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Psychology at S.S.U.
Keeping the Flame Alive
Red Thomas 5/15/96

Synchronicity? I had just hung up the phone after a conversation with Art Warmoth regarding his recent request for me to write something about the core philosophy of the Sonoma State Psychology Department. While ruminating about how to begin the piece I was about to write, I happened to glance at a stack of mail that my wife had placed on the dining table. On top was the current AHP Perspective for May/June '96 and on the cover in bold letters, practically leaping out at me, was the phrase, "REKINDLING THE FLAME!" ( As most of you probably know, this is a portion of the theme title for the 1996 summer conference of the Association for Humanistic Psychology: "Rekindling the Flame of Human Possibility." The metaphor of the flame provided me with the opening I needed for this exploration of what might be the "Core Philosophy" of the Psychology Department.

On the one hand, it feels a bit strange to me for someone who has been officially out of a department for almost 26 years to be undertaking the task of writing about that department's core philosophy. On the other hand, I like to feel that the historical perspective I can offer from having been on the ground floor in the early days of Sonoma State may, if I can put things together at this point, give each of us an opportunity to examine both our individual and collective values and purposes.


Journey with me, if you will, back forty years to the fall of 1956 when the San Francisco State Off- Campus Center opened its doors in Santa Rosa. We had a faculty of 10, representing several academic disciplines with a student body of about 250 students enrolled in a two-year upper division curriculum leading to an elementary teaching credential. This faculty, with a few changes in personnel, existed for five years as members of San Francisco State College. At the end of that time (1961), all but one of us transferred from San Francisco State to become the core faculty of the new Sonoma State College. .

What does all this have to do with "core philosophy of the Sonoma State Psychology Department?" Actually, more than it might seem at first glance. First of all, three of this S.F.State Center group, George Mcabe, Gordon Tappan and myself were the psychology department of Sonoma State for the first couple of years. We, along with the rest of the Center faculty, had worked closely together for the previous five years. During that time most of us took advantage of the opportunity of learning from each other by co-teaching and/or participating as students in several of the classes. For example, not only did Gordon Tappan, George McCabe and I co-teach psychology classes from time to time, but I recall co-teaching with faculty in literature, political science, natural science, and art. In fact, one of my most valuable experiences was as a student in Wright Putney's Mural Class. From this experience I gained insights about myself and the creative process that have stayed with me throughout the years. This close contact, not only with colleagues in our chosen disciplnes, but with those of other disciplines as well, resulted in broadening and deepening the perspectives of each of us.

In such a community of teachers and learners it was just about impossible for anyone to remain isolated or anonymous. The specific purpose of the Center was to develop and train elementary school teachers. We, as faculty, worked closely with each other and our students. For better or worse, we got to know each other as individuals with all our virtues and blemishes. The point I would emphasize here was the general shift in focus of most of the faculty from subject matter per se to the student both as a person and as a potential teacher. As I see it, our respective academic disciplines, as important as any of them might have been, tended to be viewed in the context of their value and relevance to the lives of the persons involved. Within this context, the boundary lines separating our various disciplines became less and less distinct as the curriculum became more person-centered. (When using the term "person-centered" I refer to a type of relationship and focus which both includes and transcends subject matter and the roles of student and teacher that we all assume from time to time.)

Imagine ,if you will, the unique situation in 1961 when practically this whole kit and kaboodle of faculty and students from the San Francisco State Center, most of whom had worked closely together for years, became the nucleus of the faculty and student body of the new Sonoma State College. This move presented all of us with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was how to deal constructively with the loss of what most of us experienced as an effectively functioning and personally fulfilling working and living situation. We were now to be broken up into separate divisions and departments. The good news was the opportunity for those of us who chose to do so to have a significant influence in building new departments from the ground up. I personally found this to be both scary and exhilarating.

George McCabe, who had been director of the Center, became chairman of the division of education and psychology and Gordon Tappan and I were officially the psychology department. Though we three differed a lot in style and temperment we were pretty much in accord with regard to values, goals and sense of direction for the new psychology department. Also of great importance was a strong sense of mutual respect and trust that stemmed from our prior five-year experience of working together. Since college rules required an officially designated chairman of the psychology department, we had to submit to the seemingly irrelevant task, at the time, of deciding which of us would be "It." History tells of an apochryphal coin-toss which I lost and thus became the first chairman of the department.

