Some of my greatest teachers and greatest inspirations as an existential psychologist and professor have been my students. Although it has become cliché to say that teachers learn from their students, I hope to speak to this as a personal experience that comes alive beyond the cliché. When I speak of students, particular students come to mind, though too many to individually identify. However, in this article, I am also speaking to the collective energy and wisdom of the students of humanistic psychology.
The New Energy in Humanistic Psychology
There has been much discussion about the youth movement and new energy that students have brought to humanistic psychology, including Rich Bargdill’s (2011) article in The Humanistic Psychologist and Bob McInerney’s New Existentialist post, “On the Movement and Interrelation of Youth and Diversity.” The Society for Humanistic Psychology (SHP) has been growing, particularly in student members, for several years, and the Students of Humanistic Psychology Facebook page has been steadily growing and active. This is some of the empirical evidence of the youth movement; however, like Bargdill and McInerney, I am interested in something more than this.
There is more than just energy, enthusiasm, and numbers coming from the youth movement; important leadership and new ideas are also emerging. There are an increasing number of students involved with various committees with SHP’s board, presenting at our conferences, and recruiting others to humanistic psychology. But it is also important to not underestimate the importance of the energy and enthusiasm. When spending time at SHP’s hospitality suite at APA or at the annual convention, it is talking with students that I often find the most energizing. The energy is catching and a big part of what is drawing in many new voices to existential and humanistic psychology.
Challenging Existential and Humanistic Fundamentalism
“… a people unable to reform will not be able to preserve its old culture either.”
— Lu Xun (1925/1961)
My experience has been that the youth movement in existential and humanistic psychology has little time for what is perceived as humanistic psychology’s propensity to pick unnecessary fights. Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying that they are not willing to fight, but rather that the youth movement seems to be more thoughtful about picking battles. Let me give a few examples to flesh this out.
The Open Letter to the DSM-5 committee of the Society for Humanistic Psychology has received great attention and attracted many students who are concerned with the DSM-5. Many students have appreciated this effort and joined the fight. The success of the open letter committee would not have been nearly as great had it not been for the student efforts, largely directed in social media, to spreading the word.
However, I have increasingly found that even the most passionate humanistic students tend to find the fighting over what is a “pure” existential or humanistic psychology quite distasteful. Many are arguing for a more inclusive understanding of humanistic and existential psychology. Similarly, they often are quite frustrated with the pitting of humanistic psychology against mainstream psychology and the American Psychological Association. Instead, they are providing encouragement and leadership in how we can engage mainstream psychology in a more collaborative manner
Beyond Discipleship to Mentoring
“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”
— Nietzsche (1892/1966, p. 72)
This quote from Nietzsche is not just about moving beyond the student role, but rather about not being bound by the teacher’s ideology and knowledge. This could be used to contrast a discipleship approach to education with a mentoring model. Disciples are trained in the way of their teacher and to follow their teacher’s wisdom. Mentors provide guidance, encouragement, and training to prepare one to enter the field as a professional or expert. While disciples are often committed to the content of their teacher, mentees are committed to their relationship with their mentor while being empowered to move beyond their mentor in their scholarship and practice.
When teaching, I have often told my classes that if they agree with all that I say in class, I have failed. I deeply believe this. Yet, at the same time, as a human being, I want people to agree with me and affirm that my positions are valid. This is only natural. It takes much more courage and trust to be a mentor than it does to create disciples. An important lesson I have learned from my teachers, who have temporarily occupied the role of student, is that it is much more rewarding to be a mentor, too. Yet, it is also true that it takes more courage to be mentored than to become a disciple.
Multiple Humanistic Psychologies: We are One, but We are More Than One
At the first Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference, there was a tribute to James F. T. Bugental. In this presentation, many of his former students stood up and said what they were doing with Jim’s work. It was remarkable to see the many ways that his work had been applied, including in settings Jim himself never dreamed of venturing. This is one example of expanding humanistic psychology; however, we can talk about other more profound expansions of humanistic psychology.
At the second Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference, it was students that led the initiative to focus on diversity issues in existential and humanistic psychology, including submitting several critiques of humanistic psychology. Students have continued to be some of the strongest voices advocating for diversity and presenting on diversity issues at our conferences.
It is students, too, that are doing some of the most creative work. A few years ago, a group of students created a commercial on the effectiveness of psychotherapy to counter the many advertisements for medications. The video was a brilliant illustration of combining scholarship and creativity to impact the world on important issues in the field of psychology.
Often, it is students and early career professionals who are most able to see existential and humanistic psychology for what it ought to be or what could become. After being in the field for a while, it becomes easier to see it just for what it is. If we want to advance the field, we need to see our students and early career professionals not as people who need to be acculturated into the field, but as colleagues with an important voice and a fresh perspective. We need to see them as people from whom we have much to learn. Existential psychology has been uniquely blessed with unusually talented, thoughtful, and courageous students who are willing to speak their voices and advocate for change.
As I conclude this article I have read back through it several times and keep thinking, “Its not enough.” This article does not do justice to honoring the students of existential and humanistic psychology. So much more is deserved. But maybe this can be a beginning.
Bardgill, R. (2011). The youth movement in humanistic psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 39, 283-287.
Lu Xun, (1961). Sudden notions. In Y. Xianyi & G. Yang (Eds. & Trans.) Lu Xun Selected Works (Vol. 1). Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press. (Original work published in 1925)
Nietzsche, F. (1966). Thus spoke Zarathustra (W. Kauffman, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in 1892)
— Louis Hoffman