Witness Post: Seymour Sarason

Senior seminars at 8:00am sharp were never a good idea. And since the class consisted of just eight students and one senior professor, better not miss a session, everyone noticed. And better show up prepared, as there was nowhere to hide!

The year was 1975 and the class was held on College Street in a narrow brick building past Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven. Known as the Institute of Social and Policy Studies, the Yale row of buildings housed the offices of some of the smartest social scientists on the planet, and one of them, Dr. Seymour Sarason, was our professor.

On the second day of class we all dragged ourselves out of bed that day and scrambled to class, still wiping the sandman from our eyes. Dr. Sarason arrived in a rumpled shirt and his hair was mussed. Fumbling around in his brief case for a few minutes he located his pipe, but kept searching for something. “Does anyone have any pipe tobacco?” he asked. We all nodded negatively. “How about some cigarettes?” Still a No. “Is there some caffeine or chewing gum among this class?”  We were a third time signaling, No. “Signs of a hostile group, today!” And off he went into his lecture and our discussions.


Dr. Sarason had some of his own quirks. For example a decade earlier he had a stroke, and his pipe smoking was just one of his accommodative habits.  Even with his palsied arm he could swing his extended arm with the accuracy of a pool shark. He could light a pipe and smoke it with dexterity. With his fingerprint smeared glasses, crooked teeth, and unkempt hair he seemed absent-minded; however, his mind was as sharp as a tack. He riveted his piercing eyes and turned his head to hear everyone in the class. He did not suffer fools.

That fall term, with his guidance, we read a lot of social psychology books, debated the pros and cons of the education system, theorized as to how demise of the nuclear family was changing the school system, and forecast its future. We had not foreseen that this ever-increasing school load would continue for decades, as the traditional family morphed.

Dr. Sarason always took us out of pure academia and into the classroom of the schools. He took us to see elementary schools, day care centers, and correction institutions. These were often overlooked on the streets of New Haven, as we were used to only going to the lecture halls.

That term we attended a statewide Connecticut High School Principal Conference in Hartford, where Dr. Sarason had been invited as the keynote speaker. We attended some of the meetings, which were full of debate. It was exciting to see what appeared to be so much learning getting done by the administrators.

Dr. Sarason gave what I felt was a brilliant keynote address, reviewing his latest hands-on research and some deep thinking on the current path of education. He praised the administrators for navigating the nuances of the legal system, for understanding the interests of government (state and Federal) to raise test scores, for opening dialogue with parents and student activists, and for standing up to the teacher’s unions who “busted the budgets” to get their pay increases. As driver on our return trip, I complimented Dr. Sarason for his keen insights for the educators. He replied, “Henry, those noble principals will drive home tonight and have a martini. Tomorrow they will return to school without another thought of my advice…”

If nothing else, Dr. Sarason was a ‘Dewey pragmatist.’ He knew the pressures on administrators were immense, and that while outward changes were easy, sometimes inward changes were impossible. Dr. Sarason has written over 40 books. One is called, “The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” (Allyn & Bacon, Inc., Boston, 1971), which became my Rosetta Stone to understanding this world we call education.


Early Life

Seymour Sarason was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, on January 12, 1919. A few years later his family moved to Newark, New Jersey. Sarason received a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University in 1939. Growing up in the urban part of the Garden State, Seymour and his brother, Irwin, were both fascinated by the writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The clinical theories of these two scientists were gaining traction in the social science communities of New England. Fascinated with this new world of psychology and feeling rushed by the onset of War, Sarason earned his master’s and his Ph.D. in three years. His graduate and postgraduate degrees were earned in the same year (1942) from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

One year later, Sarason married Esther Kroop (1943), and they had one daughter, Julie.

Sarason started out as a clinical psychologist but quickly became disenchanted with the idea, then dominant in the field, that individual problems could only be analyzed and treated individually. While working at a state institution for the mentally delayed patients in Massachusetts, Sarason became convinced that many psychological problems stemmed from social settings and institutional cultures.  He jumped back into academia to further his research and test his theories.

1961SeymourBSarason-DavidBirch-WJMcCeachie1200Seymour Sarason, David Birch, W.J. McCreechie at conference in Lincoln, NE 1952

In 1945 Sarason began teaching at Yale. His community approach to psychological problems lent itself to a variety of fields, and he wrote extensively on mental health, schools and higher education. He regarded traditional public schools and what he called the “encapsulated classroom” as enemies of learning and human potential. Sarason found schools to be little bubbles sealed off from the larger society around them and crippled by a lack of collaboration among teachers.

Always curious about research bias, Sarason approached all settings as an outsider. In his classes he would often end his lecture and start discussion with the question, “What would someone from Mars say about our findings?” Realizing that Martians would see things very differently than a native New Englander would, Sarason was a researcher obsessed with objectivity. Only the unbiased mind can research and understand what is going on in society and in many cultural settings.

In the 1950’s Sarason and George Mandler initiated the research on test anxiety in students, which became seminal theories in the field of educational testing. He founded the Yale Psycho-Educational Clinic in 1961 and was one of the principal leaders in the “community psychology movement.” In 1974, Sarason proposed that beyond the individual there is a psychological sense of community.  Quickly absorbed into the vernacular, “sense of community” and hence community psychology have become a well-known and commonly used term both in academic and non-academic settings.

As Prof. Andy Hargreaves, holder of the Brennan Chair from Boston College, was quoted to say in the New York Times, “[Sarason] founded the field of community psychology. It did not really exist before him. And he was one of the very first people to write in an explicit way about educational reform and the culture of the school from the perspective of the people who experience the change — teachers and students.”

Image result for sarason the skeptical visionary

The Skeptical Visionary, A Seymour Sarason Education Reader

Through his empirical research Dr. Sarason became world renowned as an expert in school reform. In 1965 he predicted that all attempts to reform school systems would fail. His prediction has uncanny accuracy, even these many decades later. Sarason believed that schooling needed fundamental changes. Further, he often stated that it was inconceivable to think that an ingrained human social system such as public schooling was easily reformed. According to Dr. Sarason, the preparation and training of new teachers was a good place to begin reform.

In his later studies Sarason included insights and commentary on the care for the elderly, which followed the same patterns of intransigence he had researched in many bureaucratic systems, like the school systems.


Sarason in photo from the New York Times

Dr. Sarason remained an anchor on the faculty at Yale, working in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies until retiring in 1989. He died twenty years later, on January 28, 2010, in Hamden, Connecticut, six miles from his beloved Yale.

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