This week many of us go back to school, as teachers or students; we teach or take courses where the subject matter is more or less specialized within a discipline. In the field of psychology, one will find a wide range of topics in Introduction to Psychology but after that the courses will become specialized into sub-fields such as Developmental Psychology, Psychological Testing, Abnormal Psychology, Research Methods or Educational Psychology. College catalogs and enthusiastic core curriculum committees may talk about the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge, but rare is this striving interwoven into the goals of a course, or, as they are called now, outcomes-oriented assessments. Surveying a new class in front of me—always a joy, by the way—I sometimes wonder how the students connect a particular course in psychology to everything else they have learned.
If John Henry Cardinal Newman had a great fear, it was that students and professors would never connect a particular field with an understanding of religion, for him, of course, the Catholic faith of which he became a convert. What would Cardinal Newman say about the secularization of colleges and universities today, and the particular problems inherent in bringing up this topic where there is a multiplicity of faith experiences and even militant atheism present? We can speculate, but I am certain he would listen attentively to any attempts to broach the discussion, as he prided himself in being the classic gentleman, a person who would never intentionally hurt another. Writing "The Idea of a University" even before Wilhelm Wundt, the "founder" of psychology, and years before even Sigmund Freud, Newman considered the role of psychology within a university crucial and he criticized those who "Scoff at the action of mind over matter, or of mind upon mind, or the claims of mutual justice and charity..I am not supposing the principles of Theology and Psychology are the same." Newman worried that some would "get possession of these studies and monopolize them (so) that religion has nothing to do which the studies to which I am alluding, nor those studies to religion."
In some of the things I have written about, I've tried to show how topics studied by psychologists fall under "the claims of mutual justice and charity" and may be of interest to readers of America magazine. Just last week, descriptions about the struggles of settlers from Cambodia were discussed here, and in the past topics such as orphanhood, depression and anorexia in college students, sexual violence, and even the question of whether or not standardized tests contribute to building better school systems in developing countries have been put in the forefront, with the background always being human justice if not the higher standards of the Gospel. In these small ways I have hoped to follow in Newman's footsteps. There are ways psychology has something good to contribute to a particular religion.
Yet many other interpretations of psychology go against what might be considered the traditional teachings of many cultures or religious groups. Freud of course was an atheist who placed great reverence in his own talents and sadly this brilliant man—whose discoveries became the motivation for many dedicated professionals to help traumatized human beings—became increasingly despondent as he died a painful death from cancer. The textbook goal of psychology "is the prediction and control of human behavior." This runs counter to a universe populated by individuals who make free choices and sayings like "Not even the King knows moment of his own death" (OT) or the more colloquial "when we make plans, God laughs."
Perhaps students and psychology teachers themselves can reflect upon John Henry Newman's continuing challenge to those of us who live and study on college campuses: What topics in a particular psychology course help to bring about "mutual justice or charity" in our local, nationa, or global society? What topics in a psychology course are consistent with a particular student's religious, cultural or philosophical heritage? Which topics or assumptions challenge or contradict such heritage? These are good questions to ask, not just for a course, but in a continuing way throughout one's life. I hope some students will decide to join us in this endeavor.
William Van Ornum