Dr. Ludy Benjamin has been one of the leading advocates for the study of the history of psychology for the past three decades. This article summarizes an interview with Dr. Benjamin, conducted at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He taught there from 1970 to 1978; it was his first teaching job following graduate school. We explored the value of the study of the history of psychology for undergraduates with Dr. Benjamin.
Ludy T. Benjamin received his PhD in experimental psychology from Texas Christian University, and began teaching at Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1970. In 1978, he became the director of Educational Affairs for the American Psychological Association, and then joined the faculty at Texas A&M University, where he is a professor of psychology and educational psychology
. He holds the Murray and Celeste Fasken Chair in Distinguished Teaching, as well as a University Professorship in Teaching Excellence. He has published nine books and over 75 articles on the history of psychology.
Not unlike most undergraduate psychology students, we wondered about the importance of History and Systems in our curriculum, since a majority of us are interested in clinical work rather than academia. We had the opportunity and honor to interview Dr. Benjamin, and we were able to get his perspective on this topic. What first got you interested in the history of psychology?
I was interested in history as a youngster and I always read history, lots of history. I think it was easy, then, to move into the history of psychology. When I came to Nebraska Wesleyan University, I was asked to teach History and Systems of Psychology and it became my favorite course. I enjoyed doing the research preparation for my lectures. Doing historical research was really lecture preparation. I had been doing research on Harry Kirke Wolfe, who founded the University of Nebraska laboratory in 1889. Dave Levine, who was the chair at Nebraska at the time, invited me down to the university to give a colloquium to their faculty about the history of their department. At the end of the talk, somebody came up to me and said, "Have you thought about publishing that?" and I thought, "Publish? These are my lecture notes for my History and Systems class, where I talk about the early days of psychology in Nebraska. I've never heard of publishing your lecture notes." So as I began to read more historical scholarship, which I didn't really know very much about in psychology at the time, it was clear to me that's what people who worked in history did. A love of history from my youth, coupled with teaching the course, has made it my passion today.
How important is the learning of the history of psychology? What is its importance to the real world?
There are a lot of reasons I could give you for why I teach and why we should study the history of psychology. In a lot of programs, undergraduate and graduate, the history of psychology course is required, which is really unique in the sciences. Biology programs don't require a history of biology; chemistry, physics, and math programs also do not require one. Historical courses in those areas are rare.
I can't imagine trying to make sense of the field of psychology without knowing its history. For example, look at psychology right now, with the huge changes in the practice of psychology and in the training of practitioners in psychology. In the practice of psychology we have managed care, which has been quite influential in the past 15 or so years. There is a push among many psychologists right now to gain prescription privileges. There are a number of masters' level practitioners who are coming on-line. There is a changing role of mental health services, which is related to the way in which psychology and psychiatry have developed. One of the wonderful things about the history of psychology is that it gives us the basis for understanding the history of people, which also helps us understand the past. This then helps us understand the present and helps us make plans for the future. What excites you the most about studying the history of psychology and how do you get others excited about it as well?
I teach undergraduate and graduate history at Texas A & M, and most of the graduate students are in the course because the program requires them to be there. A lot of them come to that course, and they say things like "I wish I could avoid this," and "I can't see how this is going to help me do therapy with my clients," and "Why am I having to take this class?" It's a lot of work, a lot of reading, professors are demanding, and students put the class off as long as they can, hoping I will die or that the requirement will be taken away. But when they get out of there, they often say the same thing: "I never took a course in history before, and I never found history very interesting before, but I really love the fact that you were so passionate about your subject, and you came to class every day and there was something in your voice, and something in your eyes that said that this was important to you, and it should be important to us, and you managed to communicate that." So I think that's true for anybody who feels that way about their area. Your experience informs students in ways that they would never get otherwise. I think whatever you do, if you're passionate about your subject, it's likely that students will find it interesting. You can make the most boring subject exciting to students if you're excited about it. If you're not excited about it, there's no way in the world they will be. You hope you'll have one of these people who comes in and drools and spits when he or she talks about the subject, and that I do. I don't drool very much, but I do spit sometimes. I just get so carried away.
