Postgraduate Psychohistorical Education
Paul H. Elovitz, The Psychohistory Forum, Ramapo College

 

Psychohistory offers unique insights into the human condition, yet despite the fine program at UCLA it is seldom taught in graduate schools.  Furthermore, in my experience, most scholars and clinicians become interested in psychohistory after they have earned their terminal degrees, rather than before.  For close to three decades, mostly through my role as founder and convener of the Psychohistory Forum, I have sought to help fill the gap created by this situation by providing postgraduate education in this field.  

Some of the subject matter presented at our intellectual forums are: psychobiography; political psychobiography; death, dying, and mourning; childhood and its history; war and peace; the history of psychohistory; the fathers and mothers of psychohistorians; right wing violence; 9/11 and the psychohistory of terrorism; millennialism; dreams; the role of the countertransference; the uses and misuses of empathy; genocide, the Holocaust; post traumatic stress disorder; men’s envy of and attempt to subjugate women; film; sports psychology; guilt evasion and narcissism in the 1970’s; and group process.

My goal here is to first describe the mission of the Psychohistory Forum, which supports  Clio’s Psyche—its publication.  It is also to enlarge and disseminate the related paradigms of applied psychoanalysis, political psychology, psychobiography, and psychological history.  We seek to do this in non-technical language.  Our charge is always to stimulate psychohistorical thought, publications, research, and teaching.  Specific objectives include communication with Forum members, networking of like-minded colleagues regardless of their geographical distance, expanding the psychohistorical community, helping clinicians focus on history and current events, assisting academics in all disciplines—history, literature, political science, psychology, sociology, and so forth—to utilize the insights and tools of psychoanalysis, and psychology.  Additional objectives of the Forum consist of fostering psychohistorical debate and discussion, transmitting the knowledge of an older generation of psychohistorians to those just entering the field, and researching and publishing the history of our field, thus memorializing the work of those who have built it.  After describing its membership, I will describe the organization and methodology of the Saturday Work-In-Progress Workshops, the core of our postgraduate education.

The Psychohistory Forum is comprised of colleagues from a large number of fields.  For example, at our September 17, 2005 Work-In-Progress Saturday seminar, two colleagues and I gave a presentation on the 1970’s as the age of guilt-evasion, narcissistic-permissiveness, and Watergate.  Among the twenty-one colleagues exchanging ideas (allowing for multiple professional identifications) were thirteen therapists (eight psychoanalysts), seven professors, six psychologists, five historians, three social workers, two sociologists, and two MDs.  The interdisciplinary cross-fertilization generated many ideas, encouraging additional research projects. 

The Forum primarily meets on Saturdays in New York City five or six times a year.  Since not everyone is free on Saturday, and about a third of our members are at-a-distance from Manhattan, we try to sometimes meet during the week and at other locations.  This year additional weekday meetings were held at international conferences, one in Toronto and the other at Fordham Law School in New York City.  Our presenters usually have terminal degrees or certifications (practicing psychoanalysts are usually certified) in their fields.  One exception is a talented anthropologist who presented two years ago on the French Revolution and will share his materials on Islamic fundamentalism next year.  Though he has only a bachelor ’s degree—from Harvard—he has taught at Brandeis, New School University, UC-Berkeley, and elsewhere because of his brilliant scholarship.  Some members join together on issues such as teaching or psychobiography and work in separate research groups.  Because the main focus of our group is the development and exchange of ideas, impressive degrees  are secondary to the work we do. 

Our typical session focuses on only one presenter.  Its outstanding aspect is that the colleague determines the subject matter.  The director (convener is a better term) and the other participants of the Psychohistory Forum are there to help the presenter deepen his/her understanding of the subject.  This is more akin to midwifery than to a senior faculty member helping a more junior colleague jump over the hurdles to complete a doctoral dissertation.  The metaphor of midwifery is appropriate because as “midwife” and associates, we do not come up with the scholarly conception (the idea) for the research project presented, we do not do the research, we do not write the paper, and we do not do the difficult work of editing and revising.  It is not our responsibility to do any of these things, though there are instances when we may help with them.  Rather it is the conception of the presenter, which we are helping to birth into a healthy baby, in the hope it can grow to full adult form very quickly.  In the process of doing this, we deepen our knowledge of the subject and usually have a most interesting intellectual experience.

