May 29th, 2019

Looking both ways

looking through windowLooking forward to my 50th college reunion this month and backward to what I learned during those four years, I am surprised by the power of a teacher’s words to strike a responsive chord that has been vibrating in my life through the passing decades.

So, come with me to the leafy campus of suburban university in the late 1960s, to classroom in a Gothic style building made of gray Pennsylvania fieldstone. We sit at wooden desks on seats attached to a flat writing surface that spreads out from a single arm of our chairs, a right arm for right-handers, and a left arm for lefties. The room smells of wood, and the sun through the mullioned windows casts squares of light on the scuffed floor. Our professor bounds into the classroom and tells us that today, we are in for something different.

Up to this point, he says, the philosophers we have studied have been telling us what we will see when we look through the window. The thinkers we will begin studying today will bring us to the window so we can see for ourselves. With that, he gestures to the classroom windows that overlook a broad green lawn dominated by a 200-year-old red maple just coming into leaf, and somewhere in my head an idea starts to blossom.

That’s pretty cool, I think, those are the guys I’d like to read.

What I was nibbling at is the importance of our personal experience in understanding anything that we learn in the classroom, in research laboratories, and in our interactions with one another. Experts can tell us what lies outside the window, but there is nothing like getting up, walking over to the window, and looking for ourselves.

I say “nibbling at” because, as a 20-year-old, I hadn’t a clue about how powerful and multilayered this simple concept was. I heard it again a few years later in a graduate school class where the professor described the difference between the nomothetic or norm-based approach to knowledge and the idiographic or person-centered approach. But there was something about my philosophy teacher’s introduction to the concept that made it stick, and it stuck with me for the next 50 years and counting.

In graduate school, we learned about psychological testing and the importance of norms against which to judge an individual’s performance and studied the ways people reveal themselves in their responses to inkblots, pictures, and interview questions.

We studied theories to explain troublesome behaviors that we called symptoms and learned that symptoms cluster in familiar patterns that we were taught to call diagnoses. The psychological testing report was the place to gather and integrate all we had come to know about our subject, usually called the patient, and to describe him or her in a way that would help the reader understand the source of this person’s unhappiness, discontent, or assorted problems in living.

It was all very thorough and neat and represented the kind of intellectual challenge that taught us how to think like psychologists.

As satisfying as it was to master these new skills, it felt like something was missing. Here I was, standing at the window and looking for myself at another person, but now I knew what to look for and how to look. These instructions came from a long history of insights from clinical practice guided by theories of personality and psychotherapy, which, at that time and place, were predominantly psychoanalytic.

I saw the workings of unresolved Oedipal issues in the lives of some of my patients – jealousy, competition, fear of retribution—and wrote about them, but never by name. We learned to avoid the lifeless jargon that buries the person under an avalanche of technical language, which is at best a shortcut for communicating with colleagues and, at worst, a failure to honor the individuality of our partner in these dialogues.

What does an Oedipal complex feel like? What does sibling rivalry weigh? Does school phobia have a taste, a smell, a texture? Is it the same for every child? I wanted to know and so I used my imagination, I made an educated guess, and, not often enough, I asked.

We learned how to ask and how to listen. One professor introduced us to the writings of Robert Coles, specifically his Children of Crisis series of books, and through his words, we saw what he did when he looked through the window of desegregation in New Orleans.

We sat with Dr. Coles as he spoke with six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first-grader immortalized by Norman Rockwell as she walked into an all-white school while an angry mob shouted threats over the heads of the federal marshals who escorted her.

Mentored by the poet and physician William Carlos Williams, Dr. Coles knew how to listen and how to balance the nomothetic and the idiographic, or as I still like to think of it, what we are told we will see though the window and what we see for ourselves. The balancing is all important because we need both ways of seeing to preserve both our objectivity and our humanity.

When I return to campus this month, I will go back to that room overlooking the broad lawn and the red maple. The metaphor I learned there has served me well, but in that moment I will put all metaphor aside, walk across the scuffed wooden floor to the window, and simply look.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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