Back to the classroom…and beyond

A comment on Bhatt and Tonks*


Alexandra Rutherford

Dept. of Psychology

York University


In “What lies in the future of teaching the history of psychology?” Gira Bhatt and Randal Tonks present a brief survey of the current status of the history of psychology course in the Canadian university undergraduate curriculum.  They interpret these data, along with some of their first-hand experiences, to suggest that the future of teaching the history of psychology is indeed a grim one.  They also propose, somewhat provocatively, that critical history - although it was the approach that attracted them to the field as graduate students - may now be responsible for what they see as the de-valuing of the history course by fellow faculty members and the administrative “powers that be”, labeling this the “positivist backlash against the critical historiography that had emerged through the 1990s” (Bhatt & Tonks, p. 8, this issue). 

As a new faculty member in the History and Theory of Psychology graduate program at York University, I share many of Bhatt and Tonks’ concerns about the future of the history of psychology course.  On a strictly personal level, it is easy to become discouraged by the lack of enthusiasm of fellow faculty members toward the history of psychology.  It is somewhat frustrating to be called upon not only to teach, publish, and serve, but also to defend the fundamental value of these activities when the subject matter is historical, not quantitative, and the method critical, not experimental.  I have certainly encountered these challenges in my first year as a faculty member at York; I was unexpectedly faced with making a case for the continuation of the undergraduate history of psychology course not soon after I arrived.  Because of budgetary concerns and the low course enrollment (the course is now an elective in the undergraduate curriculum), it seemed as though the future of York’s history of psychology course might be in jeopardy.  However, in the spirit of the maxim “the best defense is a strong offence” let me offer some proactive thoughts on these issues.

Why teach the history of psychology?

As Bhatt and Tonks point out, the answers to this question have been discussed before, with typical justifications including those used to support the value of historical inquiry generally (avoid past errors, source of new ideas, etc.), and the [celebratory] history of psychology specifically (it has been a tradition, serves to self-legitimize, etc.).  They also highlight Danziger’s position that the [critical] history of psychology will be indispensable to the field because the internal tensions and subsequent fractionation of the discipline require contextual, historical, and critical interpretations to help provide the “big picture.”  I happen to agree with all of these points, but realize they may not resonate  strongly with non-historian colleagues who may be just as eager to see the history of psychology (celebratory, critical, or otherwise) unceremoniously exported to other departments or programs.  Given, however, that my colleagues do not occupy the seats in my classroom, I was eager to hear from my students why they wanted to learn about the history of psychology. 

As I neared the end of my first term of teaching at York, highly conscious of decreasing course enrollments in history and looming budgetary constraints, I asked the students in my history of psychology class to fill out an informal survey in addition to the requisite course evaluations.  I asked them, “What was your original reason for taking this course?”.  After the top-ranked “I needed a course to fit my schedule,” the most frequent reasons could be summarized as follows:

•to get an overview of the field

•to put the field in historical perspective

•to get a background/foundation for other psychology courses

•to learn about the social and historical context of the field

•to understand why we view psychology as we do today

These seemed to me like important and compelling motivations that at least superficially reflect a “big picture” justification for the course, despite Leahey’s recent suggestion that psychology has become too fractionated even to be considered a single discipline.  Admittedly, this assessment of students’ motivation was gathered at the end of a class that emphasized a contextual, relativist, and critical approach.  Students’ responses to this question may have been unconsciously influenced by what they got, as opposed to what they were hoping for.  However, the positive nature of almost all of the feedback about the course suggested that this was a satisfying and useful approach for most students. 

