A Whole New World: A College-Driven Psychological Transformation
Julianna M. Koski
Being the product of conditioning and being free to change do not war with each other. Both are true. They coexist…We must affirm freedom and responsibility without denying that we are the product of circumstance, and we must affirm that we are the product of circumstance without denying that we have the freedom to transcend that causality to become something which could not have been provisioned from the circumstances which shaped us (Wheelis, 1973).
Wheelis’s eloquent articulation of the coexistence of the following truths perfectly captures the essence of my growth in college. I began my college career believing I knew myself, the identity I attributed to my own values and beliefs about the world. Gradually, that changed—through personal life events and my concomitant courses of study. What I thought I believed and who I thought I was evolved in a very gradual but significant way. Wheelis explains that human behavior is a combination of (1) the fact we are a product of involuntary elements of life that affect us, such as genetics, our parents, familial structure, and socio-economic status, and (2) that we have the freedom and responsibility to transcend those provisional circumstances with our own agency. This synthetization of opposites acknowledges the injustices and unfair elements that produce aspects of who we are, yet also holds us responsible for becoming who we want to be.
“What can you actually do with a bachelor’s degree in psychology?” This question may resonate not only with psychology students but with my fellow students of sociology, philosophy, and English. Ostensibly, the thousands of dollars of debt accrued for such an undergraduate degree may only substantiate a fraction more than the financial prospects of one’s non-degree counterparts. Emphasis is habitually placed on a purely financial and economic cost-benefit analysis of an undergraduate degree. Securing a stable job and making money as soon as possible should be the main goal, so I’ve been told. While there is value in establishing a financial future, this mindset regarding a liberal arts education undermines the significance and far-reaching implications it can have.
There are many young people who pursue college purely for the sake of keeping up with the demands of the work force. Yet whether intended or purely consequential, many will evolve as people throughout their studies. These students are excited by the material they’re learning, fervently energized by the ideas, concepts, and information presented to them–perhaps for the very first time. These students are ecstatic to learn that some of the things they’ve observed or experienced in life are actually rooted in empirically-supported theories such as confirmation bias observed in public discourse or the bystander effect in social situations.
My freshman year, Dr. Nathan Gower first introduced me to the concept of a false dichotomy, or situations unfairly presented as either/or scenarios. My inherent inclination toward black-and-white thinking in tandem with an all-or-nothing mindset was earnestly challenged for the first time. I took this newfound thinking with me as I launched into upper-level classes. Concepts that were traditionally incompatible in my psyche such as nativism (nature) versus empiricism (nurture) or free will versus determinism transitioned into new territory—a gray area with which both nature and nurture contribute to personality and psychopathological outcomes. Both free will and determinism can be true. Psychology of Religion with Dr. Howell shattered the popular falsehood that science and religion are mutually exclusive entities always at odds with one another. Myers and Jeeves (2013) postulate that all truth is God’s truth, including that which is empirically achieved from the scientific method as utilized in the field of psychology.
I began to synthesize information from various disciplines as I took courses like politics and film, gender studies, criminology, art, and literature studies. I began to see larger, complex systems at play, such as the socialization of gender roles. Remnants of this patriarchal system are evident in the wage gap, disparities in public and private-sector leadership, and even in the androcentric language we use today. Various crime theories have origins in psychological principles of human nature such as Hirschi’s Social Control Theory, which draws from the political works of Thomas Hobbes. Social Learning Theory, produced by psychologist Albert Bandura was applied and expanded to crime theory by criminologists Burgess and Akers. Beyond the intersection of these fields is psychology’s romantic entanglement with art and literature—Freudian themes of the Oedipal Complex in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to the state of human nature in Hobbes’s Leviathan. Philosophical concepts derived from Socratic and Platonic methods of dialectical persuasion have been utilized to develop an entire type of therapy called Dialectical-Behavior Therapy (DBT). Used to resolve disparate ideas in philosophy, this application to psychology some two millenniums after its inception in philosophy has been successful in treating people with a variety of mental health issues, such as borderline personality, depression, bulimia, and bipolar disorder.
Many of the students who change during college find themselves breaking free from the previously invisible shackles and confinement of their cultural and personal biases. They find themselves bothered by the information they’ve acquired—bothered by the prevalence of their blissful ignorance up until this moment, and bothered by scope of deep-rooted injustices and discrimination of which they were previously unaware. I was not aware of the failure of the American system of “corrections,” or the lack of availability to mental health services for inmates. I did not understand the racial and socio-economic discrimination in the criminal justice system, the disproportionate number of black Americans incarcerated, or the racist roots of the criminal justice system’s infrastructure. I was unaware of the serious lack of accessible and affordable mental health services, and the racial and socio-economic disparities in accessing effective mental health treatments. I was informed of the social stigma associated with mental illness, and the misinformation associated with alcoholism and substance use disorders. I became disconcerted by the uneducated, misinformed commentary surrounding these serious issues affecting our family, friends, churches, and communities.
Much like the bio-psycho-social model with which the etiologies of psychological disorders are developed is the multi-faced way I critically approach concepts and ideas now. This transcends academia in that most issues facing both individuals and society are eminently complex. Teachings from Dr. Susan David ring true when she states that “rigidity in the face of complexity is toxic” (David, 2018). This has become evident in the dichotomous language used in discourse surrounding immigration and other public issues such as gun violence and the opioid crisis. I now live in the uncomfortable, albeit far more accurate gray area that acknowledges the complex interactions at play within an individual’s psyche and within society as a whole. I now possess the invaluable capability of acknowledging my biases at their very root and challenging my presuppositions while assessing their legitimacy. In moving beyond simple patterns of thought and perfect consistencies, I have developed a deeper understanding of the world in which people are not “good or bad,” problems are seldom caused by one identifiable root, and effective solutions are never easy or quick fixes. I lament the time when I confidently believed the world was easy to understand and all my beliefs and values could be synthesized into a perfectly knitted ideology. Now that I have been disillusioned to this falsehood, I celebrate the paradoxes and complexities of life. The notion of the French Enlightenment writer François-Marie Arouet, or commonly known by his nom de plume Voltaire, rings very true to me now:
“…the more I read, the more I acquire, the more I am enabled to affirm that I know nothing” (Morley, 1901).
David, Susan. (2018, January). The gift and power of emotional courage. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_david_the_gift_and_power_of_emotional_courage/transcript?language=en.
Morley, John H. (1901). The works of Voltaire: A philosophical dictionary. New York, New York: E. R. DuMont.
Myers, David G. & Jeeves, Malcolm. A. (2013). Psychology through the eyes of faith. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.
N.A. What is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)? (2017). Behavioral Tech: A Linehan Institute Training Company. Retrieved from https://behavioraltech.org/resources/faqs/dialectical-behavior-therapy-dbt/.
Wheelis, A. (1973). How people change. Oxford, England: Harper & Row.