Past wisdom, present practice

Words of wisdom by William James still offer profound lessons to teachers.

By David E. Leary, PhD

Every now and then it is worth pausing to consider some wisdom from the past, especially if that wisdom might be relevant to our work as teachers of psychology. “Talks to Teachers on Psychology” (1899) is a classic volume on the psychology of teaching. Unlike hundreds upon hundreds of other pedagogical treatises, it has the distinction of never having gone out of print. It also has the distinction of having been written by one of the founders of modern psychology who was himself a beloved and masterful teacher, as shown by the indelible marks he left on many of his students, both famous and not-so-famous.

This beloved and masterful teacher was William James, whose monumental “Principles of Psychology” (1890), subsequently abbreviated into “Psychology: Briefer Course” (1892), introduced generations of psychologists and others to the “new psychology.” Together, these works helped establish a naturalistic psychology that drew its general framework from evolutionary biology, its experimental foundation from neurophysiology and its psychological insights from careful observations of human experience. After publishing these books, James was asked to provide some guidance to the proponents of scientific pedagogy through a series of talks to teachers. In these talks James sought to clarify what teachers might draw from the new psychology. He presented the talks to thousands of listeners across the country, until they appeared in print along with three presentations he had delivered to students. Hence, the full title of this volume: “Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals.”

It would be natural to assume that an advocate of the new discipline of psychology would argue for its importance in the training and activity of teachers. But while James insists that psychology ought to be helpful to the teacher, his first word of wisdom is cautionary. Against the rhetorical hyperbole of others at that time (and, we can say, in later times), James notes that a certain “mystification” has grown up around the science of pedagogy, in the face of which teachers often become “a mite too docile” (James, 1899, p. 15). Even if psychology were more advanced than it was in their day, he argues, “you make a great, a very great mistake, if you think that psychology… is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate school-room use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves.” Instead, James emphasizes, “an intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality” (James, 1899, p. 15). In short, no science, and no pedagogical principles, can do what a creative teacher can and should do, namely, apply general ideas to the teaching of specific pupils in specific circumstances. In sum, it is the individual teacher rather than any scientific or pedagogical nostrum that is responsible for translating useful ideas into effective practices. Teachers, not techniques, make the crucial differences in the education of their students.

Even so, what are the potentially useful ideas teachers can apply, however loosely and creatively? Of the many that James shares in “Talks to Teachers,” I will focus only on those that are most significantly and personally his own, which isn’t to say they are his alone. Although his verbal formulations are often distinctive, he does not shy from acknowledging where his ideas are similar to those of others. Even when similar, however, they often produce a shock of recognition because of the fresh and vivid ways in which he presents them. The key ideas I want to review pertain to the role of basic tendencies, habits, connections, interests and will in education.

Anticipating today’s evolutionary psychologists, James argues that each of us has inherited innate tendencies toward fear, love, imitation, pugnacity and pride and that the teacher should take full advantage of them. (Not to do so, in fact, would be to court disappointment and failure.) In light of this, a good definition of education, James says, is “the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behavior” (James, 1899, p. 27). This definition might seem unusual since the focus of so much education is on the inculcation of ideas rather than habits and conduct per se. But ideas in James’ view are simply guides to behavior. (He defends this view by referring to evolutionary theory.) And so, to be thoroughly learned, ideas must be put into action. In addition, to assure appropriate connections between ideas and actions, they must be repeated until habits are formed.

Habits, of course, can be good or bad. James insists that it is crucial to establish good habits at a young age, and for good reason, the most famous chapter of his book is the one that treats “the laws of habit.” Establishing good habits is not only crucial in the construction of good character, he argues, it is also important in reducing the waste of time, energy and emotions in making decisions — or in suffering indecision — about what to do. The consequence of having good, firm habits is that the individual is thereby freed to turn to other matters — e.g., to novel or problematic situations that warrant attention, consideration and possibly creative solutions. As someone who enjoyed only spotty formal education when he was young and who suffered later from a tendency to indecision, James felt very strongly about the importance of establishing good, reliable habits as the foundation for healthy living and productive learning.