Although one cannot read too much into such a small-scale endeavor, I tend to disagree with Bhatt and Tonks that critical historiography sounds a death knell for pedagogy.  I believe there is a place for critical history and that this place can be carved out despite what Bhatt and Tonks identify as rumblings about “those theoretical types” among fellow faculty members.  From a purely pragmatic perspective, course evaluations and enrollments speak for themselves.  Teachers of the history of psychology must create a demand for their product from students, even if they feel that the value of learning history is self-evident.  Many seasoned teachers have offered ideas for how to attract and keep students interested in history (see, for example, Bohan, 1990; Dagenbach, 1999; Furomoto, 1985).  I am not suggesting that offering a stimulating course is a panacea for a problem that, as Bhatt and Tonks accurately point out, is historically complex and politically loaded.  However, even they identify decreasing enrollment – whether real or imagined by those with no allegiance to the course – as a primary weapon in the armamentaria of the aforementioned “powers that be”.

At a political level, historians of psychology must also be even-handed and diplomatic in their approach to their subject.  Even for the critical historian there is

room for celebration in the history of psychology, and imparting the message that positivist psychology is bad is not only tendentious (and not good history), but is inimical to the methodological and theoretical pluralism urged by postmodern critiques. 

A good time slot also helps. 

Final thoughts and lingering concerns

History of psychology will probably never be a course that students take because of its obvious or immediate practical or tactical payoffs.  However, assuming that learning how to think critically, deeply, and with the benefit of historical perspective is still a goal of post-secondary education - and a goal for psychologists - a course in critical history may have important systemic payoffs both for individual students and for the discipline.  Although we cannot impose this “long view” (to borrow and modify a phrase from Murray) on our colleagues or administrators, we can, in the short term, impress them with high enrollments and enthusiastic evaluations.  I believe this goal is achievable at the undergraduate level, and that critical history is up to the task.     

The force of my concerns at the present time bears on graduate-level training and beyond.  Dzinas (1995) has highlighted the anxiety of PhDs in the area who see their future job prospects as particularly unfavorable.  Indeed, it is one of the area’s greatest liabilities that it has not created a job market for its PhDs.  Faced with unfavorable prospects, many who would consider study in the area choose other fields where the career outcome is more certain.  In turn, administrators and colleagues interpret low application numbers as a sign of, at best, low demand, and at worst, the inherent valuelessness of history/theory.

This problem may best be addressed by both top-down and bottom-up approaches.  Getting undergraduates excited about the history of psychology and advertising opportunities to pursue graduate work in the field are certainly necessary.  However, what is also required is the active effort of established historians to ensure that their positions will continue, that new positions will be created, and that the value of critical historical inquiry and understanding is on prominent display before their colleagues.  To be sure, this is a daunting task.  One extremely visible and respected historian recently remarked that for all his work promoting the history of psychology, his colleagues will probably not think twice about replacing him with a non-historian (Benjamin, 2002, personal communication). 

The solution to this challenge is not clear, and it may be that history will be the best indicator of the future of the history of psychology.  Danziger (1994) and others have pointed out that psychologists have been interested in their own history from the very inception of the discipline, and perhaps for good reason.  As Dilthey has written: “The totality of human nature is only to be found in history” (Dilthey, 1976, p. 176).  This is one of the messages I will bring to my students next fall, when I teach undergraduate history of psychology at York for another year.  I am hoping to help students become excited about critical history – and to fill a few more seats.  Perhaps there will be a future historian in the crowd…




            Bhatt, G. & Tonks, R. G. (2002). What lies in the future of teaching the history of


psychology? History and Philosophy of Psychology Bulletin, 14, 2-9.


Bohan, J. S. (1990). Social constructionism and contextual history: An expanded approach to the history of psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 17, 82-89.

Dagenbach, D. (1999). Some thoughts on teaching a pluralistic history in the history and systems of psychology course. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 22-28.

Danziger, K. (1994). Does the history of psychology have a future? Theory and Psychology, 4, 467-484.

Dilthey, W. (1976). Selected writings. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Dzinas, K. (1995). k. d. on K. D. History and Philosophy of Psychology Bulletin, 7, 32-35.

Furumoto, L. (1985). Placing women in the history of psychology course. Teaching of Psychology, 12, 203-206.


* Rutherford, A. (2002). Back to the classroom…and beyond: Comment on Bhatt and Tonks. Bulletin for the History and Philosophy of Psychology, 14, 17-19.