Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cultural Literacy

The intent of this blog is to serve as a resource for undergraduates in psychology who are interested in graduate study (and for those already in doctoral training, or even those who are in the field) and who would like to explore more than is typically found on the Required Reading list on a course syllabus. I taught a Forensic psychology course a couple of years ago and I gradually realized that my references to Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver (1976) were not striking home as I anticipated (we were studying stalking and political assassination). The reason for this became painfully evident-- the vast majority of the class had never seen the movie, and many of them had never even heard of it.

The question to consider is: How much can you know about a subject without possession of prerequisite cultural background knowledge? Could you possibly understand John Hinckley's attempted assassination of President Reagan without have seen Taxi Driver? What other books or films or poems or historical figures do you need to be familiar with in order to be a first-rate clinical psychologist?

E.D. Hirsch has devoted much of his professional life to promulgating the centrality of "cultural literacy" in learning, and I find his arguments (and his data) quite compelling. At the risk of wildly distorting his views, I would offer this summary: You can't become a good reader if you don't have the prerequisite background knowledge about your culture. Being able to decode a passage on the financial world is futile unless you already know what a stock market is, the difference between bulls and bears, and the relationship between supply and demand. American schools think they are teaching literacy, but reading comprehension involves background knowledge, and imparting this knowledge is not made a priority. Indeed, the idea of core knowledge is disparaged (I suppose in preference to the view that it doesn't matter what you learn, only that you "learn how to learn").

I believe that the cultural literacy argument holds for the advanced study of clinical psychology. The ideal clinical psychologist should be a broadly educated person with a wide range of interests, both intellectual and "worldly." Diligent, engaged, enthusiastic reading is the surest path to this education. (The right movies can help, too.) An aspiring clinical psychologist should read at least an hour a day, preferably two hours. This doesn't include assigned reading for class. You should read every day. You should quit reading crap (this blog will steer in the right direction). You should keep a reading journal, in which you record what you read that day, how long you read, and what you learned from your reading.

And instead of going to see Fast and Furious, Part 6 (seriously?), you should watch something like Taxi Driver, Lawrence of Arabia, or Bridge on the River Kwai. Even Black Swan (with Natalie Portman, who has a psychology degree from Harvard) or Girl, Interrupted (with Winona Ryder, who apparently is a bit of a kleptomaniac) will deepen your understanding of clinical psychology and human behavior much more than the typical entertainment that most people mindlessly consume. Black Swan, by the way, was a great depiction of what it must be like to gradually go insane. It reminded me of the under-appreciated mind-bender, Jacob's Ladder.

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