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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Brookline Psyched

Dennis Fox

August 25 , 2005

Just before my visiting psychologist friends left town on Sunday, I read in the Boston Globe that "nearly 5 percent of psychologists currently licensed to practice in Massachusetts either live or work in Brookline." With 214 licensed psychologists, our psychologist - to - resident ratio is fourth in the state. The news item left my friends and me wondering what our psychologists do beyond therapy, and what else they might do, to make Brookline and the wider world a better place.

My own degree is in social psychology, not in one of the therapy specialties regulated by the state, but my postdoctoral training at the interface of psychology and law showed me how legal rules and authorities treat individuals whose actions become relevant to psychologists. Much of my academic career was spent pondering the nature and implications of mainstream psychology's assumptions and practices.

With one of my visitors, Isaac Prilleltensky (now at Vanderbilt University), I edited Critical Psychology: An Introduction, a 1997 book still used as a text in many countries. A basic critical psychology theme is that the well-meaning work of psychologists as therapists, researchers, and teachers, often aimed at helping individuals cope better with life's challenges, strengthens rather than challenges an unsatisfying and unjust status quo. Critical psychologists believe psychology can do more.

Twenty-five years ago I worked as an emergency medical technician for a Somerville ambulance company. Ambulances save people's lives, but many of those we helped were victims of larger societal forces -- poor diets reinforced by corporate agribusiness, poorly designed automobiles, failure to enforce safety rules or install safer equipment, and so on. I soon decided to return to graduate school, where I hoped to learn how to prevent problems rather than simply pick up the pieces afterwards.

Psychologists face the same dilemma. They often help people function better in distressing circumstances. Yet, critical psychologists insist, psychologists should pay more attention to societal assumptions and institutions that complicate their clients' lives to begin with.

Here in Brookline, as most other places, we rarely see individual psychologists use their knowledge and expertise to engage in political issues. Surely most local psychologists know, for example, how severely the state MCAS test fails mainstream psychology's test-construction protocols. Yet though our therapists may help students cope with their schools' transformation into test-prep centers and even help teachers administer the test more "humanely," they rarely state publicly what should be obvious: based on psychological knowledge, MCAS is a horror. Anyone who cares about children and who understands testing should refuse to administer the MCAS regime rather than simply make it more bearable. Helping kids get through it simply reinforces its use.

Another example: In recent weeks we've read in the TAB about the changing nature of Coolidge Corner, where more and more street space is controlled by corporate chain stores. A good chunk of Brookline's psychologists work in or near Coolidge Corner and see its corporatization on a daily basis. Yet how many point out the downside of living in a society increasingly dominated by decisionmakers motivated by corporate needs rather than human needs? Psychologists should be among the first to object to this transformation in human relationships.

The state MCAS regime and our increasing acceptance of corporate capitalism have in common the acceptance of America's individualist mythology. Students having trouble with cookie-cutter homogenization in the schools, like small-business owners pushed out of town by powerful corporate chains, face a grim task: working harder to succeed in a bad system, mostly on their own. When they fall behind, the American myth tells them it's their own fault -- they didn't try hard enough, or take the right courses, or open the right kind of store. That's just the way it is. Winning and losing is entirely personal rather than systemic.

Mainstream psychology has long been at the forefront of fostering this sort of toxic individualism. A more critical psychology would move toward helping people challenge, rather than adapt to, what most psychologists know is an inadequate society. It would be good to see our 214 licensed psychologists reject self-imposed professional constraints and speak up more clearly about mainstream assumptions and mainstream institutions that do more harm than good.

More on critical psychology- MCAS - corporate power

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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