Could Saybrook be ‘The Last University?’

In a time when outside pressure is pushing Saybrook to become more like everybody else, how does Saybrook push back by becoming more like itself?

Academia may not have a future, according to Stanley Fish.

Fish, a distinguished academic and New York Times blogger, wrote an article last week that landed like a bomb in every faculty lounge in America.

Soon, Fish said, there will no longer be a place for teachers who want to enliven their students’ minds rather than cramming them full of job-related skills.

We all know that American academia has become dominated by big money, big corporate partnerships, and an assembly-line mentality that treats students as “customers” rather than agents of learning. But we’ve all assumed this was an aberration – and that at some point we’d right this ship of fools.

But Fish, reviewing the book The Last Professor by Frank Donoghue, says those days are never coming back: the academy, as a place to nurture the mind, is dying out and won’t return.

From the article:

“Such a vision of restored stability,” says Donoghue, “is a delusion” because the conditions to which many seek a return – healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting – have largely vanished. Except in a few private wealthy universities (functioning almost as museums), the splendid and supported irrelevance of humanist inquiry for its own sake is already a thing of the past. In “two or three generations,” Donoghue predicts, “humanists . . . will become an insignificant percentage of the country’s university instructional workforce.”


If Donoghue and Fish are right, then Saybrook too will feel enormous cultural pressure to become just one more 21st century trade school – emphasizing business skills at the expense of critical thought, and dropping its commitment to a personal transformation among its students.

This is not a new position for Saybrook: Saybrook was founded in no small part to create a school which would go “against the grain” and emphasize the transformational aspect of learning, and as a result Saybrook has been the preeminent rallying point for humanistic, transpersonal, and existential psychology for decades. For all that time, it has held fast against the enormous pressures to transform psychology from the study of the mind into something easily expressible on an insurance form.

Though not easy, this has lead to success. Instead of shrinking in the face of a “medical model” of psychology, Saybrook is growing – and at a panel discussion held the day before Fish’s article was published, Saybrook’s leaders past and present came together to discuss how they would continue to grow in the current academic atmosphere.

Entitled “Sustaining the Humanistic Core of Saybrook,” the discussion included Board of Trustees Chair Alison Shapiro, Saybrook founder Eleanor Criswell, faculty members Kirk Schneider, Art Bohart, and Kathia Laszlo, and other members of the Saybrook community who took time out of their Saturday night to attend. The panel discussion was moderated by Vice President of Academic Affairs, Ed Cooper.

While different ideas emerged on the best way to preserve Saybrook’s humanistic soul, no one even considered the possibility that Saybrook should disavow the basic principle that the transformation which occurs within a student is as important, or more so, than anything that appears on a transcript.

Rather, the basic question became: how do we best spread Saybrook’s humanistic soul from psychology to other disciplines? “Not ‘instead of’ psychology,’” said Lorne Buchman, “but in addition to, and beyond it?”

In a time when outside pressure is pushing Saybrook to become more like everybody else, how does Saybrook push back by becoming more like itself?

To Schneider, this means using core curriculum to make sure that every student is well versed in the existential-humanistic lineage that inspires Saybrook’s program offerings.

Whatever their course of study, he said, students should be empowered to ask “What does it mean to be human?” and “How does that realization illuminate the conditions of a fulfilled life?” and he suggested a new course requirement in the Foundations of Humanistic Psychology.

By contrast, Bohart, suggested a movement away from course requirements whenever possible . Allowing students to access the same “self-organizing wisdom” that humanistic psychologists try to bring out in their patients is the best way to ensure that Saybrook remains both relevant and human.

“At Saybrook, historically we trusted the self-organizing wisdom of students,” Bohart said. “We should not lose that.”

Yet Bohart admitted an irony in this plan: Saybrook is increasingly developing professionally oriented courses that meet distinct needs in the world today – and he himself designed and runs one, the new PsyD program.

That’s necessary, he said, because professional accrediting bodies are increasingly aggressive – and hostile to an education based on humanistic principles. If Saybrook wants its graduates to be relevant in the professional world, it needs to meet these requirements. The question then becomes “How do we facilitate our students’ self-organizing wisdom in this environment.?”

To Laszlo, the key is on thinking big: not just “interdisciplinary,” but “transdisciplinary” – teach students the skills of their profession while focusing their minds on a much bigger picture.

The discussion remains ongoing: look for the full video of the panel to be posted on The Saybrook Forum in the near future, along with more updates on Saybrook’s vision for its expansive role in an increasingly constricted educational system.

Please also leave your thoughts, in the comment section below.

This discussion, suggested Criswell, is an appropriate challenge to take up as Saybrook expands into a full university structure: “Saybrook is in the late stages of its early adulthood,” she said. (Read her remarks, in full, here)

As we grow, how do we want to change education, and change the world?