Rethinking Education in Psychology in Light of Reproducibility Crisis

To the Editor:

Sanjay Srivastava’s joke syllabus (“A Joke Syllabus With a Serious Point: Cussing Away the Reproducibility Crisis,The Chronicle, August 15) and Lee Jussim’s blog post on Psychology Today about educating psychology students in light of the reproducibility crisis led me to reflect on my department’s recent curriculum changes. We have retooled or created from scratch multiple courses that engage something few of my colleagues seem to consider relevant to the problem: intellectual history. They instead hold firmly to the dictates of positivism, insisting that better training in the methods of science will be the source of rescue. Where does this prejudice come from? Might it be time to pave a new way?

I suspect my colleagues will answer no. This leads me to wonder, if troublesome replication rates do not motivate us to reevaluate our commitment to positivism, what would? The inability to specify or accept the conditions under which our commitment should be softened or redirected is a problem we discredit psychoanalysis for. That we are vulnerable to the same err should cause us pause.

Instead of entrenching students further in the tenets of “good methods” modeled after physics and chemistry, why not broaden their horizons and teach them, as William James wrote, “to understand how great is the darkness in which we grope, and never to forget that the natural science assumptions with which we started are provisional and revisable things”?

My department has begun requiring students to read James, Freud, Wundt, Kohler, and others. They grapple with questions such as, “What place do the social sciences hold in shaping our knowledge of humanity?” and, “What relation does psychology have to philosophy and the natural sciences?” They do all of this while still learning the field’s accepted methods.

If new life is to come to psychology, I believe it will come from students who are educated differently about the field from the start, not from R1 researchers and grant winners who are understandably too embedded in their system to see beyond its borders. Psychology teachers, thus, have a great responsibility. For them to handle it properly, they must consider whether positivism deserves their continued allegiance.

Surely it is possible to be scientific without being positivistic. Resisting such physics envy is liberating, and I believe this liberation is what education in psychology needs most of all.

Collin Barnes
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Hillsdale College
Hillsdale, Mich.

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