being replaced.  We noticed that the undergraduate courses on the history of psychology were "cut" or "reduced" or no longer "required".  We observed that the value of the history of psychology courses was being discounted.  We talked to some esteemed historians of psychology who were retiring and learned about their lost "ideological war fares" within their psychology departments.  We began to wonder if these were random happenings or an indication of a gloomy future for the teachers of psychology's history. Are the undergraduate courses on the history of psychology a case of "here today, gone tomorrow"?  It is within this pedagogical context that our paper was inspired.

Keeping within Danziger's (1994) analytical frame for the discipline, our attempt here is to trace the origins, trends, and threats to the undergraduate courses on the history of psychology.  Along the path of this exploration, we also compiled some course-related numbers as well as comments of the teachers of the history of psychology from across Canadian universities.  Finally, this historical examination allowed for some reflections on the pedagogical status and the future of these courses.


History of Psychology and the Undergraduate Curricula

            Danziger (1994) observed that whereas the departments of physics, chemistry and other natural science disciplines do not offer an undergraduate course on the history of their respective disciplines, psychology departments routinely do.  Danziger (1994) emphasized that this is largely due to the nature of the discipline and "a lingering belief that the history of psychology has a role within the discipline of psychology" (p. 467). This belief seems to have persevered over many decades now, as psychology departments across the continent not only routinely offer courses on the history of psychology, but often make it a "requirement" for a major (Fuchs & Viney, 2000).  We conducted a web-based and e-mail survey of the undergraduate curricula of the history of psychology courses offered at 44 Canadian universities.  Our observations supported this (see Table 1 and Table 2).

Tracing the Pedagogical Origin of the History of Psychology

            Interestingly, the earliest books on the history of psychology published were "textbooks" written for didactic purpose (Danziger, 1994).  The year 1912 marked these beginnings with three publications:  B. Rand's "Classical psychologists: Selections illustrating psychology from Anaxagoras to Wundt", G. Stanley Hall's "The founders of modern psychology" and G. S. Brett's first of the three massive volumes "A history of psychology" (Incidentally, Brett was a Canadian philosopher-psychologist)   A year later in 1913, J. M. Baldwin published his two small volumes which are considered to be the first American textbook on the history of psychology in the 20th century. (Hilgard, Leary, & McGuire's, 1991).  A discussion of the textbooks of the history of psychology would, of course remain deficient without the mention of the famous E.G. Boring who wrote the popular "A history of experimental psychology" in 1929.  In the same year Garden Murphy published his "Historical introduction to modern psychology", and Pillsbury published "The history of psychology". 

Given the publication timeframe of these textbooks, and their didactic purpose, it would be reasonable to conclude that psychologists were discussing the history of psychology with their students as early as 1912.  What may have triggered this trend?  Why did early psychologists take interest in the history of psychology right from its inception in the early 20th century?

Upon examining the larger picture of the discipline at the time -between 1912 & 1929- when these publications began to emerge, it is interesting to note that this period also marked the dominance of the natural science status of psychology.  In fact, Boring's 1929 history textbook has been viewed as an attempt on his part to defend the pure scientific nature of psychology from its "applied" sibling.  As Graham Richards (1996) contends, these early books on the history of psychology were written because of the pressure that was experienced by the discipline "to prove its scientific credentials" (p. 2).

Since then, however, the discipline of psychology has undergone many renovations.  It has grown and diversified exponentially.  As well, it has witnessed many trends, "isms" and fads, raising doubts and debates about its status as a singular discipline (e.g., Bevan, 1982; Matarazzo, 1987; Kimble, 1989; Furedy, Craik, Adair, & Conway, 1991; Conway, 1992; Wand, 1993).  Amidst these trends and continual growth of the discipline, the courses on the history of psychology have retained their place within psychology curricula across the continent, and in many parts of the world.  APA accreditation, for example, requires that psychology students should get exposed to the historical roots of the discipline (see Table 2).

