Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Promoting “Psychological Literacy”

Originally posted on February 29, 2008

In some ways, I’m actually a little behind—technologically—and more than a bit out of it—because I don’t have a television set, don’t see many movies, don’t know or care about several major sectors of popular culture (e.g., movies, sports, celebrities, television shows)! But also I realized today that in a few ways I am perhaps 50 – 60 years ahead of my generation. One of those ways relates to my thoughts about what the teachers of the teachers need to learn:

Specifically, I am proposing that what I call “psychological literacy”—really a practical approach to everyday psychology—be made into a core part of the educational community. Seventy years ago psychology was sort of on the sidelines as a relatively dry and technical academic field; then it became more mainstream, but in a stigmatized way: Psychoanalysis was talked about more, but most people saw it as an activity by urban, self-indulgent people who subjected themselves to the on-the-couch odd ritual, conducted by oddly dressed, bearded psychiatrists—the whole cartoon caricature. This impression was also mixed with the continuing stigma about mental illness. At any rate, psychology had little relevance for ordinary red-blooded Americans, or so it seemed.

However, the world is changing, it is becoming more complex, and people are being asked not just to obey, but to be actively creative. The nature of work is shifting that way, and as a result, for a number of reasons that would take too long to explain here, people are needing to know how to communicate more effectively, take risks, be less afraid and more confident, and in short, be more mentally flexible. To achieve this, we need to develop an infrastructure of knowledge, concepts, and skills—i.e. the aforementioned “psychological literacy.”

To build that infrastructure, first, we need to harvest the best insights of the many developments in psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, and many related behavioral sciences and other fields (e.g., communications studies, comparative mythology, etc.). These need to be integrated, translated into user-friendly language, and adapted for application in education, religion, business, community building, committee work of all kinds, and so forth. Finally, we need to teach the teachers of the teachers all this stuff.

I envision as a longer-term goal that we teach practical psychology in middle school and high school as a core subject, giving it more importance for college credit and admissions than many other subjects now considered key requirements. Young people need to start learning about conflict resolution, resisting temptation and intimidation, self-assertion, self-management of emotions, and the like.  (Efforts toward this goal are already being promoted by a variety of people in the field of education:

My own bias feeds into my opinion that social and emotional learning skills are ideally taught using role playing, because psychological literacy is a skill that requires experiential learning, getting the knack. It also requires the integration of imagination, intuition, emotion, and physical action (regarding, say, nonverbal communications, self-cue-ing, etc.), as well as rational thinking and help to be more articulate. I think our culture needs these skills badly. They are part of the work ethic and positive attitudes that contemporary employers are looking for.

We need to continue a more complex level of learning about these dimensions in college teaching, as they apply to dating, going steady, sexuality, working with peer groups, and other settings. These skills up to now were assumed to be picked up as part of maturation, sort of automatically. This is simply not so, or it is so only to a limited degree. A more conscious process of upgrading your mental “computer program”—and then upgrading it again in a few years—needs to become a social and psychological norm, an expectation of what humans do for the rest of their lives.

I am aware that there remains a challenge of persuading those who set the curriculum for educators and then developing programs to teach the teachers of the teachers. At present, relatively few people are prepared to do this. But, as I say, there are others reaching for if not the same then a somewhat similar goal. Mainly, I want to point to what is needed!

One thing that gives me hope is that there are several technological breakthroughs that might make it easier to achieve this goal. With computers, the popularization of the personal computer was made possible by the invention of an icon-based system—the point on the little picture and click system—replacing (around 1983) the need for computer users to use codes to get things done. The equivalent in the learning of psychology is the use of the role as the unit of psychological and social interaction—as the musical note functions in music. Speaking of situations in terms of the roles being played and the components of those roles opens up so many issues to a way to constructively analyze and renegotiate them.

Another tool for what I call “psychological literacy” is the use of role playing techniques and related methods, as they also “open up” communications by adding more viewpoints or frames of reference for thinking about a problem.

Well, this topic opens into what could be hundreds if not thousands of pages of amplification and explication. The “how” can be read about elsewhere on my website. Your creative input probably can add to this, too.

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