[I'm presently struggling with two voices. One says,"Get to the point. Your assignment is to identify and discuss the core philosophy of the psychology department. You only need to tell people what time it is, not how to make a watch!" The other one is less demanding and more playful. He urges me to go on with my story. I like stories, so what the hell. I hope you do,too.]
Meanwhile back at the ranch. It's fall semester 1961 at the new Sonoma State College, housed in three temporary buildings on the shore of beautiful Golis Lake, somewhere in what is now Rohnert Park, CA. ( For those of you who may not be up on your ancient history, Paul Golis was the original developer of Rohnert Park. He literally built our temporary campus in about 30 days. We thought it only appropriate as a fitting gesture of gratitude to name the body of treated sewage water behind our buildings, "Golis Lake" in his honor.)

One sunny autumn morning in 1961 George Mc Cabe, Gordon Tappan and I are having a psychology department meeting somewhere in the vicinity of the water cooler when out of the blue, George turns to Gordon and me and asks, "What if we had a conference in existential psychology this coming summer? We could invite Carl Rogers and Rollo May as keynoters. Would you two guys be willing to serve as co-directors?" Well, it took only a few seconds for the three of us to agree to go for it.

I had known and worked with Carl Rogers several years prior to that time and he was intrigued with the direction in which we were moving at Sonoma State. He immediately agreed to come and also persuaded Rollo May to accept our invitation. May then spread the word to Ludwig Lefebre, a German existential psychologist living in San Francisco at that time and suggested we invite him to participate. We did so and he accepted. We also invited Wilson Van Dusen, who then was chief psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital. We arranged to hold the conference for five days in late summer of 1962 at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa. Although we had limited the participation to professionals, we nevertheless were swamped with applications to attend. Just a few weeks prior to the conference I received a call from Rollo May who had been in communication with Abe Maslow, who at that time was doing some consulting work in southern California. Would we consider inviting him? I immediately contacted Maslow, who enthusiastically accepted.
The format of the conference included presentations by each of the five key staff members, public dialogue by the staff, and a large portion of time devoted to small group workshops and discussions. In those days such things as T-groups, encounter groups and the like were in their infancy and still unknown to large numbers of professionals. Gordon Tappan and I both had experiences in small relatively unstructured groups and were convinced of their importance as tools for developing human potential. In addition to being co-directors, each of us served as small group facilitators. We also participated in the various workshops offered by others on the staff. To the surprise of several participants, as well as some of the visiting staff, who came to the conference expecting the usual presentations followed by intellectual discussions, the deep transformational experiential learnings occurring from the small group sessions were deemed most important by far.
This conference helped immensely to validate our efforts in launching the new psychology department in what we considered to be a highly significant and much needed direction. The small relatively unstructured groups, later called "basic encounter groups," appeared to be a highly effective tool for producing states of being, resembling in many cases what Rogers had described in his model of the fully functioning person and Maslow in his study of self-actualized people. We followed up this conference with large summer conferences as well as smaller conferences throughout the year for the next several years. These extra-curricular events, sponsored by the Sonoma State College Foundation and open to the public, provided us with our own learning laboratories in human relations and person-centered learning. We were becoming increasingly determined to find out how we could apply what we were were learning in these intensive "cultural island" situations to the far more complex academic world.

Beginnings of a Department "Core Philosophy"

With the full support of the president, Ambrose Nichols (to whom I shall remain eternally grateful) we decided to create a psychology department that would emphasize areas of study and practice that we considered to be both highly important yet sadly neglected by much of the academic psychology of the time. Should not psychology somehow be relevant to human existence? How can it help us to become more self-aware, self-directed, creative, happy, fully-functioning, loving persons, living in harmony with ourselves, each other, society, nature,and the cosmos? What about the literal and original meaning of psychology as a study of the psyche or soul? If one is bothered by these terms, how about the cultivation and study of the inner experiences of people - dreams, fantasies,intuitive insights, visions, mystical and religious experiences, myths, etc.. At the time, we labeled our approach as "existential." It also included aspects of phenomenology at least in its valuing of inner experience as a legitimate area of study. It's probably not too difficult at this point to detect shades of Jung and the radical empiricism of William James, whose thought and work greatly influenced us.( It might be of interest that at the time, the term,"humanistic psychology" had not yet come into vogue. It was sometime later that someone dubbed Sonoma State College "a hot-bed of humanistic psychology.")

