An interview with Interim President Bob Schmitt

“Higher education is changing radically,” says Bob Schmitt, Saybrook’s new interim president.  “There are people who say that in 20 years, you won’t recognize higher education, that’s how much it will change.  I think Saybrook, with its humanistic values and experience with distance learning, has a compelling role to play in this new environment as a stimulator and a leader.  I think, if we take up this challenge, it has a greater role to play.”

The former president of the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology (ITP), a hospice chaplin, and a counselor, Schmitt says his biggest goal is a “smooth transition” from Lorne Buchman’s presidency to the next permanent president.  He and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees are in the process of determining his specific goals and priorities for his time here – which he estimates at anywhere from three to nine months. Schmitt added that his top priority these first few weeks is getting to know people and the present needs of the school.  He emphasized that he wants to be accessible and encourages members of the Saybrook community to contact him.

Schmitt spoke with the Saybrook Forum on his first day at Saybrook.  An edited transcript of that interview is below.

Saybrook Forum (Forum):  You sat on the board of the APA’s Division for Humanistic Psychology for a number of years.  What was your impression of Saybrook back then?

Bob Schmitt (Schmitt):  “I was intrigued by it and liked it.  I thought that ITP and Saybrook were sister schools.  I’d hoped that we would collaborate in as many ways as possible.  At one point I was part of a discussion about a merger between the two schools.  What I was especially intrigued about with Saybrook, then and now, is how well it handles distance education.   I think that distance education is the real wave of the future.  Not that everybody’s going to do it, but it’s going to impact all forms of education, and Saybrook’s ahead of the curve in terms of understanding how to make it work.”

Forum:  Why is distance education so central to the future of education?

Schmitt:  “I think it offers a much more inclusive form of education than just on-campus education.  People don’t have to move to another part of the world, don’t have to quit their jobs; they can work with people from other countries.  I think it also helps support something that Saybrook is very good at:  stimulating students to be learners instead of just listeners and memorizers.  And I think that young people, in a world where Facebook and Twitter show them what’s possible, are going to want to change the way they interact and know and learn.  They’re not just going to want t o sit in a classroom and have someone give them a lecture.

 The trick is going to be taking the best in education as it has been and combining it with technology and the way it’s developing so that you form something worthwhile, not just something new.  It’s like water:  nobody looking at just hydrogen and just oxygen would think there’s a way to bring them together to form water.  That’s what needs to happen in education, taking the best of traditional education and the best of what’s possible in distance education and turning them into something wholly new and essential.  That hasn’t happened yet, but Saybrook is really in a  good position:  it has a residential component, and is experimenting with many different formats, not stuck in just one way to do it.”

Forum: Many of Saybrook’s leaders … and many of humanistic thought’s most luminary thinkers … come from diverse intellectual backgrounds.  You’ve studied theology;  Lorne Buchman is a Shakespearean scholar;  Rollo May had a passion for philosophy and literature;  Stanley Krippner started out studying education.  Jim Gordon is a medical doctor.  Why do you think that these diverse approaches come together so successfully in a humanistic paradigm?
Schmitt:  “One of the things that strikes me as wonderful about the different colleges that Saybrook’s started is that science, traditional science, has tended to divide and conquer.  But Saybrook is re-integrating human knowledge:  people from different traditions coming and bringing what they have in their traditions into this educational forum.  The results are wonderful, and “humanistic” by any name.  When I went to ITP, I had never studied transpersonal psychology.  I’d barely heard of it.  But when they interviewed me, they said ‘oh, you’re a natural for it because of your background,’ and I said ‘oh, here’s another name for what I’m trying to do.’  Saybrook finds these moments for people.”

Forum:  When did you realize you were a humanistic thinker?

Schmitt:  “I didn’t call it ‘humanistic,’ I thought of it in spiritual terms, but in terms of my life’s work it really has been there from early on.

I had an epiphany moment one day.  I was doing graduate work in mathematics and preparing to be ordained as a Jesuit priest.  And I was doing an advanced calculus problem and all of a sudden it dawned on me:  this is not what I want to do with my life.  I want to do something that will more directly impact people.  So I changed my major.  I went to Fordham.  And when I went to Fordham, and did my studies, I realized that what I wanted to do was with spirituality, because only by raising consciousness can we really help people change.”

Forum:  Saybrook has a strong emphasis on using education to better the world, to serve a higher calling:  you’ve written about the spiritual dimensions of a life of service.  I wonder if you see a connection between the two?

Schmitt:  “Very much so.  Someone once said:  an education ain’t an education unless it changes you.  My feeling is that an education isn’t an education unless it changes you, and then you go out and help change the world.”

When I was at ITP, I really felt that:  how are we applying transpersonal psychology to make the world better?  It’s same thing that Saybrook does.  Take these profound ideas and ask:  how can our understanding of them improve the world?  We don’t feel an education is complete until we’ve found an answer to that question.”

Forum: do you have any advice for Saybrook students trying to figure out how to do that?

Schmitt:  “One thing is, it’s really important to pay attention to what has passion for you, real passion.  Only once you’ve found that can you find where that intersects with the real needs of the world.  The danger is to get into “shoulds”:  I “should” do this, I “should” do that.  Often “should” leads you away from who you really are. 

The process is to pay attention to your inner passion, and then to be creative about how you can take that passion and skills and respond to some need in the world.  To show not just that you are alive but also how the world is different for you being in it now.  It doesn’t sound easy, and it isn’t, but when you find how that comes together, it can be joyous.”

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