Throughout this process the presenter is always in control.  Because of this sense of control, s/he is willing to probe the subject more deeply.  (Of course, the main issue is the presenter’s personal motivation for examining the subject that makes it important enough to devote considerable time and energy to it.)  That this in-depth examination can only occur in a safe environment goes without saying.  This “safety factor” is absolutely essential: without it the pangs of birth are so intense that an intellectual miscarriage may occur.  An idea or book project needs support; it will whither and die in the face of criticism.  The tenets of psychohistorical work include probing the materials in depth, following the emotion, and probing the author’s transference to the subject matter and the group’s countertransference feelings (the feelings induced in us by the materials and/or the presentation), therefore the presenter can feel and be quite vulnerable during the process, thus making safety all the more important.   

Presenting at a Work-In-Progress Seminar can be valuable.  The fact that the idea seems worthy of presentation gives validity to it and moves the researcher to work and write on it, or develop and polish it if it has been languishing.  There is confirmation in developing and presenting it.  To a psychohistorical group, the presenter will normally start thinking and developing the idea along more psychological, or historical, principles.  We encourage work on a specific rather than a general subject.  A supportive group can validate many of the presenter’s formulations.  It can also offer possible solutions to problems encountered by the researcher.   Ideas and relationships the researcher had not previously thought of come to the fore.  Group members may identify emotions induced by the materials or stemming from the presenter’s feelings to the subject.   Interdisciplinary researchers and clinicians view the same subject content from many different and valuable angles.  Even their off-the-mark suggestions can have value.  In explaining why suggestions put forth in a nurturing way do not work, why these approaches are wrong, the presenter is normally able to formulate a better understanding of his or her own brain child.  (Innovative ideas do not spring full-grown as from the head of Zeus but are rather developed in stages.)  Any signs of criticism of the presenter, as opposed to analysis of the materials, are nipped early on.  In this process of nurturing a project, it is rewarding to watch it grow from a thought to an article and often ultimately to a book.  This process of development is crucial to many presenters.  Of course, there are also presenters who want only a supportive group to speak before and are fairly limited in their goals.

The reader may wonder if I am bored after almost three decades of doing this work.  The answer is that this is a very seldom occurrence because I’m focused on aiding the struggle for greater insight rather than only on content.  If members of the group are bored by the presentations selected by the program committee and me, they express their concerns to me or simply do not return.  Since the membership of our group is fairly stable, this does not appear to happen very often.

It might be helpful if I next identify some of the principles that govern the organization and running of the Forum.

  • Our goal is to never state “the truth,” rather it is to assist in probing how to strive to find “truths” useful for the presenter.
  • The presenter determines the subject matter.
  • Presenters approach their subject matter in different, quite individualistic, ways and these variations are to always be respected.
  • Case studies are preferred to more generalized studies.
  • The presenter decides how much to bring to and take from the in-depth discussion.
  • The presenter is in control at all times and may stop the process at any time if so desired.
  • Insight into the structure of the presentation is encouraged and criticism is discouraged.
  • The group notes or analyzes the emotion in the room.
  • If there are signs of the group becoming disputatious or critical, a member, or the convener, makes an interpretation, reminding the group of its standards.
  • People work in quite different ways, and such variations are to always be respected.
  • Rigidity must be avoided.
  • Ideas are to be nurtured, not stifled.

Non-psychological explanations are never the main focus of our discussions.  A major goal is to enlarge the psychological paradigm.

The relationship of Clio’s Psyche to the Psychohistory Forum’s Work-In-Progress seminars is complex.  Our publication was created in 1994 in part to leave a record of our proceedings.  Nevertheless, most publications growing out of Forum seminars appear in books or in lengthy articles much longer than those fitting into our format.  Indeed, even this editor regularly publishes his longer articles elsewhere.  Still the special features, special issues, and symposia of our scholarly quarterly have served to focus attention on enlarging the psychological paradigm on issues such as apocalypticism, conspiracy theories, crime, cross disciplinary training, cyberspace, dreamwork, Elian Gonzalez group process, home, humor, immigration, impeachment, imperialism, law, publishing, psychogeography, religion, and serfdom.  Scholar/therapists have explored these subjects from extremely different viewpoints.  The differences of opinion and even debates within our pages have helped enormously in building a sense of community. 

Technology is offering us new opportunities to achieve our goals.  Increasingly, our members meet electronically.  Our partially completed new website (cliospsyche.org) enables us to provide information to each other more efficiently and to introduce our work and aims to a much larger group of academics, clinicians, scholars, and students who otherwise might not know about it.  A major goal of the website is to provide information on teaching psychological history as components of courses and in separate political psychology and psychohistory courses.  Though the long-term consequences of this technological transformation remain to be seen, there is no question that it empowers more colleagues to participate and hone our craft.

As advocates of postgraduate interdisciplinary education, we at the Psychohistory Forum are interested in assisting in the building of the psychohistorical paradigm. Psychoanalysis, in its many varieties, is a vital tool, but it is only one among many.  The psychohistorical work is what brings us and holds us together.