The Rationale for Teaching Psychology's History

The issue as to why the history of psychology course gained and retained an esteemed status within the undergraduate course structure is worth examining. Michael Wertheimer (1980) critically summarized various reasons and justifications provided in the prefaces of various books on psychology's history.  His first observation was that there seems to be a taken -for-granted attitude among the authors of psychology's history.  We looked at the prefaces of the history of psychology textbooks published in the '90s and came to a similar conclusion.  As Wertheimer observed,

None of these writers … bother to specify in a preface or introduction why they believe study of the history of psychology is worthwhile.  There even are prolific contributors of the history of psychology (such as Josef Brozek) who have not bothered to say at length in print why they believe the history of psychology is a topic worth pursuing.  By taking its value for granted, these scholars imply that it must be self-evident to any thinking person.  Devoting space to justification of the endevour might even suggest that there might be some doubt about it in the first place!
(p. 5).

There were a few books that did list reasons for the study of psychology's history,  which can be summarized as  i) it  helps avoid the past errors and repetitions, ii) it provides a fertile source of new ideas, iii) it may offer resolutions of current problems, iv) it provides a healthy dose of humility and tolerance, v) it improves the general education of the psychologists, and vi) "simply because…"- everyone enjoys a good story; it is inherently interesting. 

In addition, Wertheimer (1980) also examined the value of teaching psychology's history from a disciplinarian perspective and highlighted three:   

1.      "It has been a tradition" - a legacy since the Titchener era. Wertheimer (1980) calls it a "ritual" which is akin to an initiation rite that all teachers of psychology must take a course on the history of psychology, and in turn it implies; "do unto others as others have done unto us" (p. 6).

2.      "Look at our illustrious ancestors" or a "gee-whiz" approach. Wertheimer (1980) calls this a form of self-legitimization, and points out, as we noted earlier, that Boring wrote his history textbook to legitimize the "pure" against the "applied" psychology.

3.      It strengthens one's job prospects.  Wertheimer (1980) observed that regardless of one's specialization, adding a history of psychology course to one's teaching credentials raises one's marketability, since the course on the history of psychology is an integral part of the undergraduate psychology curriculum. 

Nature of the Discipline:  Locating the Pedagogical Status of Psychology's History

At a larger perspective, these assorted reasons and justifications may be brought together under one umbrella: the nature of the discipline.  Is psychology a natural science or a human science?  Is psychology a singular and coherent discipline or is it a house divided?  These two issues are of great significance in understanding the status of the history of psychology course. 

Kuhn (1970) suggested that "consensus", as a defining characteristic of normal science, is lacking in psychology.  This lack of a "normal science" status for psychology is also reflected in the ways in which the history of psychology is being taught.  Tracing the ancient roots is one of the favored ways of teaching the history of psychology as these roots are relatively easy to order chronologically.  First there was the golden age of the Greek scholarship, then came the Dark Ages, then came the Renaissance and the British empiricism, followed by the German physiologists.  The neatly ordered chronology however, is lost upon entering the 20th century as diverging fields began to emerge all over.  The major three distinct beginnings of psychology as Leahey (1980) calls it, grew simultaneously.  Wundt and his volunteeristic psychology of consciousness, Darwin and James and their pragmatic functional approach, Freud and his psychoanalytical psychology of the unconscious, were born and raised within the same time frame.  Also, fields within fields, specializations within specializations dominated the growth of psychology.  Importantly, this growth has not been linear, but rather scattered in varied directions. 

The goal of cohesion and consensus within the discipline has thus remained only elusive.  As a human science, psychology is comprised of "fields that are structured in an agonistic manner, fields which are characterized by deep divisions between alternative schools of thought" (Danziger (1994, p. 471).  Danziger (1994) states that even the historiography of psychology has changed due to cultural critiques that have arisen (from around the globe) against the "American hegemony in psychology" (p. 476).  He also states that "modern psychology is returning to the position from which it began: a polycentric position in which there are diverse but intercommunicating centres of psychological work that reflect a diversity of local conditions and traditions" (p. 477).

