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Seymour B. Sarason has dedicated his life to the areas of mental retardation, culture and personality, projective techniques, teacher training, anxiety in children, and school reform. The acclaimed psychologist spent his childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn attending public and Hebrew schools—both of which he found to be unchallenging. The attitude that resulted from these early years of schooling served as a catalyst for his career in psychology and education. Sarason did not understand why the curiosities of young children were ignored in teaching and why the subject matter was not presented in such a way that it held student interest.

After high school, Sarason enrolled at Dana College in Newark, New Jersey. During his freshman year, he took an introductory psychology course, which had the notion of free will—an off-limits topic in the field of psychology at that time—as its underlying basis. The professor focused on the beliefs individuals have about themselves and what other individuals believe about them. This academic view led Sarason to begin to think independently and become a political radical caught up in the Marxist view of the history of human beings. In later years, his Marxist involvement proved beneficial to him in learning political history and theory. He soon came to the realization that the world was a vast cornucopia of conflicting ideas that were ageless and could not be understood in simplified terms. Sarason also came to realize that, because of his political experience, he would influence society as a whole regardless of his career choice.

During his senior year of college, Sarason decided that his life’s work would be in psychology. He accepted a fellowship at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts, and developed interests in anthropology, community psychology, and American cultural diversity. Sarason received his Ph.D. in 1942 and, after completing the civil service examination for psychologists, became a professor of psychology at the Southbury Training School, a new state institution for the mentally ill in rural Connecticut.

In 1945, Sarason joined the psychology department at Yale University and became known as “a practitioner and not a researcher” (Sarason 1988, 219). Four years later, Sarason wrote Psychological Problems in Mental Deficiency, which detailed a burgeoning perspective on social, psychological, and cultural factors surrounding subnormal functioning. He was promoted to professor in 1953 and soon became one of the nation’s leaders in modern clinical psychology.

Several years later, Sarason summarized his career as a clinical psychologist in The Clinical Interaction (1956). His focus on mental deficiency earned him recognition in “the part of the field of education concerned with atypical development” (Sarason 1988, 334). During lecture tours to promote this book, Sarason learned a great deal about America’s educational system, including deficient special education programs and the lack of adequate teacher preparation to deal with special education students. Sarason merged his newfound insights of education with psychological research in The Preparation of Teachers: An Unstudied Problem (1962), a book that he coauthored with two colleagues. The basis for this work (Murray 2002) stemmed from Sarason’s view that “organized psychology entities . . . focused so exclusively on clinical psychology and basic research . . . overlooked psychology’s application in the schools.” Sarason’s interest in education spurred the creation of the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic, of which he served as director from 1962–1970. Schools were the first priority for the clinic.

After Sarason left the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic, he wrote The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971), which profoundly affected the school reform movement. In this book, he developed his belief that the outcome of schooling and the quality of schools likely would continue to decline. His The Creation of Settings and the Future Societies (1972) focused on factors associated with new settings and why these settings ultimately failed to reach their anticipated zenith. A decade later, still uncertain of the path education had taken, Sarason wrote Psychology Misdirected (1981). In this book, Sarason informs us that (Blatt 1982) “academic psychology goes wrong in two ways: it studies one animal at a time, and the field doesn’t feel compelled to do anything about what it learns.” The following year, Sarason wrote Schooling in America: Scapegoat and Salvation (1983), which drew upon his observations and experimental work at the Yale clinic where he began to see uninteresting and intellectually boring establishments.

Sarason’s autobiography Making of an American Psychologist (1988) provided detailed information about his work in education and psychology. Based on his experiences, Sarason (1988, 122) recommended “that any social scientist whose work purports to inform public policy should be required, every five years or so, to assume a role in the area of action that allows him or her to implement or test the appropriateness of that work.”

The 25th anniversary of the publication of Sarason’s The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (1971) was marked by a symposium at the American Educational Research Association and the issuance of the third edition of the book under the title Revisiting the Culture of the School and the Problem of Change. He also received the American Psychological Foundation’s Gold Medal Award for Life Contribution by a Psychologist in the Public Interest.

According to Fried (2003, 2), “Sarason worked to bring together disciplines, often segregated within academic circles, that he believed deeply influenced one another.” His contributions to psychology and education have been recognized by many organizations—a testimony to his love of ideas and high energy level that were complemented by realistic hope and his conviction that each of us in community can make a difference.

Contributed by: Eric R. Tomanec, Gonzales (Texas) Independent School District

Blatt, B. 1982 On the heels of psychology. Journal of Learning Disorders 15(1): 52–53.

Fried, R. L. 2003. The skeptical visionary: A Seymour Sarason education reader. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Murray, B. 2002. It’s time psychology went to school. Monitor on Psychology 33(1).

Sarason, S. B. 1988. The making of an American psychologist: An autobiography. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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