There are really a lot of things that excite me about [the history of] psychology, but I guess there are two that I would single out: working in archives, which if you haven't done, may sound horribly boring, and personal interviews. You go into archives, for instance, the Harvard archives, and here are the papers of William James. You bring them out and lay them on the table in front of you. You hold the letters in your hands, the letters that he wrote, which were on blue paper, as many of those letters were in those days. People talk about digitizing archives. Yes, you could digitize, but I can promise you that looking at my computer screen in College Station would not be the same as holding James' letters in my hands. So, working in archives and reading the private papers of individuals-it's quite fascinating. There are treasures in every box you open, surprises and things you hadn't expected, and things that move you, things that give you a moment of understanding that wasn't there before. Archives have unpublished documents; they are not libraries. They don't have books, magazines, journals, or reprints. Archives have unique materials that don't exist anywhere else. I've worked all over the United States in archives. It's just a great thrill to do that. I'd go in the morning at 8:00, and I'd be there all day until they close at 5:00. They have to say, "Dr. Benjamin, we're trying to close. Dr. Benjamin, please put the folder away, we're going to have security drag you out of here." It's not that bad. I exaggerate. But I do enjoy it.
The other thing I enjoy, and I've had many experiences with this, are interviews with older individuals, people in their 80s and 90s, who have been part of projects. I'll just mention one: Recently I published an article with the help of two students on the story of Inez Beverly Prosser (Benjamin, Henry, & McMahon, 2005). Bob Guthrie (1976, revised in 1998) wrote a book thirty years ago called, Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology.
It's a wonderful book in many ways, but in part because there are about 20 short biographies of African American psychologists that no one would have ever known about if it weren't for Bob's research. They were short; they were one-page biographies with a photo. So here's this one-page biography of Inez Beverly Prosser, and on the right side of the page is her photograph. And she is the first African American woman to get a PhD in psychology, which she gets in 1933. She taught about half of her life with a masters' degree, and with her bachelors' degree, and she's taught in black high schools and black colleges. So I read that, and it said she was born in Yoakum, Texas. Well, I was born in Corpus Christi, and I know Yoakum, so over the years I thought "there must be more to know about this woman than one page. There must be more about her life." We went everywhere we could think of to find out how to tell her story. And to tell her story meant not only finding as many of her materials as we could, but also learning about African American education in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and about the American Missionary Association, which founded Tugaloo College. One of the things we did was to find her younger sister and brother, Bernice and Byron. I spent several enjoyable hours with Bernice and it was one of the most wonderful experiences I've ever had, and I've had lots of those.Who do you feel are the most influential people in the history of psychology?
Two names occur to me: Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner. Sigmund Freud—it would be hard to imagine a more pervasive influence, not only within psychology but also outside. He has had an enormous influence on American culture. Our everyday jargon is filled with psychoanalytic concepts: We talk about id, ego, superego; we talk about things like dream therapy, wish fulfillment, and the meaning of dreams. So many things have come out of Freud's ideas. He emphasized the importance of early experience in shaping later behavior. Think of all the defense mechanisms people talk about: rationalization, projection, displacement, and repression. Freud certainly had a pervasive influence in and outside of psychology.
I have a great admiration for B. F. Skinner as well. I wouldn't consider myself a Skinnerian or a radical behaviorist in the sense that Skinner was, but I admire him for the logical, systematic nature of his psychology and its explanatory power. I'm predicting, in this century, the real value of his work will be discovered. We will see applications of Skinnerian principles in major ways. Skinner, for example, argued that we are too punitive in our society: that parents are too punitive in the way they raise their children, that employment settings are too punitive, that educational settings are too punitive, and that we don't use incentives enough. And he's absolutely right. Skinner's point is: target the behavior. That's just one little piece of a system that has enormous potential to change people's behavior--and eventually society's behavior.
What is the importance of the lesser known people in psychology and recording their histories?
History has not always been about lesser people—that's a rather modern invention. I remember reading a book a few years ago that was based on the diaries of women who crossed the prairies in the 1840s and 1850s (Schlissel, 1982). None of these women were important women in the sense that they made names for themselves in any way, but they had kept accounts of their travels. Someone had taken the diaries of quite a number of these women and put them together into a very interesting narrative of what that life was like. As you can imagine, that's incredibly revealing for a lot of reasons.
