Alan Vaughan, Psychology

Photograph of Alan Vaughan

Alan Vaughan

Psychology Faculty

Alan Vaughan had never planned to go into psychology. He could barely hold still sitting through Psych 101. He was a social studies teacher at a California high school for troubled kids, and that was where he wanted to be.

But something wasn't working – and somebody had to fix it.

"Working in the inner city schools, I realized that psychology was absent from what we did," he says. "The schools were designed as a holding tank, to get kids out of the mainstream so it could keep going. These kids had to work out their own problems. But we didn't have any counselors or psychologists or social workers … nobody was actually working with the kids on their deeper psychological and emotional problems."

When the school system wouldn't address the problem, Alan rolled up his sleeves.

"I got involved setting up some innovative programs within the school system, but I had to reach outside the school to the community to get psychologists to come and work with us to change attitudes and to help develop new mental health education programs," he remembers. "We got violent kids into counseling; we got kids who used drugs into substance abuse treatment. We got a teen mothers program started so that the girls could continue to attend school during the pregnancies, and when they gave birth nurses and developmental psychologists worked with them on mothering. These young women went on to pursue college degrees. This was gratifying work"

Eventually he decided that he liked doing this more than teaching, so he went back to school to get a PhD in psychology at New York University.

He'd thought that would be the end of his education, but while he was working as a psychologist in the New York family court system he became fascinated by the way the legal system shaped the kids who were put into its care. Neither they nor their immigrant parents understood the system, or its inequities at all, but their psychology was profoundly shaped by it. Again, Alan realized that he didn't just want to work with people … he wanted to improve the system they lived in. So when the opportunity to study law at the University of Virginia came up, he jumped on it.

"I did it with the interest of understanding more about how the environment, of which we are mostly unconscious, shapes human behavior," he says. "It seemed like studying the law was the best way to understand how systems operate in the U.S. and the world and how these systems evolve out of and affect the human psyche."

While at law school he also became interested in global affairs. He extended his legal studies at The Hague Academy of International Law before practicing international trade law with a firm for a few years

He didn't like it. "While I enjoyed the travel and it sounds interesting, it was basically just selling things, silk from Japan, steel from Korea, shoes from Brazil, and arguing about the prices. I came back to the idea that I like being a psychologist, I like Carl Jung's theories, I like to teach, I like to practice and I like to write."

But he wanted to integrate what he knew: if doing "just" law hadn't satisfied him, doing "just" psychology wouldn't either. He needed to integrate and incorporate his interest in world culture with his understanding of how individual psychology is shaped by the "invisible" structures in which it lives, organizing the human species and human experience.

So he came to teach at Saybrook. "I get to do what I'm interested in doing: at most traditional institutions I wouldn't be able to focus almost exclusively on this," he says. "They were at the forefront of using advances in technology to provide the best education possible, without losing the human element, and I think they have an innovative faculty and an innovative model of education. I like the tripartite mentorship, the face to face learning, and distance learning model of pedagogy unique to Saybrook. The quality is much higher than other distance learning programs."

Meanwhile, he's continuing his own education through travel and research. He has become a certified Jungian analyst and investigates African historiography, mythology, and religion, and African-American cultural history and psychology. He also examines the psychology underlying U.S. Supreme Court cases as manifestations of America's cultural attitudes and behavior.

"I think the future of psychology involves tapping into globalism," he says. "Psychology has to evolve to help the microsystems of global culture reflect on the macrosystem of globalization, its efficiencies and limitations. It has to disperse across disciplines into the economic system, the political system, the health care system, the education system … and focus on promoting human community and global culture. If it doesn't do that, it remains a marginalized western phenomenon."

As always, there's work to be done – and Alan is rolling up his sleeves.