The fourth revolution
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President Nathan Long explores the university's humanistic legacy and a future unbound by convention.
Over the course of several decades, the legend of a humanistic psychology institute, turned graduate research center, turned university, is a plot rich with interesting characters and various twists and turns.
What began as a small group of academic rebels seeking to change the face of higher education has now morphed into a small university finding its way once again in a sea of political and academic change. One thing has remained constant though—the university’s administration, faculty, staff, and students are intent on adhering to Saybrook University’s founding mission of promoting a more just, humane, and sustainable world.
Saybrook’s rebellious, progressive lineage is a product of the countercultural movement of the 1960s and is a child of three major revolutions—in psychology, research, and education (1).
I contend that we are now on the verge of a fourth revolution—eclipsing the classroom to bring Saybrook’s humanistic ideals and methods of teaching and learning forward in ways that will not only fundamentally transform the lives of our students, but also the clients they serve, the organizations of which they are a part, and the communities in which they live.
In this sense, we are UNBOUND.
A child of the psychology revolution
In the mid-1960s, a meeting was held in Old Saybrook, Connecticut with several notable psychologists in attendance (Eleanor Criswell, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas, Carl Rogers, and Charlotte Buehler among them). They shared ideas about the importance of consciousness, motivation, the client as the expert, human choice, and self-actualization. They proffered the idea that a new school or institute could be developed that focused on educating psychology practitioner-scholars about these principles, which came to be known as “humanistic psychology” (2).
These thought leaders envisioned a path forward that would challenge the existing psychology establishment, which tended to revolve around B.F. Skinner’s basic psychology as a core science (behavioral), and Freud’s psychodynamic approach concentrating specifically on human beings.
A few of Saybrook University's founders took a revolutionary idea and brought it to life
Those who embrace humanistic approaches leverage these unique traits to live an optimal life.
The Humanistic Psychology Institute (HPI) was thus conceived. Initially housed at Sonoma State University, the Institute’s first director, Dr. Eleanor Criswell, helped institutionalize and bring to life the vision of her notable colleagues. In 1971, HPI began to educate students that this third way, or force, was needed in the advancement of psychology to more deeply understand what it means to be human and to improve the human condition.
Humanistic Psychology and the Institute, which began promoting its principles through scholarship and practice, ultimately embodied several main concepts, including:
- Human existence is central to understanding the human condition: The vast nature of everyone’s full human experience is related to each person’s unique purposes and functions. Everyone, therefore, has human choice and agency in their own path to fulfilling their potential, drawing on their truly distinctive existence.
- Our commonality is that of possessing unique traits: Human beings are—as far as we know—unique in our capacity for self-awareness and to establish in-depth relationships. Those who embrace humanistic approaches leverage these unique traits to live an optimal life.
- Human beings are best studied in our natural context: While studying behavior in the laboratory can be useful to control for certain variables, understanding human psychology in natural contexts helps us better understand the fullness of the human experience. The humanistic practitioner will often use research and therapeutic techniques that are real-world. Furthermore, qualitative research is often used and may include phenomenology or exploring the human experience. The point of view of the subject is honored and articulated.
- Human beings must be viewed in the fullness or wholeness of our humanity: A person’s full humanity cannot be reduced to an illness, a relationship, or a set of behaviors in exclusion of everything else that makes one human. Humanistic-oriented practitioners recognize a person is more than just a combination of interrelated parts; she is a complex organism with significant potential. If a diagnosis is provided, it privileges the voice of the client.
A child of the revolutions in research and education
The 1960s and 1970s were known as a time of counter-cultural activity in America. During an unpopular war, as well as struggles for racial and gender equality, paradigms in research and education were also changing as reflections of the period. The academy in general, the discipline of psychology in particular, and HPI each were in the middle of this exciting, yet tumultuous period.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, behavioral and social scientists adhered to long-held standards of empirical, objective inquiry that incorporated scientific observations in the laboratory, employed various experimental models, and perpetuated the use of inferential statistics (quantitative approaches) as a means of analyzing data.
During the countercultural movement, however, a newer generation of academicians and social-behavioral scientists began questioning the very role of objectivity in the pursuit of science. Depending on one’s source, the beginning of the qualitative-quantitative debates emerged in the mid to late 60s and carried on for some time thereafter.
For the first time, psychological and sociological research began shedding an important light on human existence.
The crux of the debate was this: human beings could not be effectively studied without digging deep and understanding the lived experience of the subjects who were being researched. While there was certainly value in quantitative techniques, depth was needed to understand the totality of the human subject being studied.