There are a lot of studies now in which people write about the invisible people, and they are made visible. These writings give people, who have not had a voice in history, exactly that. The lives of these people are very instructive about periods of our history because they give insights into history that aren't available from any other kinds of sources. Without them, we'd just have a partial view of history. There are individuals out there whose lives we would miss out on, looking only at the lives of "important" people.How do you determine which projects to focus on in your research?
I have this big idea list, so when I'm ready to go on to the next project, I already have a starting point. Sometimes it may depend on students who I think would work with me and what their interests might be. If I've got students who might be interested in a particular project, I may select that because of their interests. Sometimes traveling has an impact; are there archives abroad that I need to pursue? What kind of a time frame do I have to work on this? I've always got projects on the back burner. For example, I've got three books coming out right now; one comes out soon, I've got another two that are already done and waiting to come out. I'm not writing a book right now, so I have a nice long window before I tackle the next one. There are timing issues, student interest issues, sometimes travel issues that are associated with it. Also, I suppose it's just whatever peaks my curiosity at any one time. In your research, what do you do with findings that oppose your initial expectations?
You publish them. History is an empirical discipline. Sometimes I think people write history by using hypotheses. For example, say they're writing a history of Van Gogh, to explain his art or why he cut off his ear, perhaps. They'll have a hypothesis about why this happened and they'll write in an attempt to support that hypothesis. They'll often ignore data that, I would argue, contradict that hypothesis. In psychology, we're taught that you do the study, and you get the results, and those are your results. You can't say, "These four animals looked funny to me, so I took them out of the study." We can't do that. If you're writing about Van Gogh, you can't say, "Well these three paintings didn't really fit well with my thesis, so I'm not going to talk about them. I'm going to pretend he never painted those three." And I think there is a lot of history that's written that way. People have an agenda, and they don't play fair with the data.
Good historians will always start with a hypothesis. You start a project with some kind of idea of what you think you're going to find. There are lessons in social science that I think all historians should learn. I like my training in psychology because there are a lot of things I have learned from experimental psychology that have helped me in studying history. I have to think, "Okay, where would I look to find information that would contradict the hypothesis that I have?" Because I really need to do that; I need to try to find information that would discredit my hypothesis. If I don't look at that, I'm neither a good historian nor am I doing my job right. History is about detective work--you have this hypothesis and you go looking. You look in every nook and cranny you can possibly think of. You find something in one, and it suggests another two or three places to look, so you look in those. Some places you look, you don't find anything of value. Then, once in a while, you stumble onto something that's just a gold mine. But that's what you have to do to be honest as a historian. You let the chips fall where they fall, and you tell the story. Sometimes there are "warts", but that's the way it comes out.What is the importance of including original writings in published works about the history of psychology?
I'm a real believer in primary sources. For much of my teaching, it wasn't easy to make those accessible to students. The only realistic option you had in the early days was putting stuff on reserve. Often, there weren't enough copies, and if you had a big class, that became a problem. But it's just not right to have people tell you what James said or what Freud said; you should be reading them on your own, sometimes just for the language. Reading these early thinkers in their own words is critically important, so I emphasize that in both my undergraduate and graduate classes. Every student, I think, ought to have some experiences reading these. I would say if you graduate in psychology, and you haven't read Freud or Skinner or James, in their own words, you can't really call yourself a psychology major. Should the history of psychology be expanded to more than one course, and if so, how would you divide it up?
I sometimes joke with my graduate students. I'll say something at the beginning of class like, "I'm pleased to let you know this is the last one-semester course; we're going to a four-semester history course that's going to be required next year, and, of course, if some of you don't pass this class, then you'll be in the four-semester class starting next year." I would love to have the luxury of a two-semester course; that would really be wonderful!! However, more than that would be impractical.
One of the things I do is teach a modern course. I look at it this way: I can't do it all, I've got one semester, and so I'm going to teach what's most interesting. I'm mostly interested in modern psychology, so I pick up the story early in the 19th century with the beginning of psychophysics and the work in physiology and neurophysiology that leads to the laboratory. So we're in Leipzig in about the second week of the semester, then we carry that up to the Vail conference in the 1970s and the development of the PsyD and professional schools.