Beyond the divisions, sections and centres of psychology that are seen across CPA, APA, , and elsewhere, the division between natural and human science perspectives has played a major role in academic divorce and separation (Tonks, 1997; Wand, 1993; Conway, 1992; Leahey, 1991; Danziger, 1990; Staats, 1987).  The identity crisis of the discipline dates back over 100 or so years since it was first proclaimed that psychology was scientific.  Leahey (2001), for example, points out that American psychology has been fraught with debates and "walkouts" over the appropriate nature of our discipline as a "pure" science or an applied profession.  In Canada, this too has been a dominate theme since inception.  However, beginning with the 1955 MacLeod Report, more intensive debate has emerged over whether or not we are or should be pure or professional (Wand, 1993; Conway, 1992; Danziger, 1990).  Historically, this controversy over whether psychology is "pure" or "applied", which embroiled Titchener and subsequently his protégé E. G. Boring, is still well and alive with us today.

What is the implication of the lack of the disciplinary cohesion and consensus?  Danziger (1994) has contended that the very fact that the discipline lacks cohesion and has remained filled with divisions has necessitated the study of the history of psychology within the discipline.  It follows that as long as there are "isms" and systems and theories, undergraduate psychology students will need a course on the history of psychology since it is the only course that would put all these isms into a larger "scientific" perspective.

Does the lack of cohesion and consensus then ensure the presence of the history of psychology courses at an undergraduate level?  Perhaps not, as doubts have been raised by some scholars.  For example, upon reflecting on the nature of the discipline today, Leahey (2000) the past president of the Division 26 of APA (History of Psychology) observed that in contemporary psychology, there seem to be no major "isms" and no "big pictures" anymore that students need to know.  Leahey has further appealed to the Division 26 members to ponder over the need to revise course content in view of the rapidly changing discipline.  Citing the changing ethos of psychology from that of the 1950s and 60s when it had a renaissance, he further suggests that the canonical approach to education, where the history of psychology is seen as being essential to the Bildung or character development of our students, may no longer be relevant.  We need to decide among the alternatives of defending the status quo, changing the content but not the required necessity of it, or changing the requirement, and possibly also the content of it.

The Problem and the Threat to the Teaching of Psychology's History

Consequences of the shifting and proliferation of contradictory perspectives on the larger discipline have filtered into the pedagogical domains.  As such there are two major challenges involved in teaching of psychology's history today.  One is to decide on the direction and the content of the course, and the other, a more serious one is to justify its relevance to one's colleagues and decision makers in a psychology department.  A related issue pertains to the hiring of an expert to teach the course.  .

The Direction and the Content of the Course

Danziger (1994) suggested that the traditional content of the history of psychology needed to change from a 'celebratory' 'insider' view to a more critical 'outsider' perspective.  He points out that the positivist 'Whig' approach to history has largely been celebratory where history merely plays a supportive role for current dogma and ideologies of psychology.  Rather, he contends, the history of psychology needs to offer a critical historiography of the discipline, one that more typically arises through a social or human science recognition of the social context of disciplinary activity.

Rappard (1997) responded to Danziger's initial concerns over the future of the history of psychology by suggesting that the "insider" perspective is not so bad after all.  He contended that by giving our history away to professional historians (critical outsiders) we are likely to have an irrelevant history, one that would look more like philosophy than psychology. (Rappard, 1998).  Not necessarily being against critical historiography, Rappard indicated that the question of 'moral distance' also arises as to what the appropriate distance on the 'outside' would be to be acceptable for the production of critical histories.  Danziger (1997), indicates that a critical historiography is essential if psychology is ever to make a significant contribution to the field of human understanding.  The essence of the problem is that historical amateurism is abound in psychology where:

we find histories that are no more than literature reviews extended backward in time, we find story telling substituting for history, we find the cult of 'anticipators' and the awarding of good and bad marks on the basis of some current scientific orthodoxy, we find gross insensitivity to historical context, we find the formulation of 'timeless' problems in the language of the present, we find the construction of spurious lines of ancestry, we find the mythology of progress. What historian of psychology could feel smug in the face of such shortcomings?

(Danziger, 1997, p. 108).