In its application, qualitative research offered a broad palette of unique research approaches that dug deep into the “why”. For the first time, psychological and sociological research began shedding an important light on human existence. In the wake of this new, more subjective research, women’s and minorities’ voices began coming to the fore in ways that had been largely non-existent in social-behavioral science scholarship. The revolution occurring in research at the time offered a counter-approach to the prevailing narrative that the only viable way to understand the natural world was solely through empirical data.
Given the humanistic approach, qualitative research gained significant traction as part of HPI’s prevailing approach to researching the human condition. Qualitative methods enabled researchers to probe the depths of the human mind from a micro-perspective, embracing the unique traits of each person. Over time, HPI (which soon changed its name Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center) became one of a handful of leaders nationally promoting and advancing qualitative approaches in humanistic research.
Breaking down barriers—education as liberation
As an institute of Sonoma State University, HPI began to see its efforts bear significant fruit. Inasmuch that the Institute was promoting new ways of research, so too were the leading faculty pondering ways to expand the reach of the institute, creating student access that would enable Humanistic Psychology to expand beyond the constraints of the academy.
We were not alone.
Across the country, the higher education sector was exploring new delivery models, creating opportunities for people to obtain credentials that could improve their lives and the lives of their communities. For too long, education had been the purview of the privileged and the few. Twenty years post-GI Bill, the opportunity to further democratize higher education now held great promise.
Over the next few years, HPI was working its way to becoming a freestanding graduate institute in the heart of San Francisco. Unlike traditional higher education, coursework was not delivered in classrooms, but at a distance. However, unlike other distance education schools, students could work with preeminent scholars in the field, including the likes of Rollo May and Carl Rogers. Such an approach enabled students at the time—such as Richard Tarnas, the revered author of Passion of the Western Mind—to write important works. Passion of the Western Mind, for example, is now found in history and philosophy departments across the country. Students like Dr. Tarnas enjoyed the intellectual freedom HPI offered, while being able to connect with leading scholars of the day.
By phone and mail, coupled with an annual gathering in the Bay Area, students and faculty met to review their work, engage in intellectual struggle, and find new ways of thinking and being in a world that no longer was constrained by convention.
In a word, HPI had become unbound by the traditional education model: brick-and-mortar classrooms that mandated a face-to-face academic delivery as the only means to obtain a graduate-level education.
From HPI to Saybrook University
Beginning in the 1975-76 academic year, HPI officially opened its doors as an independent entity, with Dr. Donald Polkinghorne serving as its first president. Then, in 1981, with an approximate enrollment of 150 students, HPI changed its name in recognition of the place where it was founded (Old Saybrook, Connecticut), to Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center. By 1984, Saybrook obtained regional accreditation from the WASC Senior College and University Commission. Over the years, Saybrook pressed on through good and challenging years, holding firmly to its humanistic mission.
By 2007, Saybrook’s seventh president, Dr. Lorne Buchman, set forth on a vision to expand the Saybrook Institute into a full-fledged university, with a key distinction: the reimagined institution would expand its offerings into other disciplines including, but not limited to: education, counseling, ecology, and organizational systems and leadership.
Each of these disciplines would weave in the core principles of humanistic philosophy, expanding upon the concept so that what was traditionally viewed as a scholarly practice could be applied beyond the therapist’s office and into organizations and communities at large. Such a new approach had the potential of advancing individual and social transformation across many sectors. With a compelling vision at the ready, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center was renamed to Saybrook University in 2009.
By 2015, the Saybrook University Board of Trustees announced a renewed vision (Saybrook 2020), edifying Saybrook’s place in the world and enhancing its ability to deliver a truly progressive, unbound graduate education contributing to a more just, humane, and sustainable world.
A new revolution: The humanistic paradigm as multidisciplinary
Saybrook and her students, faculty, and staff have sojourned nearly 50 years with the goal of spreading the values of humanistic psychology.
Today, we are helping lead a new revolution. Leveraging our legacy of distance education and outstanding academics, our focus now is on taking the humanistic values that informed the field of psychology and making these not a third way or “force”, but instead promoting these values as the force for positive, social transformational change through exceptional online virtual teaching-learning communities and cutting-edge research.
These ideals of humanistic psychology aptly apply to the work being done today by psychologists, social workers, integrative health practitioners, teachers, artists, and non-profit and business leaders.
By expanding the promise of humanistic thinking into various fields of study, we expand the opportunity to change the world one individual, one organization, and one community at a time.
(1) Dr. Robert Flax, August 2015. This historical context was provided to me by long-time faculty member and Saybrook Alumnus, Dr. Flax, in really unpacking the larger history of Saybrook University.
(2) See also The Path of a Reluctant Metaphysician. The Body Mind Healing Center by Michael Mayer, published by Body Mind Healing Center, June 2012.