Psychoanalysis in the Undergraduate Classroom: An Inaugural Post and Invitation to Join the Conversation

by Max Cavitch, Ph.D.

He was born in Greece, the land of Oedipus. A bright and eager neurochemistry major who was taking our course to fulfill a general humanities requirement, Ari (as I’ll call him) was handsome, athletic, good-natured, and presumptively straight. He listened intently as my co-instructor, Dr. Susan Adelman, explained Freud’s early notions of phallic striving and psychosexual development, in which the penis is the object of both boyish anxiety and girlish envy. In Freud’s preliminary view, Susan continued, a girl’s “penis envy” was transformed by a compensatory mechanism of displacement into desire for a baby. Ari raised his hand: “But who wouldn’t rather have a baby than a penis?”

In addition to being a good joke, Ari’s half-serious question is an excellent example of the sustained mood of intelligent playfulness that buoys and enriches our course on “Psychoanalysis: History, Theory, Practice” at the University of Pennsylvania—not least because of the opportunities to reflect on the inevitable transferences and projections that occur in the classroom itself, as Ari himself clearly recognized. Because it satisfies a college-wide undergraduate humanities requirement and because it’s the “core” course in Penn’s undergraduate, six-course Minor in Psychoanalytic Studies, our students come from all sorts of different majors and programs: biology, fine arts, history, literature, neuroscience, nursing, political science, psychology, and more. This intellectual heterogeneity turns out to be a powerful advantage, not least by helping us to make the point that psychoanalysis is already in conversation with all of these disciplines and that, therefore, each student has something special—their own expertise—to contribute to our discussions of what is, to almost all of them, a brand-new field. Susan and I help them get acquainted with psychoanalysis, and they, in turn, teach us a thing or two. For example, Ari (the neurochemistry major) helped us understand the amygdala’s role in the experience of anxiety. Another student explained how Japanese pronouns reflected a cultural understanding of subjectivity and social relationships that cuts against the grain of many western psychoanalytic assumptions. A literature major shared a quote from Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, that seemed to anticipate Winnicott’s “false self” concept. And one of our history majors provided some vital context for Freud’s escape from Vienna after the Anschluss.

Indeed, Freud’s Jewishness has been an important point of connection for several students in the course, leading to discussions of other students’ religious backgrounds. And, not only is there a mix of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist students, but there is also a great diversity of classes, ethnicities, second (and third, and fourth!) languages, nationalities, races, and sexualities. When Susan and I wrote the initial syllabus, we included materials on gender-transition, comparative religion, African American analysts, teen suicide, lesbian autobiography, and the practice of psychotherapy from urban U.S. Latinx communities to the western provinces of China. But, before we met our new course’s enrollees, on the first day of classes, we had no way of predicting just how relevant the politics of identity would be to our remarkably heterogeneous group of students—or how gratified they would be to learn that (most) contemporary psychoanalysts take their real-world, post-adolescent struggles and questions very seriously.

Unfortunately, students at U.S. universities like ours have few opportunities to study psychoanalysis. There are occasional nods to Freud and Lacan (mostly in their literature courses), but psychology departments are evermore rigidly empiricist, and they tend to exclude psychoanalysis from their curricula chiefly because its theories and its efficacy as a treatment for psychological disorders can’t (so they persist in maintaining) be scientifically verified. Yet, unlike most of their psychology professors, many of the undergraduate students in our course already know about dopaminergic seeking systems, infantile recognition memories, oxytocin-driven attachments, the frontal lobe’s role in secondary process thinking, and the limbic system’s role in dreaming. In other words, their study of the brain—in our astonishing contemporary moment of neuroscientific breakthroughs (advances that Freud, a neurologist by training, predicted and keenly longed for)—has already equipped them with a sophisticated understanding of the physiological dimensions of the psychic processes for which psychoanalysis offers the richest and most accurate descriptions. The readings we assign by neuropsychoanalysts like Antonio Damasio and Mark Solms tend to make perfect sense to them, and many of them ask us: “Why don’t we ever hear about this stuff in our psychology courses?”

They should, obviously. But, whether or not psychology departments undergo the necessary paradigm shift, students should have more frequent opportunities to learn about a set of theories and treatment modalities that, every day, adds to our understanding of the human condition and contributes to the psychological well-being of millions—that, indeed, has helped as much as any field of critical inquiry to create the world we share. The desire to expand undergraduates’ knowledge of psychoanalysis motivates my work as one of the founding faculty members of Penn’s Psychoanalytic Studies program (now in its fifth year). We try always to team-teach our courses, pairing non-clinician scholars like myself with clinicians like Dr. Adelman, in order to model for our students the ongoing dialogue between the worlds of academia and clinical practice, as well as to highlight the transferential dynamics always at play in classroom and consulting room alike.

On a more-or-less monthly basis, subsequent “Psyche on Campus” blog-posts—authored by teachers and students from Penn and elsewhere—will have more to say about the topics, questions, challenges, and intersubjective encounters that engage teachers and students on all levels: personal, pedagogical, intellectual, cultural, and sociopolitical. And all readers of this blog—analysts, patients, students, teachers, scholars, and newcomers to psychoanalysis from all walks of life and all parts of the world—are encouraged to respond with comments, anecdotes, insights, and questions.

Finally, if you have an idea for a “Psyche on Campus” blog-post (800-1200 words) of your own, please contact the editor at: cavitch@english.upenn.edu.