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Teaching Psychohistory

by David Beisel | The Journal of Psychohistory 25 (4) Spring 1998
Resistance--our own and others--has been part of psychohistory's dialogue for nearly three decades. Psychohistorians know if individual insights can be painful, collective insights can be even more so, and what distinguished psychohistorian Peter Gay says about Freud can be equally applied to psychohistory. "Freud,' wrote Gay, "took some pride in disturbing the sleep of mankind, and mankind has responded by trivializing him, watering him down, or finding reasons for disregarding him altogether.'1 Because resistance remains so pervasive and persistent, how one introduces new audiences to psychohistory becomes a crucial question. And it is critical not just for teachers, but for presenters of scholarly papers at professional conferences, for writers addressing unseen audiences, even for those occasional conversations with new friends across the dinner table. It is one reason why the quest for the best ways to present psychohistory's findings has preoccupied so many scholars for such a long time.

Panels at annual conventions of the International Psychohistorical Association and meetings of the Institute for Psychohistory and The Psychohistory Forum have been devoted to the subject. A few brief but thoughtful pieces--by Geoffrey Cocks, Mel Goldstein and Robert Pois--have appeared in the lively new publication Clio's Psyche.2 In its early days The Psychohistory Review regularly published syllabi from the college courses of several psychohistorical scholars, Peter Loewenberg has written on graduate education, and in the mid-80s I presented a paper at the American Historical Association's annual convention and published in the AHA Perspectives on "Teaching Psychohistory.' Scores of scholars--from Rudolph Binion and Lee Schneidmann to George Kren, Alice Eichholz, and Paul Elovitz--have engaged in numerous informal dialogues on what works and what doesn't work, which have continued as internal dialogues for some of us for months on end.

In ways I do not fully understand, all of this somehow helped turn my psychohistory courses into successful experiences for many people. Since 1976, over five thousand students have passed through my course, and despite my high standards, other less challenging course options, and the course's rigorous demands, it remains the most popular history offering on campus. While each spring schedule also includes one section of Psychohistory II (prerequisite Psychohistory I), every fall and spring semester, three separate sections of introductory psychohistory close out at a college where history is not a requirement.

This successful rate has at least something to do with the way the material is presented. I hope the following observations will be helpful to teachers and those who would teach psychohistory as part of a course, as well as to those struggling with ways to better introduce psychohistorical thinking, whatever their audience.

The question "What is psychohistory?' is a good place to start, since most people have never heard of the field. While many definitions are possible, a sensible rendering might be simply "the psychology of people in history.' Psychohistory weds psychology and history: It is the "Why?' of history, the study of historical motivation. More formally, it is the systematic application of the findings and methods of the science of psychology to help explain individual and group behavior, past and present. Since we deal not just with the distant, but also the recent past (what historians call contemporary history), we look at present politics as well and draw upon the findings of political psychology.

Of course, great and not-so-great thinkers have already had many psychological insights over the centuries, and from the very beginnings of historical study--Thucydides said "all men seek power'--psychology has been part of history. Yet, based as it was solely on "common sense' and personal experience, it more often has been sporadic, imprecise, and anecdotal. Most historians get Ph.D.s without having to know any psychology. Hundreds of scholars have sought to change this over the last thirty years by calling for the extension of our understanding of human behavior by the systematic use of psychology's scientific findings. That doesn't mean we can't be critical of those findings; it does mean we must regularly take them into account.

What psychology do we use? Any of the several schools from psychoanalysis to behavioral psychology to Gestalt, whatever improves our understandings of individual and group behavior. This is an investigative enterprise, not a religious cult; we should explore with open minds, always keeping in mind that historians work from documentary evidence to conclusions, never the other way around.

Over the years I have tried different combinations of readings, including Erikson's Young Man Luther. The texts I use now, which students read critically, are deMause's Foundations of Psychohistory and Reagan's America, and a special student edition of Clio's Psyche, edited by Paul Elovitz and Bob Lenz. Students also view Sam Keen's hour-long documentary "Faces of the Enemy.' (For Psychohistory II, I use Binion's Hitler Among the Germans and Loewenberg's Decoding the Past, with Lifton and Mitchell's Hiroshima in America strongly recommended.)

The course is divided into five parts, each approximately three weeks long: introductory; the history of childhood; psychobiography; group psychohistory; and Hitler and Nazi Germany.

No prerequisites are necessary since I assume students know no formal history or psychology; whatever they need is covered in the first three weeks and during the rest of the course. This is the introductory section. Second, because both psychology and personal experiences have shown that what happens in childhood can be an important influence in adult behavior, to leave out the history of childhood would be to leave out a significant part of human experience. Besides, psychohistorians have written extensively about the history of childhood, and it is our obligation to learn what they have said, the second fifth of the course.

