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Witness Post: Seymour Sarason

Senior seminars at 8am in the morning were never a good idea. And since the class consisted of just eight students, better not miss a session, everyone noticed. And better show up prepared, as there was nowhere to hide!

The class was held on College Street in a narrow brick building past Grove Street Cemetery.  Known as the Institute of Social and Policy Studies, the buildings housed the offices of some of the smartest social scientists on the planet, and one of them, Dr. Seymour Sarason, was our professor.

On the second day of class we all dragged ourselves out of bed that day and scrambled to class, still wiping the sandman from our eyes. Dr. Sarason arrived in a rumpled shirt and his hair was mussed. Fumbling around in his brief case for a few minutes he located his pipe, but kept searching for something. “Does anyone have any pipe tobacco?” he asked.  We all nodded negatively. “How about some cigarettes?” Still a No.  “Is there some caffeine or chewing gum among this class?”  We were a third time signaling, No.  “Signs of a hostile group, today!”  And off he went into his lecture and our discussions.

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Dr. Sarason had had a stroke, and his pipe smoking was just one of his accommodative qualities.  He could swing his lame arm with the accuracy of a pool shark.  His fingerprint smeared glasses, crooked teeth, and unkempt hair made him seem absent-minded, however his mind was as sharp as a tack. He did not suffer fools.

That term, with his guidance, we read a lot of social psychology books, debated the pros and cons of the education system, theorized as to how demise of the nuclear family was changing the school system, and forecast its future. We had not foreseen that this ever-increasing school load would continue for decades, as the traditional family morphed.

Dr. Sarason always took us out of pure academia and into the classroom of the schools. He took us to see elementary schools, day care centers, and correction institutions.  These were often overlooked on the streets of New Haven, as we were used to only going to the lecture halls.

That term we attended a statewide Connecticut High School Principal Conference in Hartford, where Dr. Sarason had been invited as the keynote speaker.  We attended some of the meetings, which were full of debate. It was exciting to see what appeared to be so much learning getting done by the administrators.

Dr. Sarason gave what I felt was a brilliant keynote address, reviewing the latest hands-on research.  He praised the administrators for navigating the nuances of the legal system, for understanding the interests of government (state and Federal) to raise test scores, for opening dialogue with parents and student activists, and for standing up to the teacher’s unions who “busted the budgets” to get their pay increases. As driver on our return trip, I complimented Dr. Sarason for his keen insights for the educators. He replied, “Henry, those noble principals will drive home tonight and have a martini. Tomorrow they will return to school without another thought of my advice…”

If nothing else, Dr. Sarason was a ‘Dewey pragmatist.’  He knew the pressures on administrators were immense, and that while outward changes were easy, sometimes inward changes were impossible. He wrote over 40 books. One is called, “The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” (Allyn & Bacon, Inc., Boston, 1971), which became my Rosetta Stone to understanding this world we call education.

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Early Life

Seymour Sarason was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, on January 12, 1919. His family moved to Newark, New Jersey. Sarason received a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in 1939. Growing up in the urban part of the Garden State, Seymour and his brother, Irwin, were both fascinated by the writings of Freud and Jung.  The clinical theories of these two scientists were gaining traction in the social science communities of New England. Fascinated with this new world of psychology and rushed by War, Sarason earned his master’s and his Ph.D. in three years. His graduate and postgraduate degrees were from Clark University in 1942.

One year later, Sarason married Esther Kroop (1943), and they had one daughter, Julie.

He started out as a clinical psychologist but quickly became disenchanted with the idea, then dominant in the field, that individual problems could be analyzed and treated individually. While working at a state institution for the mentally delayed in Massachusetts, he became convinced that many psychological problems stemmed from social settings and institutional cultures.  He jumped back into academia to test his theories.

1961SeymourBSarason-DavidBirch-WJMcCeachie1200Seymour Sarason, David Birch, W.J. McCreechie at conference in Lincoln, NE 1952

In 1945 Sarason began teaching at Yale.  His community approach to psychological problems lent itself to a variety of fields, and he wrote extensively on many of them, particularly education. He regarded traditional schools and what he called the “encapsulated classroom” as enemies of learning and human potential, sealed off from the larger society around them and crippled by a lack of collaboration among teachers. He also approached settings as an outsider, realizing that someone from Mars would see things differently than a native New Englander  and that objectivity can make all the difference in research.

In the 1950’s Sarason and George Mandler initiated the research on test anxiety, which became seminal theories in the field of educational testing. He founded the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic in 1961 and was one of the principal leaders in the “community psychology movement.” In 1974, Sarason proposed that beyond the individual there is a psychological sense of community.  Quickly absorbed into the vernacular, “sense of community” and hence community psychology have become a well-known and commonly used term both in academic and non-academic settings.

As Prof. Andy Hargreaves, holder of the Brennan Chair from Boston College, was quoted to say in the New York Times, “[Sarason] founded the field of community psychology. It did not really exist before him. And he was one of the very first people to write in an explicit way about educational reform and the culture of the school from the perspective of the people who experience the change — teachers and students.”

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Dr. Sarason was world renowned as an expert in school reform. In 1965 he predicted that all attempts to reform schools would fail. His prediction still has uncanny accuracy. He believed that schooling needed fundamental changes. Further, he often stated that it was inconceivable to think that an ingrained human social system such as public schooling was easily reformed. According to Dr. Sarason, the preparation and training of new teachers was a good place to begin reform. In his later studies he included his insights on the care for the elderly, which followed the same patterns of intransigence he had seen in the school systems.

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Dr. Sarason remained an anchor on the faculty at Yale until retiring in 1989. He died on January 28, 2010 in Hamden, Connecticut.

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