Psychoanalysis and Academia: Present, Past, Future


By Murray Schwartz



When, in The Question of Lay Analysis (1926), Freud sketched his ideal of a “college of psychoanalysis,” he transcended a “Two Cultures” view of psychoanalytic education. By including such disciplines as history, mythology, religion, and “the science of literature,” along with sexuality and “the symptomology of psychiatry,” his vision encompassed science, medicine, and the humanities, the nosological and hermeneutic disciplines, and natural scientific and holistic methods. Yet Freud did not address the institutional arrangements that could bring this vision to reality, and, as we know, he confronted anti-Semitic as well as intellectual obstacles in his own time.


In the United States, psychoanalysis did not develop a consistent and stable relationship to the academic world. Although medicine and psychiatry often provided strong institutional support for psychoanalytic training until the 1970s, the humanities and the social sciences followed their own paths, sometimes strongly engaged with psychoanalytic ideas, sometimes challenging the conservative biases of psychoanalytic institutes and practices. Though one can point to a vast array of scholarly writing about psychoanalysis or informed by psychoanalytic ideas in literature, anthropology, history, sociology, art, and many other disciplines, psychoanalytic training (with some exceptions) remained almost entirely separate from the core university curriculum and its departmental structures. In Sander Gilman’s cogent summary of the situation today, “ ‘talk therapy’ has become part of the common coin of some mental health professionals without their seeing the need for any psychoanalytic training and, on the other hand, brilliant and innovative work in applied psychoanalysis, psychohistory, and psychoanalytic theory has developed without much attention to the realities of clinical experience.”[i]


A recent survey of psychoanalytic ideas in the undergraduate curriculum supports this view.[ii] In an ironic twist of Freud’s vision, instead of moving toward integration, psychoanalytic teaching has been migrating from psychiatry and psychology to humanities and social science departments. Since the “Freud wars” of the 1990s, psychoanalysis has often been glibly labeled “bad science,” and Jonathan Redmond and Michael Shulman observe that six times more courses “featuring psychoanalytic ideas [are] available outside psychology departments than in them.” The drift is most prominent in film studies, gender studies, media studies, and cultural studies, especially where postmodern or Lacanian ideas are concerned, though trauma and memory studies are less isolated from psychological and therapeutic domains. Even in academic clinical psychology, James Hansell observes, “psychoanalytic ideas are either openly derided, or given new names within other theoretical perspectives without proper credit.”[iii] Few undergraduates learn about the rich history and contemporary realities of psychoanalytic thought and practice, even when their courses include psychoanalytic perspectives.

Having spent half a century teaching and writing about psychoanalysis, literature, and the arts in the academy, as well as organizing multidisciplinary psychoanalytic activities, I view this dismaying situation with a remembrance of things past, a keen sense of creative possibilities, along with an empirical understanding of the precarious nature of institutional arrangements in both the psychoanalytic and the academic worlds. Mindful of Freud’s ideal, and working with like-minded colleagues, I have sought to bridge many of the gaps that prevent more integrated psychoanalytic education for undergraduates, graduate students, and psychoanalytic trainees.


Beginning in 1970, Norman Holland, who was educated in literature at Harvard and received his psychoanalytic education at BPSI, collaborated with me and other faculty in English, languages, psychology, psychiatry, and several other disciplines, to develop the Center for the Psychological Study of the Arts at SUNY at Buffalo. The center formed the institutional framework for education in psychoanalysis and its uses (a terminology we preferred to the division of “clinical” and “applied” psychoanalysis). The center sponsored monthly discussions of papers by local and visiting scholars and psychoanalysts, and we organized multidisciplinary conferences, including the first international conferences on film and psychoanalysis and feminism and psychoanalysis. The core activity, however, was the curriculum, which was built at the cusp between ego psychology and object relations. Courses in Freud, psychoanalytic aesthetics, theories of infancy, dilemmas of human identity, and a variety of literary subjects, especially Shakespeare, were available to students across disciplinary boundaries, from art to medicine. Co-teaching was common, and psychiatric case conferences were open to humanities students, some of whom went on to full psychoanalytic training in New York, London, and Paris.


The center created a potential space in which dialogue between theory and experience could be played out among and between faculty and students. We eschewed hierarchy. Participants formed a community that diminished the effects of professional status and power relations and amplified opportunities for individual expression. We initiated “Delphi Seminars,” in which students and faculty wrote free-associative responses to poems, stories, and paintings, and then wrote about one another’s responses.[iv] There could be no “wrong” relation between a reader and a text. As in clinical psychoanalysis, this pedagogical method was designed to consider every response as a starting point for recognizing the recurrent patterns and unconscious fantasies that we brought to our professional work. In Jonathan Lear’s term, we aimed to articulate our “idiolects,” the transferential dimensions of our psychic lives, in order to encourage self-reflection and fuller consciousness. In this way, we acknowledged the special contribution of psychoanalysis to teaching and learning, the ways in which psychoanalysis is “subdued to what it works in, like the dyers hand,” as Shakespeare wrote. We were not only learning about, but also learning from psychoanalysis.


These programs flowered from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, first in Buffalo and then at UMass Amherst, where, as Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, I was able to support a psychoanalytic teaching program and conferences that brought together European and American academics and psychoanalysts from numerous disciplines and theoretical persuasions for critical appraisals of Winnicott, Lacan, and conceptions of infancy. In the academia of the 1990s, the wave of interest in “theory” began to subside, but currently many of the same kinds of activities, like points of light, dot the American psychoanalytic landscape, despite its loss of cultural prestige.


Today, psychoanalytic institutions display renewed desire for cross-fertilization with academia. In some places, such as Emory University in Atlanta and Columbia University in New York, alliances have been formed between the arts and sciences and clinical psychoanalysis. In the Boston-Cambridge region, psychoanalytic institutions offer a proliferating array of events that can serve both academic and clinical interests in a host of areas. The Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute has its courses in psychoanalytic studies and, in the Academic Affiliation and Research Division, its Silberger Scholars and the newly established Center for Multidisciplinary Psychoanalytic Studies. The BPSI website will soon link to the PsyArt Foundation, which sponsors the online journal PsyArt, a discussion group, and an annual international conference on psychoanalysis and the arts. These are positive developments, and yet their full potential is only beginning to be realized.


What more can BPSI do to enhance teaching about psychoanalysis and to promote psychoanalytic styles of teaching for students and faculty in our region? Here are some suggestions:

  • Develop a model curriculum for undergraduate teaching that can be adopted (and adapted) at colleges and universities.
  • Explore a “certificate” or “minor” agreement with academic institutions.
  • Offer summer institutes for students and faculty.
  • Arrange visits by psychoanalysts to academic classrooms.
  • Promote uses of BPSI library resources, including archives and digital materials.
  • Establish membership categories for students.

With imagination, commitment, patience, and a keen eye for creative alliances, BPSI and the unmatched variety of academic settings in the Boston-Cambridge area can enrich the teaching of psychoanalysis at a time when our society needs psychoanalytic knowledge and methods of self-exploration more than ever. In new forms that respond to contemporary realities, Freud’s vision can still be a sustaining ideal.

[i] Sander L. Gilman, “Psychoanalysis in the University: The Clinical Dimension.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis  (2009), 90: 1105.


[ii] Jonathan Redmond and Michael Shulman, “Access to Psychoanalytic Ideas in American Undergraduate Institutions.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (2008), 56:2, 391-408.


[iii] James Hansell, in The American Psychoanalyst (2005), 39:2, 16.


[iv] Norman N. Holland and Murray M. Schwartz, Know Thyself: Delphi Seminars. (PsyArt Foundation, 2008).