The third, psychobiography, focuses on four recent presidents: Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. An ample scholarly psychohistorical literature exists on them, and since everyone already knows what our culture is like and who they are, lectures on their roles and historical contexts are unnecessary. Fourth, group psychohistory is logically divided by two: small groups (like the president's cabinet, or the pre-1914 Austrian general staff) and large groups like nations. (Are there "group' fantasies shared by 260,000,000 Americans? How does one find them?). The semester ends with Hitler and World War II as our psychohistorical laboratory, drawing from materials and insights developed in the first four parts of the course.

Formal study begins with some of the ways the mind works, and the ways it works in history. We are not interested in every aspect of the mind, only those that can help us better understand the methods and findings of psychohistory.

When I ask why people are in the class, they offer several conscious reasons: the need for three credits; rumors it was a good course; it sounded better than Western Civilization; otherwise they'd be home with their spouse; or to actually learn. Whatever the explanations, they are conscious, the same kind Lyndon Johnson offered when asked why he escalated the war in Vietnam. Historians and psychohistorians are interested in this level, the conscious level, of historical motivation.

But there is a second kind of motivation: those motives of which we are not, or only partly aware, the level of unconscious motivations. Many people sooner or later experience sudden, or growing, awareness of why they've been doing what they've been doing, which they had until then been hiding from themselves. Some students welcome this approach, looking forward to exploring the role of the unconscious in human history. But the mere mention of the word "unconscious' can drive others into near apoplexy: "Oh, I get it now. This course is about Freud. Wasn't he a dirty old man? Didn't he miss the real sexual abuse of children? My psychology prof said there's no repressed memory. Hasn't Freud been discredited? Wasn't he a man?'

There is no need for people to get so agitated. So far I have not even mentioned psychoanalysis or Freud, only "the unconscious,' and when we consult our psychology texts, we find that even behavioral psychologists acknowledge the existence of the unconscious; it's just that they think it plays no role. Those questions about Freud will be answered in due course. We don't want to be diverted, and we want to keep in the forefront of our minds the question of the unconscious.

Extensive discussions of psychoanalytic theory, or invoking the "authority' of Freud, doesn't usually work here. It is better to go directly to the resistance by doing two things: 1) proving the existence of the unconscious; and 2) proving that what is in the unconscious can influence behavior. Imagine a subject named "Bill,' about thirty-five, normal in every way, a steady job, married, respected in his church and community, nice kids. Bill stands in front of the psychohistory class. We introduce him to a professional hypnotist, who stands next to him, and ask that after he's been hypnotized we want him to tell us what it was like. After a few minutes Bill goes into a trance; the hypnotist tells him: "After you've wakened, Bill, you'll begin to talk, then after about a minute you'll get up, go over, and open the window. You won't remember I've told you to do this. Do you understand?' "Yes', says Bill. Bill is awakened, then begins to talk--'It was pleasant, I was aware of everyone. I had thought when people were hypnotized they were in a deep sleep,"--then he walks over and opens the window. "Why did you do that?' asks the hypnotist. "I don't know,' says Bill--or, if he's the kind of person who needs an excuse for everything, he might invent a motive: "It was hot in here.'

If Bill was not aware of the hypnotist's post-hypnotic command, if he was not conscious of it, then the command must be stored in that part of his brain which we must call the "unconscious.' And, since he opened the window, what is in the unconscious can be acted out; it is not only an "influence' on our behavior, but in some cases it is the behavior.

I can now elaborate on the work of Milton Erickson, the findings of Hilgarten and Hilgarten (hypnotizability correlates to high levels of physical and emotional child abuse), and the staged Nazi rallies at Nuremberg. Madison Avenue, of course, is always trying to reach into our minds to manipulate us without our thinking much about it, through obvious and subliminal messages directed at our subconscious. Advertising and political images, collected over the years, can be shown to reinforce discussions of the findings of Wilson Bryan Key.

Elaborating on these themes sets the stage for an exploration of the ways the mind wards off unwanted thoughts and feelings (the major defense mechanisms of the ego). Each defense is defined, then extensive examples are given from personal and contemporary experience, and from history. The goal is to show that some of the ways the mind works today were some of the ways the mind worked yesterday.

Denial and rationalization are both simple and easy to explain. (Ego defenses will not be defined here, as journal readers are fully aware of them. I'll concentrate on the kind of examples used to illustrate them.) At the end of the First World War, after ten years of sacrifice and deprivation, the war fought entirely outside their borders, and no foreign troops on their own soil--after four years of constantly being told they were winning the war--Germans awoke one morning in early 1918 only to learn the Kaiser had fled, the Socialists had come to power, the Republic had been declared, and the war had been lost. Millions could not believe it; a majority of Germans denied it; acceptance was simply too painful. Of course, something had happened: troops were returning home,and the humiliating Versailles Treaty was imposed. Many "explained' these events with the rationalization that their armies had not lost, but been betrayed, or "stabbed in the back,' by Communists and Jews at home. This myth, a fantasy, the famous "Stab-in-the-Back Legend,' eventually helped Hitler to power.