I have friends who teach the other class and get to Leipzig and Freud at the end of the course. They don't get into much of James–structuralism, functionalism, behaviorism–that's just how they teach their course. Is one right and the other wrong? No. Do students like one more then the other? Yes. One way to answer that question is to look at the history of psychology textbooks that are available; how many of them cover the modern theory versus how many of them teach the ancient course material. A two-semester course would allow me to cover obviously a lot more of that, but I don't have that luxury. Not to mention, students would whine and complain beyond belief if I were to try to pull something like that on them. As professors, we all make decisions about what our course material will include.Would you change the presentation of psychology's history in an introductory psychology course?
In most introductory psychology courses it only makes up about three or four pages of the text, and I don't think that there is much that you can do in that amount of space. The books tend to focus on the same issues: they talk about the laboratory in Leipzig; they talk about Titchener and James and Watson and Freud. I've read a number of these, and I certainly read them just to see what they are doing. They're all the same. There is a real cookie-cutter approach to most introductory psychology books. One approach would be to write an 1800-word history of psychology, which I actually did for the Oxford United States History volume (Boyer, 2001). Maybe something like that would be a good approach that would really change dramatically what is usually presented. What they do now is replicate what everybody else does. When you write an introductory book, that's what you do. You write it like everybody else because if you make it too different, instructors won't adopt it. What is psychology's greatest lesson to students?
I think there are many, but I guess I'll choose one--that behavior is multiply determined. If you look for causality, it is always incredibly complex. You shouldn't look for simple answers to behavioral questions. H. L. Mencken had a statement that went sort of like this: "For every complex problem in the world, there is a simple solution, and it is always wrong." People do that with behavior. An example is the students at Columbine. Why did the shooters shoot their fellow students? Well, they did that because of the influence of rock music. They did that because they had a fascination with guns. They did that because they were bullied by individuals in the school. People want to know single causes. They want to say, "Here's what happened. There's an effect, there's a behavior, there's an outcome. There must be a cause!" If there is anything psychology ought to teach us, it is that it never works that way—ever. There are always causes, many of which we won't ever be able to isolate or identify. That's something I reinforce, even in my Introductory Psychology class. I try to show that although you might think it is one thing, there are likely other causes at play. You must keep that in mind.Thirty years from now, what will psychology be saying about the psychologists of today?
Probably the same things we say about the ones 30 years ago: They were naive; their methods were pathetic; how could they have believed that? Certainly, one of the things that psychology should teach you is tolerance for the views of others and humility for your own views. One of the things we know about scientific knowledge is that it is temporary; the facts of today are not going to be the facts of tomorrow. I think that's something that history has told us repeatedly and will tell us in the future as well.References
Benjamin, L. T., Jr., Henry, K.D., & McMahon, L.R. (2005). Inez Beverly Prosser and the education of African-Americans. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 41,
Boyer, P. S. (Ed.). (2001). The Oxford companion to United States history.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Guthrie, R. V. (1976). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology.
New York: Harper and Row (second edition, 1998 by Allyn and Bacon).
Schlissel, L. (1982). Women's diaries of the westward journey.
New York: Schocken.
All authors are senior psychology majors and graduates in the class of 2006 at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Back row, from left: Dario Calderon
plans to attend Fresno State University (CA) to obtain his master's degree in kinesiology, with an emphasis in sports psychology. Becca Mayo
will pursue her master's degree of forensic science at Nebraska Wesleyan University this fall. Megan Strain
will pursue a doctorate in social psychology and plans to do research and teach at the university level. Chris Waples
is considering graduate programs in industrial/organizational psychology, with a focus on recruitment and performance appraisal. Front row: Ashley Peterson
plans on attending graduate school to earn her master's degree, and then pursue a career in clinical counseling with children. Sarah Sedivy
is planning a career in clinical child psychology. Danielle Bauer
has a minor in sociology and plans on attending graduate school for marriage and family therapy at the University of Nebraska. (Not pictured: Nate Abel.)Author note:
Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Dr. Jerry Bockoven, Department of Psychology, Nebraska Wesleyan University, 5000 Saint Paul Ave, Lincoln, NE, 68504.