Dehue (1998) suggests that this debate between Danziger and Rappard lies in the notions of rigour vs. relevance.  She provides an account that conceptualizes both Danziger and Rappard as "community historians" who each have their own contributions to make.  Thus she indicates that a "contextualist" approach would serve to bring both views together enabling each one their own voice.  Rappard (1998) rejects this interpretation of Dehue's, where she opposes contextualism with presentism, indicating his acceptance of both.  Rather he concludes with Dehue's point that historians are "commissioned" to write histories close to contemporary views as a dangerous caricature of presentism and his "household" view of history.  Finally, Danziger (1998) responds by indicating that the "occasional contextualism" that he ascribes to Dehue is not sufficient whereby there is a deep and essential need to recognize the situated nature of the historian and historical studies.  He states:

No matter how hard one tries, one cannot step outside history in order to write about it.  Every historian occupies a particular place in a historical world and can only describe the historical process as it appears from the perspective afforded by that place. ... That is why history will always be rewritten."  (1998, p. 670).

            In summary, we see that there is considerable interest over whether or not psychology should include a (canonical) history of the discipline, and if so what that would look like.  Danziger (1994) indicates that there has been a decline in the "insider" histories over the past 40 years, however, recent events suggest that the current trend involves a decline in the critical historiography as well. 

The De-valuing of the Undergraduate Course on Psychology's History

            Danziger (1994) made a very convincing case that the lack of a natural science status for psychology combined with the "isms" and divisions within the discipline would make the study of the history of psychology indispensable.  This optimism is comforting, but at the extreme, there seems to be a trend emerging to discount the value of the history of psychology courses altogether.  In a less extreme, but equally of crisis fashion, the critical historiographic approach is being challenged and squeezed aside by curricular changes based upon ideological warfare. 

We witnessed this ideological warfare at two universities, which took several forms.  Among them were:  i) not replacing the retired "history of psychology" faculty, ii) hiring "external" faculty to teach the history of psychology course, iii) scrapping the history of psychology courses as a requirement for major at an undergraduate level, iv) not offering any history of psychology course at the graduate level, and v) shortening the credits assigned to the course. 

We briefly present a case study of one university as an illustration:

The Case of Gradual Disappearance

·        In the mid 1980s there were five faculty members who taught history of psychology at the undergraduate level.  History of psychology courses were offered at the 2nd,  3rd, and 4th year levels.

·        During the early 1990s three of these people retired and no new faculty were hired to replace them. 

·        Also during this time a graduate student who had been trained by two long standing historians of psychology was hired to teach the history and systems course as well as the honours seminar.  This student, who had been influenced by Danziger's (1990) Constructing the Subject, introduced it as an essential part of the curriculum.  Others soon followed and even the senior member of the department who had just previously taken on the history of psychology (generally from a celebratory perspective) took notice and began his own "conversion" to the critical historiography

·        During the mid 1990s a graduate course on the history of psychology had been established which filled quickly the first time by those who had great interest in it, but without departmental support the course has not since been offered, due to "a lack of enrollment".  (It was not a required course as CPA & APA accreditation insist).

·        Soon the rumblings began with the goals to remove the honours seminar from being a required course.  The fourth year seminar course (which had become the single greatest source of critical psychology in the undergraduate program) is now no longer required by honors students and has become merely an elective.

·        As for the faculty teaching history of psychology there are currently only two, and soon to be only one as one of them is retiring this year.  This tenured professor has been clearly told that his position is not going to be replaced.  He has since reported that he has given up the battle to keep history as a canonical set of courses. 

·        The former graduate student left to find more suitable employment elsewhere.

·         Currently one "external" faculty member has taken over some of the teaching duties.

Around the same time, a scenario was unfolding at another university mirroring these events. An esteemed historian of psychology nearing his retirement in the 1990s faced a growing antagonism towards his year-long history course.  In a personal conversation he conveyed with sadness and some bitterness that the course would stay alive only as long as he was in the department.  Indeed, as soon as he retired, his position disappeared.  As well, his year-long course was cut into half.  A young faculty member with interest in the "cognition" area of psychology was assigned to take over.  As well, an "external", a post-doctoral fellow with a doctorate in philosophy, has been now hired to teach psychology's history to undergraduate students. 