One can only wonder if the reactions of some Americans to the defeat in Vietnam might also contain, at least in part, some rationalization. Everyone has heard the argument that U.S. troops were fighting the war "with one hand tied behind their back.' When Stallone returns on a mission to Vietnam, in the mid-1980s film Rambo, he asks: "Can we win this time?' The notion that "liberal' professors, "cowardly' college students, "unpatriotic' protesters, and a "weak-willed' government had betrayed "our boys' is familiar to millions of Americans, and many believe it. I am not saying that this is a rationalization, only that it could be and needs examining.

Students sometimes say: "We could have won by bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age,' (some support using nuclear weapons). In fact, more firepower was expended in Vietnam than was used by all the belligerents in the Second World War, and we dropped the equivalent of 600 atomic bombs there. Moreover, several of President Johnson's advisors (Ball, McCone) had predicted that escalation could lead only to a "quagmire,' a "no-way-out' situation in an unpopular, unwinnable war. The idea that the war could have been won, therefore, is, at least, debatable. Had the diplomats and strategists of the 60s only known something about Vietnam, instead of being filled with the "arrogance of power' and the memory of Munich, they would have known that earlier colonizing attempts, by the Chinese, for example, had failed in the long run due to the Vietnamese people's fierce spirit of independence. Now, the U.S., a great power with cutting edge technology, had been defeated by a third-world army using strips of used tires for sandals: a "little yellow people' had proven it was the "fittest.' Perhaps such humiliations can be "handled' in racist America only by inventing rationalizations of betrayal and lack of government resolve.

Students often react to these ideas with energetic denunciations, arguing for other points of view. This is a good place to point out there are always other points of view, and that is one reason why psychohistory was invented in the first place. Traditional political history was virtually the only brand practiced in the nineteenth century. "History is Past Politics' was chiseled in granite over the library at Johns Hopkins, America's first graduate schoo,l and took our understanding only so far. Economic history (production and how wealth is distributed), intellectual history (the role of ideas; what formed Hitler's ideology), social and cultural history (class conflict; the fine arts and popular culture) were all twentieth-century additions. What was missing before the 1970s was much attention to feelings and fantasies, hence, psychohistory.

There are, of course, only a finite number of explanations for any given historical event. Historians break causes down into political, economic, intellectual, social or cultural, and now, psychohistorical factors. What causes historical events to take place are the result of one of these factors, or several, in some combination. It is up to us to find out which ones are at work in any given circumstance. Why do some people assert that psychological factors are not at work without even examining the evidence? Why, when emotions, intrapsychic defenses, and fantasies are shown to be at work do people raise their hand to ask about economic causes? In a course in economics we don't ask about psychological factors: why do we ask about economics in psychohistory?

One reason for this tendency is that more than most courses, psychohistory provokes emotional reactions to the material. Over the years, people have been filled with anger, sadness, and fear, which tells us what we're studying is meaningful. When we look at the history of childhood, for example, we cannot help but think of our own childhoods, and, if we are parents, what we've done to our own children. Not for everyone all of the time, but for some of us some of the time, these feelings can be intense and uncomfortable, and an immediate rejection of what we're hearing can be a signal of our own denials. For at bottom, there are only three possible reactions to any bit of information: 1) "Yes. The evidence, logic and my experiences convince me;' 2) "I don't know, and need time to think about it'; 3) "That's wrong!' For 3) there are two options: either the evidence leads to a wrong conclusion; or, the person is in denial. Visceral negative reactions, without considered rational analysis, clue us to the possibilities that we may be denying. This becomes a continuous, all-semester exercise for everyone, and it is also good to reiterate, almost weekly, that students don't have to believe what they are hearing, only that they have to learn it.

But in the long run handling these feelings pays off. An older student, a married woman with grown children in her late 40s, came to me after class one night in the mid-80s to tell me she had to drop the course: what we had been discussing was "too upsetting.' Ronald Reagan's apocalyptic fantasies, the subject of an award-winning journalist's book, included the belief that this was the Endtime, that the appearance of Jesus was imminent, and that the world would soon end in fire, probably nuclear fire, brought on by a conflict over Israel. The thought that our then president, a twitch away from the nuclear button, could help arrange things so that his expectations could become a reality was so frightening that the prospects of future unsettling discussions in the course made the student want to drop it.

I suggested that she call her daughter, then a student at the University of Maryland, who had taken the course the year before. The next meeting, she informed me that she had indeed contacted her daughter, whose advice was: "Stick with the course, Mom. The feelings will pass, but the insights will remain.' This bit of wisdom can be repeated to the class several times during the semester, and, while the course is an intellectual, not a therapeutic experience (I am a historian, not a psychotherapist), it is well to always keep in mind psychohistory's emotional dimensions.