How To Attain Our Goals?

We were extremely fortunate to find ourselves in a situation where experimentation was not only tolerated but welcomed and supported by the administration. One very basic aspect of our experiment had to do with testing the limits of freedom within an academic setting. We believed that students should be challenged and encouraged to search within themselves for their deepest values, interests and goals and, as Joseph Campbell admonished, "Follow your bliss." We as faculty tried to apply this principle to ourselves by identifying those areas of study we felt most passionate about and make these the basis of our teaching. We encouraged both our students, and each other as faculty. to search for and question the value and the personal relevance of whatever we were required to learn or teach. To borrow from Rogers, we sought to encourage a shift of the locus of authority from external sources to within the person her/himself. Ideally we sought, insofar as possible, to create an atmosphere in our classes in which students and faculty took part in the development of the curriculum and functioned as co-learners and teachers.

Despite our shortcomings, whatever we were doing or not doing in those first couple of years attracted a large number of students. Our reputation for offering a person-centered program seemed to act as a magnet for many people avidly searching for something essential that was lacking in most of the traditional academic psychology programs at the time. Of course, with just two of us, Gordon Tappan and myself, as full-tme faculty in the Psych.Department (George McCabe was engaged most of the time with administration), we couldn't even come close to offering anything approaching a well-rounded "respectable" program for psychology majors. Obviously our faculty needed to grow both in numbers and diversity. Our main challenge was to attain the diversity necessary for a well-rounded psychology department while still remaining true to the unique path we had embarked upon.

Our decision to carefully choose new faculty who were committed to a person-centered approach was confirmed by a private conversation with Abe Maslow during our summer conference in 1962. I remember it quite vividly. During a break between sessions while milling around in the lobby of the Flamingo Hotel he grabbed my arm and said, "Sit with me a few minutes, Thomas, I have some advice I'd like to give you based on my experience at Brandeis. As chairman of a brand new department you are in a position to help create something very rare and very important. You will get a lot of pressure to diversify. I caution you to go slow and choose carefully, particularly in choosing an experimental psychologist. When you do have to choose, be very particular that it is someone who understands and values the approach you and Tappan stand for." Two years from that time in the fall of 1964, we hired Frank Siroky as our first designated "experimental psychologist."
After the first two years, in the fall of 1963, Stan Goertzen joined the faculty, In the fall of '64, along with Frank, we were joined by Gerry Redwine and Jo Fortier. Nina Menrath and Bob Rueping joined us soon after. We were still a small enough group to operate informally. Most faculty meetings were evening pot-lucks and most departmental decisions were made by consensus.(I don't recall any decisions made by vote during those years when I was chair.) I agreed to continue serving as chairman as long as I would not receive any release time for administration and would be free to teach full time. This was not as ridiculous as it might appear. I personally find many aspects of administration to be troublesome and often boring Facing these realities openly, provided the opportunity for members of the faculty to do some of the chores that I either hated or was inept at performing. For example, working out class schedules, even for such a small group, terrified me. Yet, Stan Goertzen seemed to love that task, treated it as a game, and willingly took it on each semester.

And so we muddled our way through the early years of Sonoma State. Students came pouring in from all over for all kinds of reasons, not all of which were admirable. Being "on the map" was both a blessing and a curse. Teaching in the Sonoma State Psychology Department in the '60's was like cooking for droves of hungry people without enough cooks, food, or recipes. At one point the student-faculty ratio for psych.majors was something like 40 to 1. I don't know how many students fell through the cracks. Whatever the number, I wish it could have been less. I believe the freedom to pick and choose, to develop one's own curriculum was a boon to those students who were already mature enough to use the freedom constructively. Fortunately, there were several of these. On the other hand, we had neither the resources nor the ingenuity to provide the kind of attention that might have helped those who were unable to handle the heavy dose of freedom. ( This area, in my opinion, deserves considerable discussion. Any takers?)
We attempted, each in his or her own way, to utilize in our various psychology classes whatever we had learned and were continuing to learn from the burgeoning human potential movement. In 1966 we began the graduate program leading to the master's degree in humanistic psychology that gave both students and faculty the opportunity to experiment in greater depth with person-centered curricula. Here we were provided with the opportunity to work intensively with a small select group of students. What we learned in the early years in the master's program provided us with an important foundation for the School of Expressive Arts experiment initiated three years later in 1969 by Mac McCreary.

