In the late 1880s, a horse unwittingly helped lay the foundation for more precise research. As psychology history scholars well know, Wilhelm Von Osten’s horse, Hans, could purportedly answer math problems, tell time and answer other complex questions by tapping out responses with his hoof. Spectators marveled at the horse’s abilities until German psychologist Oskar Pfungst took a closer look and discovered the real source of Hans’s cleverness: Von Osten, ever-anxious for Hans to tap out the right answer, was unconsciously cueing the horse to stop when he’d reached the correct number of taps.

Ever since then, psychological researchers take steps to avoid the “Clever Hans Effect” by designing double-blind experiments for research with animals and humans.

“Clever Hans taught us how unwittingly our own beliefs influence the outcomes we get,” says Diane Halpern, PhD, of Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “That message is as relevant today as it’s ever been.”

So are countless other findings from psychology’s earlier days, say historians. For that reason, many educators believe the history of psychology should be required as part of every student’s training at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Studying the field’s successes and mistakes, alongside today’s emerging findings, teaches students how to think critically about psychology, they say.

Psychology history also demonstrates how the field began and developed in response to modern culture, politics, economics and current events. “History provides perspective, context, a dose of humility, and it allows us to see the development of our profession in the larger cultural context,” says David Baker, PhD, director of the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron.

But history, it appears, may not be as important in some psychology circles as it once was. Columbia University, Stanford University and Claremont McKenna College are among the institutions that no longer offer a history of psychology course. Options to pursue a PhD in history of psychology are narrowing: Last year, the University of New Hampshire eliminated its doctoral training program in the history of psychology. Now only York University in Toronto trains psychologists as historians at the graduate level.

Some say that the field’s specialization and growth are crowding history classes from departments that once required them. Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., for example, required the course for 40 years, but made it an elective last year so students had time for more statistics, developmental and multicultural psychology classes, says Kara Gabriel, PhD, who sits on the department’s curriculum committee. “Ultimately, we felt that increasing the breadth of the major was more important than retaining the [history] course,” says Gabriel. “Unfortunately, you can’t do all things in a program.”

APA’s Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major encourage training and competence in history but say that individual departments can decide how to do that. At the graduate level, APA’s Guidelines and Principles for Accreditation require doctoral programs to train graduate students to be competent in psychology history, but don’t require a stand-alone course.

Halpern, who led the 2008 National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology, understands that departments — including her own — don’t or can’t offer the course due to competing demands. But she also believes it’s time for history to reassert itself as an essential part of the discipline.

“At a time when we have all of this specialization that is fragmenting psychology, history is a good way of reunifying and helping us understand where all of these diverse ideas in psychology came from,” she says.

Retiring interest

Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, began teaching psychology history at the University of California, Davis, in 1989. His department had been considering dropping the course when the professor teaching it retired, so Simonton stepped in. Now, with his own retirement just six years away, Simonton worries that no one will take over the course when he’s gone.

“History may soon be history,” he says.

Simonton’s situation isn’t unique, many say. In the late 1990s when Alfred Fuchs, PhD, was approaching retirement, he wondered if his department would continue offering history once he wasn’t there to teach it. His curiosity led him to conduct a survey. Along with psychologist-historian Wayne Viney, PhD, of Colorado State University, he asked 384 U.S. undergraduate and graduate departments of psychology on whether they offered history.

Fuchs and Viney found that most departments offered and said they were committed to teaching history of psychology and found that a few that had dropped it or never offered it were considering picking it up again. But they also found a small trend among departments toward dropping the course over the past few decades. Of the 42 departments in their sample that didn’t offer a history course, eight said they had never offered it, one had dropped it in the ’60s, seven had dropped it in the ’70s, nine had dropped it in the ’80s and 16 had dropped it in the ’90s. Many of those departments cited pressures to offer a wide range of courses, found Fuchs and Viney.

While 92 percent of the 311 departments that did offer the course said they would still offer the course if the current teacher retired, 7 percent, or 24 departments, said they would drop the course if that happened (History of Psychology, Vol. 5, No. 1).

Fuchs and Viney also asked participants who taught psychology history how they became interested in teaching it. “The most frequent answer was through a course they took,” says Fuchs, now a professor emeritus at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “But if the course doesn’t exist, you can’t get interested in it.”

The dwindling of psychology history courses at some schools comes at a time when history in general continues to capture students’ interest, especially at the undergraduate level, according to research by the American Historical Association. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education says that a record number of history degrees were conferred in 2005–06.

“This is a time when everyone is talking about the historic nature of the times we are living in,” says Robert Townsend, PhD, AHA’s assistant director for research. “People are really interested in why things change, in how the past connects to the present.”

Psychology’s trouble may be that educators aren’t promoting history well enough to potential instructors or students, says Halpern.

“History can be a very valuable course if its purpose is made clear,” says Halpern, “It’s not just to repeat when Skinner was born. It’s about teaching how we use conditioning principles in learning, in therapy and in advertising, and pulling those connections together.”

History classes also have to be exciting, says Alexandra Rutherford, PhD, of York University. She says psychology history can be one of the easiest courses to make fun and engaging because archives worldwide now have Web sites linking to primary source material and video footage, offering endless teaching possibilities. (Among the most popular is the Advances in the History of Psychology Web site, which often gets 1,000 hits a day.) “Some people are even using Second Life and having students create an avatar that’s a historical figure,” she says.

William Woody, PhD, of the University of Northern Colorado, uses classroom demos to enliven his classes. He often portrays famous historical psychologists in class and has had students role-play what it would be like to be a student in Edward Bradford Titchener’s lab. Such exercises are fun and prompt students to think deeply about the material, he says.

“You can read about ‘Little Albert’ and conditioned emotional reactions,” says Woody, “but when I hit a real four-foot steel bar with a hammer in class, students emerge with a different understanding of this event,” by experiencing the same frighteningly loud noise the child heard as he was being conditioned by John Watson.

Gira Bhatt, PhD, who teaches the history of psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, is an applied social psychologist, but says that it’s in her history course where she delivers her best teaching. She regularly gives out such assignments as “What question would you want to ask Sigmund Freud?” or “Where would you go in psychology’s history with a time machine?” to deepen her students’ interest.

“I’ve had the best teaching evaluations I’ve ever had when teaching history of psychology,” she says.

Forward thinking

In an effort to generate more excitement about history, APA’s division Div. 26 (Society for the History of Psychology) has revamped its Web site to include more interactive features. In addition, Wade Pickren, PhD, editor of History of Psychology, is introducing new features to the publication, such as a teaching tips section and an archive feature, that he hopes will attract more psychologists to history (see January Monitor).

The division launched a Facebook page where it regularly posts links to history-related teaching resources, historical video footage, and news articles relevant to the study and teaching of history. Division members are also connecting with other groups to recruit history teachers who aren’t members. The efforts are paying off: For the first time, the Eastern Psychological Association annual conference, to be held in March in New York City, will include a full track of history-related programming, says Rutherford.

“We want to get people who teach history but aren’t doing research in the area to think about the possibility of doing historical research, because it’s fun, it’s inexpensive and it gets you hooked,” she says.

Meanwhile, Baker is developing an online course for faculty who need help developing a history curriculum. The online course could also fill some of the void left as history of psychology teachers retire and aren’t replaced.

Of course, the best-case scenario would be a resurgence of the field, historians say.

“Departments have a lot on their plate and we all understand that. But history is important enough to maintain its place,” Baker says.