In the Public Interest
Earlier this year, the The Review of General Psychology issued its list of the top psychologists of the 20th century. As expected, Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner topped the list. I then scanned the list for Kenneth B. Clark. I was disappointed and surprised to find his name nowhere on that list of influentials.
The case for Clark
Why would I assume Kenneth Clark's name would be found in an article purporting to list eminent psychologists of the 20th century? There are several reasons. For one, Clark served as president of APA in 1970--the first African-American so honored. In 1994, he received APA's Lifetime Achievement Award, only the sixth time it had been bestowed.
But most importantly, Clark was central to one of the most significant U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century. When the court decided Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, one of the works cited was Clark's now-famous "Doll Study," which demonstrated the deleterious effects of racial segregation on the self-concept of black children. That research, conducted by Clark and his wife, Mamie Phipps Clark, not only influenced the Supreme Court justices to strike down the laws that mandated segregated schools, but arguably played a role in the demise of "separate but equal" in other areas of American life.
Never before had social sciences research been used by the highest court to make one of the most far-reaching decisions of the 20th century. Shouldn't that have helped Clark find a place, perhaps a reasonably high place, on a list of eminent and influential psychologists?
How did this happen?
The method used by the Review of General Psychology survey to generate the list of notables provides some clues as to how Clark was omitted. It relied heavily on the number of times an author was cited in journals and textbooks and on a survey of a sample of American Psychological Society members. Other factors were also taken into consideration, such as National Academy of Sciences membership, serving as APA president and being a recipient of the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award. These criteria, particularly the number of journal and textbook citations, possibly worked against Clark. Certainly he was not short on honors and awards.
Still puzzled by his omission, I sought information about Clark from the Library of Congress, which, as it turned out, had quite a bit--168,500 items derived from publications, speeches, work papers and more that spanned 196 linear feet and occupied 500 boxes. Even a cursory review of these materials reveals a lot about how Clark spent his time. In addition to psychology, he worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League and other groups involved with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. He and his wife were involved in many organizations that benefited the New York community in which they lived.
It is likely that he was one of the most socially active psychologists of the era when minorities, primarily African-Americans, struggled for equal rights and justice in America.
So, after my investigations, the question remains: How could such a distinguished psychologist be omitted from such a list?
There are clearly honors for psychologists whose works are cited by others--that is how the discipline advances. But there are some acts and ideas that cannot be ascertained by numbers. Eminence may be one of them.
Kenneth Clark and his works, in my opinion, deserve better.