The School of Expressive Arts

Expressive Arts opened its doors in fall semester, 1970. In this radical interdisciplinary experiment, we pulled out most of the stops with regard to conventional classroom and curriculum structures. It felt close to being the ultimate test of freedom for faculty and students. Students, in consultation with faculty advisors and colleagues, designed their own course of study. Traditional classroom structures were either dropped or drastically altered. There were many workshops, conducted both by faculty and students, dealing with a vast variety of interests, skills and expertise. There was ample time and space for both students and faculty to dig deeply into themselves, seek and find what they valued most and to design their curricula accordingly. There also was opportunity for several sub-communities to form in addition to the larger community, where each person was encouraged to present work in progress and receive both support and feedback. Faculty functioned as artists in residence as did most of the students. We soon learned that, given the climate and opportunity for self-expression, each person in addition to being a learner, also had something to teach.

Expressive Arts afforded the opportunity to enhance the experience of self-discovery we had been attempting to provide for our students in the psychology department by including the dimension of concrete expression. Students were free to choose both the subjects and the media for their personal expression. Originality and creativity were encouraged. Perhaps even more important were honesty and authenticity in the journey toward one's goals. For many, self-expression eventually extended beyond one particular area, such as painting, music, writing,photography, etc. More often than not the pursuit of what initially appeared to be a narrow and even superficial personal interest, eventually led to such questions as, "what do I really want to do with my life, and what kind of educational experiences do I need to achieve my goals?" I'm convinced that the community established in Expressive Arts provided a truly transformative educational experience for a highly significant number of those who committed themselves to the process.

Applications of Expressive Arts Learnings

After the demise of the School of Expressive Arts in 1984, those of the faculty who still chose to remain at Sonoma State until the time of this writing - Elizabeth Herron, Mac McCreary, and myself, each in her or his separate ways, sought to apply what we had learned in the expressive arts experiment to our programs at the University. Elizabeth has established herself in the English department utilizing a mentorship model in teaching creative writing. Mac and I taught counseling skills in the Department of Nursing program and an occasional psychology course. We each taught several sections of "Written and Oral Analysis" an upper division general education courser required of all students in order to graduate. Both of us found that much of what we had derived from the expressive arts experience, with appropriate modifications, worked even in a required course. I have documented my own experiences in a couple of places.(1),(2).

The Learning Community

In my opinion, The Learning Community, initiated by Art Warmoth in the late 80's,is the main link between the past models discussed above and the present. This vital, innovative program embodies not only most of the person-centered values and procedures of the Psychology Department and the School of Expressive Arts, but goes a step beyond in that it also attempts to address current concerns dealing with the larger world scene and the need for systems changes. Art speaks for himself in the following quotes taken from School (1) pp 87-88:

The Mission of the Learning Community

The mission of the Learning Community is to educate self-aware and self-directed students who can participate in an effective and mature manner as citizens and workers in the institutions and organizations of the postmodern information/communication society...

A Description of the Learning Community Process

We are a non-hierarchical organization
We are dedicated to collaborative,cooperative experiential kinds of learning.
We hold to the values of humanistic psychology: self-actualization, respect for diversity,inclusivity and pluralism.
We endeavor to create an environment for transformative educational experiences.
We value the epistemic significance of individual experience.

What we ask learners to do :
Forget the traditional organizational structures of the Academy.
Bring heart,mind,body and soul with them into the classroom.
Become connected with their own passions,needs, and learning styles and interests.
Honor,respect,and utilize their own and each other's differences.
Create their own educational program in the context of community
Live their own educational program in the context of community.
Live their own education and practice humanistic values in their lives.

I have been in relatively close contact with the learning community and several of its alumni for the last few years and am impressed by the program and the quality of those students who have committed themselves to it. I find it most encouraging to see so many students become self- directed learners, not only in charge of themselves, but capable of facilitating learning and growth in others.