Those who stick with the course will be sure to emerge with more insight than many of their peers. And while psychohistorians have spent much time lamenting the problem of student resistance, those taking the course can also look forward to experiencing the joys of discovery. I see it every semester, when the connections start being made and students begin seeing what they hadn't seen before, that look of dawning recognition, which is one of the most rewarding moments in all of teaching. Sooner or later, some student will get around to raising the issues of bias, subjectivity and personal agendas. I always take it that the student is a group-delegate expressing the half-articulated feelings of everyone else. Since it is a theme closely akin to denial, it is very important to deal with directly.

The relativist position is, of course, central to twentieth-century social science (and the philosophy of science itself), and has a venerable existence in history as the theory of historicism. The legacy of the deconstructionists, some elements of multiculturalism and identity politics, along with the normal tendencies of youth finding itself, have produced today an exponentially expanded subjectivism bordering on the nihilistic.

This is true for all courses, not just psychohistory. It needs to be addressed, especially for psychohistory since it allows the student to dismiss compelling evidence as "only your opinion.' I don't have the space here to offer a full-scale discussion of what I do to handle this form of resistance, except to mention that a discussion of the history of the relativist position from the Sophists to today often helps, as does showing the absurdities to which the extreme relativist position can lead. It is also simply false that "all historians disagree about everything all of the time.' They don't. Finally (despite her disdain for psychohistory), one can refer students to Gertrude Himmelfarb's fine essay on method in On Looking Into The Abyss.3

Due to current space limitations, I can only summarize, in impressionistic and fragmented form, some of the examples I use to illustrate other ego defenses in individuals and groups, past and present. For repression, Miss America 1958 Marylin Van Derbur's complete amnesia (until her early 20s) of her father's nightly sexual assaults from the age of five; the consequences of trauma (reference Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery), the tendency toward traumatic reliving; physical, emotional, and sexual child abuse as trauma; shell shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress disorder; mention of the Scientific American (June 1994) article on the places in the brain where (non-verbal) emotional memories are stored. For displacement, the "kick the dog reaction'; attitudes towards authority figures; Reagan's invasion of Grenada two days after the U.S. Marine massacre in Beirut. For regression, temper tantrums, bed wetting, thumb sucking in adults (Hitler's little finger); magical thinking; the symbolic acting out of the early-90s pacifier craze in Austria, southern Germany and the U.S. (Boys N the Hood); the sometime tendency in groups (and individuals) to seek escape from long-term stress by submitting to "strong,' authoritarian-father types. For reaction formation, the film and novel Fearless; the contrast between Jimmy Carter's treatment of his father, Mr. Earl (ambivalence) and his mother, Ms. Lillian (possible reaction formation) in his autobiography Why Not The Best?, and how this could contribute to a displaced hostility toward woman, feminists, or other stand-ins.

For splitting, the Madonna-Harlot complex; medieval "good mommy/bad mommy' idealizations of the Virgin Mary and demonizations of witches; various "us/them' examples. For projection, the monsters of medieval and early modern cartography (and modern alien monsters projected from our unconscious onto outer space); the use of others as "containers' for our own feelings, "We're not addicted to sweets,'--sex, pot, love, wine, or violence-- "addicts are--and they need to be punished'; we're not lazy, the homeless are, welfare "cheats' are; we're not stupid, Polish jokes tell us Polish people are; we don't want Central America, the Russians do; for fifty years we and the Soviets used each other as mutual containers for our own aggressions; and the world's "search for enemies' continues since the end of the Cold War. For fantasy, conscious, play dreams, daydreams which become conscious, the fantasies of the sleep-dream cycle; functions of fantasy; sometimes the "fear is the wish' in nightmares; symbol formation (are we "acting out' fantasies as spectators when we attend movies?); what does the popularity of Independence Day and Titanic tell us about ourselves and our fantasies? At this point, after heated denials and assertions form students that popular films are only entertainment, the class is ready for formal study of "The History of Childhood.'

David R. Beisel, Ph.D., teaches history and psychohistory at Rockland Community College, State University of New York, 145 College Road, Suffern, New York 10901. He is past president of the International Psychohistorical Association, edited the Journal of Psychohistory from 1978 to 1987, and has published numerous articles in American and European history. In May 1998 he received a national NISOD award for teaching excellence, and was a 1987 recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

1. Peter Gay, "Introduction,' The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989), pp. xiii-xiv.
2. Clio's Psyche: Explaining the Why of History, published quarterly by The Psychohistory Forum, 627 Dakota Trail, Franklin Lakes, N.J. 07417.
3. Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into The Abyss (New York: Vintage, 1995), pp. 131-161.
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