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Why Commencement Speakers Should Stop Taking Shots at Psychology

Senator Sasse, psychology, and why a major matters.

This post is co-authored with my colleague, Jane S. Halonen, Professor of Psychology and former Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of West Florida. Dr. Halonen is the first author and I am the second author.

Collectively, we have probably participated in over 140 college graduation ceremonies, a few times as graduates, but mostly as celebrants. We use the term “participation” somewhat guardedly. The fact is that faculty are not and should not be stars of this particular show. We process in our colorful regalia, take our designated places, and, with some decorum, prepare to say farewell. We watch for the handful of graduates we know and have rooted for, applauding when their names are called or when we see them rise to move their tassels from right to left. We then depart and get out of the way so graduates can have a true celebration with the others who supported them through their academic journey. We graciously accept that we are academic wallpaper during the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance.” We endure the protracted ritual in part due to hopes that the commencement address will add value to the day that both the graduates and their families have longed for—and for many, their graduate is the first in the family to achieve this milestone moment.

Attending over 140 ceremonies means that we have also listened to over 140 commencement addresses. Some are memorable and inspiring, calling graduates to appreciate those who supported them and urging them to live meaningful, productive lives. Some are funny, mostly from carefully wrought intentions, but sometimes not—gaffes, after all, are all too human. Some speeches are flat out zombie fodder; they are barely disguised celebrations of self or office, or meandering reflections on a now moribund career in public life. But the commencement address remains an important ritual that helps to mark the transition from the relatively sheltered college experience to a push to be “on your own.”

When U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) made his couch-delivered commencement address to high school students recently, we think a new low in commencement talks may have been achieved. The senator is currently making the rounds of talk shows touting his concerns about the need for America to heal. Yet his commencement address demonstrated the very divisiveness that he claims is harming the nation. In this case, he singled out psychology and urged high school students not to major in psychology if they go to college. His comment followed a bizarre example of hamsters that might need their own psychologists. Sasse offered no explanation or a source of data for his conclusion that psychology would be a misguided choice of major. (Perhaps the trail leading up to an election is as arduous and tedious as running on a hamster wheel?)

Sasse’s attack is not the first time political candidates have used the commencement platform as a vehicle for attacking the discipline of psychology. In a prior decade Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida, served as a commencement speaker at a regional comprehensive university in Florida. In contrast to the Sasse effort, his speech was articulate and moving. He singled out individual graduates who had managed to persevere under serious challenges to get their degrees. Then he calmly added his conclusion that the “world didn’t need any more psychology majors.” This attack was even more egregious since the audience was not high school students, many of whom might be in the process of thinking about a college major, but over 40 brand-new psychology graduates and their families who were probably—and suddenly—seized with worry that their four-plus years in the major may have been a waste of time and money while the magic of the special day was extinguished. The comment deeply insulted the psychology faculty as well as the president and a dean.

Bush also made news during his more recent unsuccessful campaign for the presidency when he again attacked psychology, suggesting during an interview that the future of people with psychology degrees would be employment at Chick-Fil-A. The psychology community was outraged by his dismissive attitude and many members participated in a successful twitter campaign — #thispsychologymajor — that showed former psychology majors in all kinds of vocations and with successful outcomes.

The reality is that psychology is a very popular major in college because it provides majors with a skill set that should make them very valuable in the workforce. Any workforce position that involves people or data will be well served by the skills that the major hones. Psychology majors are good at thinking critically about behavior, speculating about motivation, and implementing ethical problem-solving strategies. They should be able to spot flaws in claims about behavior. They should have the tools to be effective change-agents and leaders.

In fact, most psychology majors enter the workforce in various arenas, including education, business, human services, communication, and a host of others. A minority of students pursue graduate or professional school. Recently, the MCAT was redesigned to reflect expertise in behavioral science, which provides some recognition of the importance of understanding human behavior in preparing medical professionals. Students can vie for admission to medical school and law school with a major in psychology. Some majors will go on to graduate school to become researchers, clinicians, consultants, and academics.

If anything, the Covid-19 crisis is likely to fuel even more dramatic need for professionals who can explain, predict, and manage problems in human behavior in a variety of contexts. We are likely to see lingering damage from how the world has been upended; the “new normal” will need the kind of critical analysis, sensitivity to human and cultural differences, and promotion of human resilience that are hallmarks of the psychology major.

Fortunately, we do not think Sasse’s comments will be an issue for psychology majors. They have been educated to expect that a reasoned claim should have evidence. They know from studying principles of social behavior that cheap shots can misfire. A colleague of ours likes to claim that people should take psychology so they won’t be jerks. We suspect that at the conclusion of the psychology major, graduates should certainly be able to discern jerks and avoid taking misguided advice.

As we look forward to future commencement addresses, we can only hope that selection committees will consider some important qualifying criteria. Shouldn’t the commencement speaker be someone who is a good exemplar of clear thinking, quality argumentation, and humility? We have taught thousands of students about psychology over our careers, both in and outside the classroom. Most of those students came to us—as they flock to our peers—because they genuinely wanted to learn about the human condition, in all its majesty and mystery, and with its foibles, too. Mr. Sasse should remember that free-market forces affect educational choice—another form of consumer choice. Given its popularity as a major in the U.S., psychology clearly has something to offer.