Some Personal Reflections on Core Philosophy

I recall a remark by one of my professors many years ago that in dealing with problems in the field of psychology one must choose between getting precise answers to trivial questions or ambiguous answers to important ones. I felt then, as I do now, that in the quest for certainty, psychology as an academic discipline too often has chosen the former. I feel that the core philosophy of the Sonoma State Psychology Department, for better or worse, has, from the onset,leaned strongly in the latter direction. We have chosen to focus on what we considered to be the big problems. For whatever part I have played in this choice I accept responsibility without apology. I believe that this is also generally true of the department today.

Also, while in graduate school and studying learning theory, I came upon a comment in a book by one of the outstanding learning theorists of the time. In referring to what he considered to be appropriate and inappropriate areas for psychological study, he used the metaphor of a junk heap into which we should toss any experiences that that were not directly observable and measureable. Chances are he never would have hired me in his department, had I applied for a position, since most of what I was interested in, qualified for space in his junk heap. To hark back to Maslow's advice referred to earlier, hiring someone who views you as "The Enemy," is too high a price to pay for diversity. I'm well aware that this poses a tricky problem that could lead to an interesting discussion. However, I happen to believe that the Psychology Department at SSU as it now exists has a healthy diversity of personalities, areas of interest, expertise, teaching styles and points of view, sufficient to provide a good education for an equally diverse group of psychology students. As far as I know, the dealing with whatever differences that might exist within the department seems to avoid the kinds of adversarial relations that can tear a department apart.and dissipate energy that could have been more constructively directed. In other words, I don't observe too many junk heaps here. In fact, I even believe there might be room for our learning theorist cited above to do his work in this department with the crucial stipulation, "NO JUNK HEAP!!"

Where Do We Go From Here?

For reasons of which I'm not fully aware, I find myself resisting the customary summary as I approach the final phase of what's beginning -perish the thought- to feel like a sermon. I have enjoyed spinning tales about "the good old days when times were bad." With regard to the core philosophy bit, I've tried to provide you with a picture of what our intents and purposes were from the beginning of the department. I'd be very interested in how it might conform to or differ from your own perceptions of what it was, is now, or should be.

What I would most like to do at this point is to focus on both the present and the future. I will begin by addressing what for me has been a perennial problem in academia, namely, how to deal effectively with isolation and fragmentation in the academic world, both for ourselves and our students. Departments and class structures, required courses, grades, credits, and examinations obviously were designed to serve a purpose in a most imperfect world, but I submit that they pose a continual challenge, particularly to any of us who view the goal of education to be far more than merely the accumulation of information and the development of cognitive skills.
Is it possible to devise structures and procedures that can lead to a truly holistic education within our existing psychology department at Sonoma State? I've previously mentioned a few that in my experience have shown promise. I believe most of us have experienced something approaching this ideal in varying degrees in our classes, and in our one-to-one and small group relations with students and colleagues. It may be unrealistic and perhaps not even necessary or a good thing to expect an already established group the size of this department to act as an integrated unit. My hunch is that a healthier and more potentially effective approach is to use the skills and talents that exist among us to establish meaningful dialogue with the intent to identify our values and goals both for ourselves and our students and some possible ways of attaining them.
I wonder about the possibility of giving priority to ongoing support groups in which faculty and students could gather together for the purpose of establishing authentic person-to-person communication conducive to personal integration and the development of true community.( The learning community program in the Psychology Department, in my opinion, has already been making significant progress in this direction.) Such a process in no way need interfere with existing classes that are working well for both students and teachers. What it could do would be to enhance the existing classes by helping students to integrate and discover the personal relevance of what they are being taught; and, most important, to become more self-directed and responsible participants in the learning process. Creating a climate of trust, where authentic dialogue can take place, offers the most promising means I can think of for enabling us to attain this goal.

1) Robinson, Skip, Thomas, H.F, Warmoth, Arthur, School,1994
2) Thomas,H.F." Keeping Person Centered Education Alive in
Academic Settings",Person-Ceentered Review, Vol.3, Aug.1988
3) "Toward a Rationale and Model for Basic Education" In E,Bauman, L.Piper,and A.Wright(Eds.),The Holistic Health Lifebook, (pp. 282-293),Berkeley, and/or Press,1980


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