As for how to develop a sufficiently wide and useful network of knowledge, James emphasizes the importance of identifying the interests of pupils and using them as a way of soliciting and maintaining their attention as good habits of thought and behavior are established. The talented teacher is able to help students make connections between the things they are to learn, on the one hand, and their vital concerns, on the other. Making connections between ideas and reality as well as between ideas and actions is crucial in this regard. Optimal ways of fostering such connections will vary, James notes, not only according to each child’s age and interests, but also according to the modalities through which he or she is more likely to learn. Ever the pluralist, James encourages multiple activities and approaches both inside and outside the classroom.

The compelling power of interest combines with the child’s tendency toward imitation in a way that makes the teacher all the more significant. If teachers want their students’ attention, they must be interesting, and if they are interesting, they will elicit their students’ tendency toward imitation. Much of the success of education is thus attributable, according to James, to the effectiveness of the relationship between teacher and pupil. Rules cannot determine how this relationship is to be achieved, but James assumes that the process will involve, among other things, a delicate interplay of each student’s reactions to fear and love.

As for the child’s innate pugnacity and pride, James notes that not all important subjects are going to seem interesting to each pupil. (Indeed, some subjects may be inherently interesting to no young student.) And here is where the will as well as the child’s inborn competitiveness comes in. The teacher, James says, needs at times to call upon students’ fighting impulses — to appeal to their desire to show they can do it, to overcome the obstacles, to triumph against odds, and then to take pride in having done so. Young persons need to push against opposition and to show that they can do what is difficult as well as — or better than — others. Such marshaling of will and resources is what James later called “the moral equivalent of war,” in which the pugnacious tendencies of human nature are turned to noble causes. (His argument was adopted as a rationale, first, for Alcoholics Anonymous, and later for the War on Poverty and the Peace Corps. Since we humans are prone to fight, James says, let’s put our fighting to good causes.)

James concludes his “Talks” commenting that if, in addition to all else, teachers love their students, they will be “in the best possible position for becoming perfect teachers” (James, 1899, p. 114). Perhaps no teacher is unaware of the power of love, but it bears repeating, especially since it underscores the primacy of the relationship between teacher and pupil over the principles and techniques that make up the teacher’s typical stock-in-trade.

There is much more in James’ book, including his talks to students in which he argues for the need to relax, accept and appreciate human diversity, and create a life that is significant — all arguments that are as timely today as they were over 100 years ago. As for other things he says touch upon issues relevant to contemporary teachers, I refer you to a nicely succinct summary of points made in a recent online article by Peter Gibbon (see the link below).

The central take-away from this brief and partial review and from Gibbon’s article is that teaching is an art that is most effectively pursued by individuals who know their stuff, who care about their students and who somehow retain flexibility and creativity, despite the nearly inevitable wearing down that occurs in the course of daily teaching. So, keep the faith! Seek refreshment. And go at it again…and again. It is difficult to imagine a more important thing that you could be doing.

Finally, James might well have added, using himself as an example, that no teacher can be equally effective at all the good things she or he might like to do. So be yourself. Emphasize your strengths. James’ inimitability as a teacher was among the most treasured memories of his students, many of whom reported that it inspired them to be themselves. That’s a legacy worth having.


Gibbon, P. (2013). This 19th-century book is still timely for teachers. EducationWeek (published online Jan. 22) 

James, W. (1981). The principles of psychology (F. H. Burkhardt, Ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original publication 1890)

James, W. (1983). Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals (F. H. Burkhardt, Ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original publication 1899) 

James, W. (1984). Psychology: Briefer course (F. H. Burkhardt, Ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (Original publication 1892)

About the Author

David E. LearyDavid E. Leary was professor of psychology, history and the humanities at the University of New Hampshire (from 1976 to 1989) before becoming dean of arts and sciences (from 1989 to 2002) and subsequently university professor (2002- ) at the University of Richmond. He is a continuing fellow of APA's Div. 1 (Society for General Psychology), Div. 24 (Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) and Div. 26 (Society for the History of Psychology), and has served as president of both divisions 24 and 26. He has published around 40 articles and chapters and more than 30 reviews and commentaries. His co-edited book on "A Century of Psychology as Science" (McGraw-Hill, 1985) was reissued in 1992 by APA as one of its major centennial publications. Currently, he is conducting research and writing on the influence of literature on psychology, with a special focus on the life and work of William James. In 2009, he received Div. 26's Lifetime Career Achievement Award.