Thursday, March 14, 2013

Recommended undergraduate curriculum for aspiring clinical psychologists, Part 2

Continued from yesterday's post:

Science and mathematics alone do not a psychologist make. Psychology, as Hans Eysenck enjoyed reminding us, is about people. Clinicians know that the practice of longer term psychotherapy is an excellent method for deeply understanding an individual human being. But since undergraduates cannot practice psychotherapy, the study of literature is a reasonable analogue. Case studies are excellent ways to learn about psychopathology, human development, and interpersonal relations – and there are no greater case studies than those enshrined in great literature. I would be far more inclined to refer a family member to a psychologist who was intimate with Shakespeare’s tragedies, than to a psychologist of similar training and experience who was not.

                Edwin Shneidman, the founder of American suicidology, claimed that one could learn a great deal about suicide simply by reading Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. One can learn more about terrorism psychology from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Devils than from the extant empirical literature. The best forensic psychology “texts” I know are Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (granted, these are works of “literary journalism” and not fiction). How many psychologists speak casually of Oedipal conflicts but have never read Sophocles? How many suicide researchers discuss “the Werther effect” without ever having actually read the infamous Goethe novella? I would prefer that my personal psychotherapist read Homer, Joyce, or Faulkner during those golden minutes between patients. Students in my abnormal psychology course analyze E.A. Robinson’s Richard Cory and Wilfred Owen’s Mental Cases. Perhaps we should ask aspiring clinical psychologists to recite a poem from memory during the selection process.

It is pointless to graduate from college without having learned to write. A course in journalism could be very helpful to aspiring psychologists; they would learn to get their facts straight, write concisely and on deadline, and to present the most important information first – all hallmarks of a good psychological report or clinical note. A course in rhetoric is also advisable – one cannot help but become a better writer, speaker, and thinker after studying the great persuaders. Take a course in speech and seize every opportunity to speak or present in class or before larger audiences. I also recommend courses in non-fiction writing and creative writing (both narrative fiction and poetry). While you are at it, take some courses in Art History and Film. Learn how to draw, with an eye toward learning how to paint portraits. I suspect that John Singer Sargent was one of our greatest psychologists. Take a course in Music Theory. Learn an instrument. Become familiar with the classical music canon (I do not mean “History of Rock and Roll”).

It is distressingly common to meet graduate students in clinical psychology who have never encountered Socrates through Plato’s Dialogues, or read The Republic, or The Nicomachean Ethics.  Frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves. The study of philosophy is excellent preparation for graduate work in clinical psychology, and only partly because so much psychotherapy theory is merely warmed over philosophy. How often do we acknowledge the influence of Epictetus, John Locke, or Rene Descartes on cognitive-behavioral therapy? This omission is certainly of a piece with Freud’s famous denial that Schopenhauer influenced his work. The Enchiridion of Epictetus is as powerful a bibliotherapy as Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Students should read Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Camus – because doing so is a delight. A course in Ethics (or Applied Ethics, or Bioethics) would help prepare students for the dilemmas common in clinical practice; discussions in such courses often resemble what our case conferences should be like.

I am all for bilingualism, even trilingualism. I am not, however, entirely convinced that mandatory foreign language study is necessary for undergraduates who wish to become clinical psychologists. My concern is that two, or even four, years of classroom study of Spanish or any other language is not sufficient to meet what should be the goal of language study: conversational fluency. Immersion in a foreign culture is what builds fluency, not classroom drill and study. Traveling, studying abroad, living with a host family – and while abroad, reading the local newspaper, watching television or theater, making friends – this will fan the desire to make the language part of you. Spend a semester, or a summer, or a year in a non-English speaking country – that is what the requirement should be.

                In my fantasies, four years of high school Latin would be required to study psychology in college. The mental discipline, sustained effort, and study habits required to complete AP Latin bode exceedingly well for collegiate academic success. Mastery of Latin grammar contributes to mastery of English grammar (or at least to an appreciation that there is an English grammar), and the serious study of Latin substantially improves English vocabulary and disciplined thought and expression. Further, Latin study makes antiquity breathe – the classicist knows that human nature does not change with each passing generation or with changes in material or social circumstances. Between the ages of 13 and 17, Sigmund Freud spent 8 hours a week reading Latin and 6 hours a week reading Greek (he read his Sophocles in the original). Perhaps as part of the comprehensive exams, doctoral students should be required to translate the Book of Job from the Latin Vulgate!

                If you are not studying a foreign language, you will still need to delve into cultures other than your own. I have found that Religion courses serve that purpose very well. Religion courses are arguably the most liberal of the liberal arts, in that they encompass history, philosophy, art, and literature. Read Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, especially the chapters on Hinduism and Buddhism. Clinical psychologists would benefit from courses in Political Theory, Constitutional Law, and American Government. Microeconomics, Financial Accounting, and Personal Investing courses might not seem relevant as an undergraduate (or even to most of your professors), but they come in quite handy when you are running your own practice or making budgeting and personnel decisions while managing an agency. Learn about the people who have made history. Start with Edmund Morris’s rip-roaring The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Read multiple biographies of Abraham Lincoln. The dual biography of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in Shelby Foote’s The Civil War is an excellent place to start. I also recommend Geoffrey C. Ward’s account of FDR’s early life, Before the Trumpet.

If you are able, train yourself to run 10 miles, hike 25 miles, and swim 1 mile. Learn to ride a horse. Join the boxing club. Go on ride-alongs with the local cops. Enlist in the National Guard or Reserves. Work in a kitchen. Work in a factory. Teach an adult to read. Remember Carl Jung’s exhortation:

“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar's gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.

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