From the Editor

Humanistic Psychology and Student Activism: Les Temps Modernes

Psychologists are uniquely positioned to understand the psychological experiences of college students and support their activism within the corporatized neoliberal university.

By Justin Karter, MA

We live in an institution and we live outside it. We work there, and we work with what we have at hand. The University is not going to save the world by making the world more true, nor is the world going to save the University by making it more real. Change comes neither from within nor from without, but from the difficult space, neither inside nor outside, where one is.
— Bill Readings, The University in Ruins

Students at the University of Pittsburgh hold a rally and march with the ghost of climate future.
Students at the University of Pittsburgh hold a rally and march with the ghost of climate future.
Psychologists are uniquely positioned to understand the psychological experiences of college students and support their activism within the corporatized neoliberal university. Working as professors, researchers and in college counseling centers, psychologists likely interact with college students more than any other field. Further, humanistic psychologists stress the importance of understanding the role of environments and cultures on individuals and the field has been intentional in recent years about orienting towards contemporary social justice issues. However, the humanistic approach is needed in the spaces, in Reading’s words, “where one is” — namely, the universities and institutions where we may teach and practice while students endeavor to think, develop and transform.

The “corporatization” of the neoliberal university has been well documented and debated by Readings, as well as many others. The process through which this has occurred and is occurring, the marginalization of faculty, the rise of the administrative class, the decline of the arts and sciences in favor of management and technology, are all popular topics in the academy of late (see, for instance, Palgrave’s recent Critical University Studies series). While this is necessary and important work, late as it may be, little attention has been paid to those who are actively being shaped by, resisting and transforming these developments: the students.

In this short contribution, I hope to lay out, very briefly, some current approaches to understanding students’ development as activists and then sketch a quick example, highlighting how humanistic and existential ideas may contribute to the topic going forward.

Psychological Approaches to Understanding Student Activism

Overall, the study on student activism in psychology has been sparse, but those working at the intersection of critical theory and psychology have offered both analyses and tools for empirical research. Liberation scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux proposes a form a critical pedagogy as a necessary component of student activism within the context of the neoliberal university that encourages students to actively dissent and critique social and cultural forces and existing political institutions. Giroux’s work is inspired by his reading of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), and he frames his understanding of students’ social and political development in terms of critical consciousness.

Freire used the term conscientização, or critical consciousness, to refer to a process of development that facilitates an awareness of the socio-cultural structures and systems of oppression. These systems, which we all operate within, color our view of the world and create inequities that are present in any interaction or relationship. In short, critical consciousness is a process through which one continually develops and refines a capacity to both critically examine and act meaningfully within one’s sociopolitical world.

Following the liberation psychologist, Martin Baro (1994), who initially applied Freire’s approach in the field of psychology before he was murdered by U.S. supported forces in El Salvador (Levine, 2014), much of the work on critical consciousness in the field has come out of social and personality psychology. Researchers in psychology have operationalized Freire’s theory and have predominantly focused on sociopolitical development in regards to issues of racism, sexism and social injustice (Diemer, Kauffman, Koenig, Trahan, & Hsieh, 2006). In addition, counseling psychologists have studied the connection between critical consciousness and students’ career and vocational development (Diemer & Blustein, 2006; Diemer & Hsieh, 2008).

Similarly, drawing on the Freirean notion of critical consciousness, work in critical and community psychology has led to the creation of a five-stage model of sociopolitical development, and more recently, various published instruments have been designed to measure critical consciousness (Deimer, et al., 2014; Thomas et al., 2014; McWhirter & McWhirter, 2015; Shin, et al., 2016). Critical consciousness is a powerful concept, and measures get us close to quantifying how student activists “read the world” and examine the existing power structures in a ways that can lead to transformative social change. Research on critical consciousness in psychology, however, infrequently addresses the context of the university and its bearing on the development of student activism beyond the classroom as a potential site for critical pedagogy.

Failing to appreciate this context can be problematic. In 2003, for instance, APA issued a report suggesting that introductory college psychology courses be updated to include many of the common topics in critical consciousness, including age, gender, sexual orientation, race and socioeconomic status, among others (Trimble, Stevenson, & Worell, 2003). An approach to psychology that teaches about social injustices and diversity issues in a way that prefigures these issues as being “in the world out there,” so to speak, and fails to appreciate their manifestation in the classroom or the ways in which they are reproduced by the institution that may be closest to many students — the university itself — fails to appreciate Freire’s intentions and cannot accomplish his goals.

