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Psychology in Education

September 10th, 2009 | 2 min read

By Jeremy Mann

I just read an expansive article by David Tyack, professor emeritus at Stanford in the history of education. In the article Tyack considers at length the different populations that have been neglected in the American education system. Any student of history would learn something; I was struck by how racism during WWII made it seem natural that white Nazi prisoners-of-war on their way to prison camp in the South should be allowed inside a "whites only" dining room in a railroad station, but their black guards should not. One of the most insightful points Tyack makes is very helpful for understanding the present situation in public education:

Psychology, the academic discipline most influential in the field of education, has reflected and reinforced individualism by using the person as the chief unit of analysis. In this way of seeing, which boasted the label “scientific,” educations have portrayed differences between students—in “intelligence,” interests, temperament, or likely social destiny, for example—as characteristics of individuals rather than as products of class or culture."

It’s not hard to see the influence of psychology in schools; there are school psychologists, functional behavioral analyses, special education tests for brain disorders, and the psychology-dependent teacher training programs. I like how Tyack connects the monopoly of psychology in education with individualism in the America, something that can be more clearly understood by looking at classrooms in other countries. In Japan, for instance, classes are generally rewarded or punished as a group, which has kept Japanese cleaner, even without hiring janitors. Students recognize that they will all suffer from a dirty school and pick up accordingly. In America, individual students know that if they walk far enough away from their trash it is no longer their trash. Someone else will get blamed, or, more likely, everyone will suffer during the day while paying for janitors to clean at night.

It goes without saying but is worth repeating: what goes for public education is only a reflection of society as a whole. As Paula Fass, whose recent collection of essays considers how history can inform contemporary trends in education around the globe, explains:

The shape of American education in the twentieth crucially related to the problems with American diversity."