The implications of the reduction in courses and disappearance of some of the faculty positions are already being felt.  The new PhDs who specialize in the field of history of psychology seem to experience greater challenges and frustration in finding a university job.  Katalin Dzinas (1995), for example, in her tribute to Kurt Danziger reflected that, whereas Kurt Danziger represents a privileged voice, in that he had tenure, and was someone who turned to history later in his career, and only after achieving full professorship. New PhDs do not see a favorable career future in the history of psychology.  As Dzinas (1995) expressed her worries:

We worry whether we will be able to secure a job as historians of psychology… None of us wish to work as closet historians, pretending at all times to be something we are not and doing research on problems in which we are not particularly interested…We worry that   we may not be able to secure grant money to fund our research… We might not have the opportunity to supervise students who wish to work in this area. (P. 33)

One senior faculty member teaching history who has advocated the critical approach, indicated that he wished to remain "off the record" for fear of reprisal from his colleagues.  However he did reveal that he had been told by one of the "backroom architects" of these changes that the main reason for "getting rid" of the courses presenting critical historiography is that they "would not enable him to do the kind of psychology that he would like to do."  This is because students had become too critical and he could not convince them that his type of psychology was worth doing.  This attitude is reflected in a recent book review from JHBS that indicates a weariness of the critical approach where "biographers amplify private faults of a scientist and neglect his or her contributions to the history of ideas" (Rilling, 1998, p. 390)

What might be more interesting than the fact that history has been reduced to fewer courses and faculty, is the rationale behind these changes.  The official story is that such changes will make the department "more competitive" against other programmes nationally and internationally, however, unofficially informants have indicated that it is a positivist backlash against the critical historiography that had emerged through the 1990s.  It is also of great interest that not only did the history of psychology courses witness a reduction in their canonical role in undergraduate education, but that other areas (notably statistics and measurement courses) witnessed an increase in their canonical role as required courses

Dehue (1997) also echoes this view when she states "it is my grounded impression that [critical] historians rubbing against psychologists' shoulders are more likely to evoke their irritation than their sympathy" (p. 659).  Only time will tell, but Danziger's vision of the future of history of psychology appears to be in peril, ironically due in part to the success of his own work. 



Danziger's conviction based on his analytical scrutiny and profound insight has assured us that given the "isms" and sharp divisions within the field, history of psychology will retain its anchoring status.   However, this is the "critical history" or historiography that Danziger has talked about, and it has led to a wave of new scholarship in the field.  However, what we have observed is that at the undergraduate level, the exciting historiographic research does not make a headway.  The textbooks seem to ignore these research findings, and the instructors, a large number of whom tend to be either "non-expert" or "external" continue with the "celebratory" whiggish account of psychology's history.  Amidst this, the self-acclaimed "hard-core scientists" within psychology departments continually discount the value of undergraduate courses on psychology's history. We have witnessed the backlash that Dehue.(1997) commented on..  Several years ago, when our section organized a symposium on "post-positivism", some of our esteemed colleagues sarcastically commented that just because a bunch of the “theoretical types” declare a death, does not mean that positivism is dead.  It was further added that they would plan a rejoinder titled "Positivism strikes back"!!

It seems to us that the more that historiography has gained, the more it seems to have lost at the pedagogical level.  Historiography will likely continue to prosper, but we are not so optimistic about its pedagogical future.



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Table 1

Undergraduate History of Psychology Across Canadian Universities

Total Number of Psychology Departments


Total Number of "Regular" Faculty


Number of Faculty Listing History of Psychology as an
Area of Research Interest


The Number of "History" Faculty at
York Psychology (Highest)

(13% )

Number of Departments with No "History" Interested Faculty



Table 2

Undergraduate History of Psychology Across Canadian Universities


Number of Departments offering at least One

History of Psychology Course


Number of Departments where History of Psychology
is a "required" course for Major and/or Honors


12 (out of 20)



* Paper presented to the History and Philosophy of Psychology Section of the Canadian Psychological    Association annual meeting, June 10, 2001, Calgary, Alberta

* Paper published in the History and Philosophy of Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 14 (1), 2002.

[1] N=41.  No Web info was available on faculty research interest for three departments: Trinity Western University, University of Manitoba, University of New Brunswick.

[2] Out of a total of 115 psychology faculty.

[3] N=41

[4] N=43