There is currently an opportunity for humanistic psychologists to contribute to scholarship that examines the experiences of students engaging in social justice advocacy and activism within and against their universities. In psychology, researchers make use of measures that attempt to quantify latent concepts, themselves based on theoretical models. If we move on with a “good enough” measure, without continuing to refine and develop the underlying theories, we can lose sight of how limited any knowledge we gain with the measure really is. For that reason, it is important that we as a field continue to develop our theoretical models about the development of student activist consciousness in a way that recognizes and appreciates the contextual forces of the neoliberal university on students’ subjectivity.

Opportunities for Humanistic-Existential Contributions

To bridge this gap and explore the connection between college student’s socio-political development and their experiences of the neoliberal university, I conducted a pilot qualitative study of student activists (see Karter & Robbins, in process; research overseen and guided by Robert McInerney, PhD). The hermeneutic-phenomenological approach opens up possibilities for elucidating the meaning-making processes of the subjects within their lived contexts (Creswell, 2007), and as a result, we were able to explore the relationship between students’ activism in a complex interaction with their primary environment, the university. I believe that a few of the major themes that came out of this study are in need of our collective existentially informed attention going forward.

Our results suggest that students experienced the university as a “bubble” that they attempted to “rupture” through their activism. That is, that they actively attempted to “repoliticize” the university and connect the social issues often posited as “out there” to what occurs within the university. However, they also demonstrated a pervasive pessimism and hopelessness about the ability of their activism to alter the larger neoliberal-capitalist system, which has a way of constantly “reasserting itself.” Why, then, engage in activism, which often lead to various forms of surveillance, control and punishment by the university? The students expressed finding meaning, purpose, solidarity and community in their organizing and experienced their world as transformed in so much as they were now unable and unwilling to “un-see” the connections between themselves and history, troubling as those connections may be. There are clearly opportunities for humanistic-existential models of self-actualization to come to bear here on the study of college students’ socio-political development and critical consciousness.

Humanistic-existential theorizing on this phenomenon may also help to explain an anomalous finding in the terror management theory (TMT) literature. TMT, developed by Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski, investigates the theories of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker by testing the correlation between mortality or death salience and coping reactions. Research in TMT finds that making death salient — asking people to think about their own death — provokes conservative reactions. For example, a seminal and often cited study on municipal court judges found that those who were asked to think about their death before setting bond for a prostitution case gave much harsher sentences (Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, et al., 1989). The results suggest that after thinking about death, people close ranks around their meaning systems or stories, increasing their positivity toward those things that support their worldview, and become increasingly hostile to those things that are perceived as a challenge or different.

In a 2013 study, TMT researchers tested the relationship between mortality salience and “civic-engagement” and “political participation” in undergraduate college students. The researchers hypothesized that in line with previous studies finding an increase in charitable giving following mortality salience, students would show an increased willingness to participate in politics or engage civically if they were primed for high mortality salience. To the contrary, however, their results revealed that students with high mortality salience showed decreased intentions toward civic engagement (Green & Merle, 2013).

The researchers speculated that “college students may hold critical attitudes toward politics in general, and this may have led to a sort of reactance response” (p. 149). In other words, students may have identified politics as anathema to their groups’ well-being and in response to death priming, rejected political involvement more strongly than before. In our sample, however, students that were overtly pessimistic about both politics in general and their own potential to make lasting change regularly engaged in politically motivated activities. How might we reconcile these disparate results?

Interestingly, in the TMT study, students who scored higher on measures of collectivistic self-construal were found to report higher intentions to participate in civic engagement than those with higher scores on individualistic self-construal measures. Specifically applying this to college student activism, humanistic-existential psychologists have an important role to play in exploring the interplay between death salience, the development of collectivistic self-construal, self-actualization, critical consciousness and socio-political development all in complex interaction with the individualizing, commodifying and disciplining forces of the neoliberal university.

Justin KarterJustin Karter, MA, is a doctoral student in counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. He is a graduate of the clinical-community psychology master’s program at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and is a former student representative for Div. 32 (the Society for Humanistic Psychology). Justin also has a graduate degree in journalism and serves as the news editor for the social justice-oriented mental health webzine Mad in America. His research takes up issues and the intersection of ethics and psychology, including problems of pharmaceutical industry bias in psychiatric research, as well as the study of political activism through the lens of liberation psychology.


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