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Happy Labor Day and first day of classes! The following is cross-posted from The Daily Beast.

There is a tradition in this country stretching back to Thomas Jefferson of lofty ideals for our colleges and universities. Liberal learning is said to prepare one for autonomy and for citizenship. As Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized, it also led one away from the crowd; it helped one escape mere imitation and opened access to authenticity. Finally, education offered the opportunity to discover work that would be meaningful — to find one’s “passion.”

But, as I describe in Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters, there is another tradition stretching back just as far questioning the “real world” relevance of these lofty ideals. Is it right to speak of “finding meaningful work” when available work might necessarily involve drudgery and worse? Is it right to emphasize citizenship and finding one’s passion to students who first and foremost are desperate to find a job? Such questions, so much on our minds today, were especially urgent for freed African slaves and their descendants at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1903, Booker T. Washington voiced the following complaint about education for African-Americans:

There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming.

Washington was a passionate advocate for an intensely practical education for ex-slaves and their descendants. He was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia and after the Civil War found work in the mines of West Virginia. After his education at the Hampton Institute, Washington was convinced that only by achieving economic success would blacks ever be recognized by white Americans as full members of society. Education should make people self-reliant, in Emerson’s ideal sense, but for Washington self-reliance was first and foremost the ability to earn a decent living.

Washington’s fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser, and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of poverty, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to demand much in the way of political or cultural change. Washington was an “accomodationist,” willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century.

Born shortly after the Civil War, W.E.B. Du Bois came into his own just as Washington was reaching the height of his fame. Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees–bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays, and fiction–to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington was impressed by the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans based on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with the Jeffersonian notion of “education of youth according to ability.” Education was at the core of the differences between the two. “The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little,” Washington had written. “We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as “the things of real life” so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the “fine adjustment” between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity:

How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men–nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Educational institutions should aim to stimulate hunger for knowledge — not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for a job market that will quickly change. Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, a repetition of slavery, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices.

Du Bois repeatedly defended liberal education against those who saw it as impractical. In an address at the Hampton Institute in the beginning of the century, he lamented that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.” At one of the centers of industrial learning for blacks, Du Bois argued that its doctrine of education was fundamentally false because it was so seriously limited. What mattered in education was not so much the curriculum on campus but an understanding that the aim of education went far beyond the university. And here is where Du Bois issued his challenge:

The aim of the higher training of the college is the development of power, the training of a self whose balanced assertion will mean as much as possible for the great ends of civilization. The aim of technical training on the other hand is to enable the student to master the present methods of earning a living in some particular way . . . We must give our youth a training designed above all to make them men of power, of thought, of trained and cultivated taste; men who know whither civilization is tending and what it means.

The differences between Washington and Du Bois, and the tensions between the lofty and practical ideals for higher education, are instructive for us today. Sure, we must pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn’t reduce our understanding of “their lives after graduation” to their very first job — which should be the worst job they’ll ever have. We must recommit ourselves instead to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is also pragmatic — in Washington’s words, “harnessed to the things in real life,” to productive skills valued beyond the university. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: practical idealism based in lifelong learning.

It feels exhilarating to see all the students coming back to campus. I love this little video on the Wes vibe and hope you do, too.

 

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Wesleyan. This Is Why.

 

This morning Kari, Mathilde and I saw teammates on the fields behind the Freeman Athletic Center. It wasn’t quite 7 am, but practice was getting underway. Bleary-eyed student workers were headed in the direction of Usdan to prepare for a full day of welcomes, answering questions and helping to orient the families new to our campus. I start getting a little giddy with excitement as the new year is beginning….

Welcome to our new graduate students, transfers and the class of 2018! I look forward to meeting many of you when I make the rounds of the residence halls this morning, or when I speak with families in the chapel this afternoon.

Throughout the day we’ll post pictures and videos here. There may also be some tweeting from @mroth78…

WELCOME!

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Pres Roth welcomes Ashley Suan '18 to Wesleyan! Continue Reading »

Learning, Not Violence

What a summer it has been! Around the world there has been an escalation of hatred and violence — vitriol is flowing in all corners of the globe. Aggressive Russian action against Ukraine continues, and the reactions of the West, however tepid, may be leading to a new Cold War. In the Middle East the killing continues at an accelerated pace. Rockets fired by Hamas fighters from Gaza (sometimes from behind schools and hospitals) into Israel has led to a brutal response that seems only to further reduce the chances for a peace settlement. It is heartbreaking to see the destruction wrought by Israeli strikes, particularly those that have hit the university, shelters and schools. Images of the wounded children burn in my mind.

In Syria the death toll now approaches 200,000, and the mayhem in this failing state is having reverberations throughout the region. ISIS fighters have slaughtered countless civilians who don’t share their particular religious commitments. The horrific beheading of journalist James Foley can stand for so many unspeakable acts. American military activity will certainly be increasing in the coming weeks, who knows with what results?

Here in the United States we have been facing our own crisis because of police acts that evoke long histories of racism and violence. The recent deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island, of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles and of Michael Brown in Missouri  — all unarmed black men — remind us of the struggle that remains to achieve anything like “equal protection under the law.”

And let us not forget the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in the spring. We tweeted “bring our girls home,” but the heinous activities of the barbaric group continue unabated. Education for girls remains a right we must struggle to protect.

Why rehearse these horrors as we prepare to begin the academic year? I am thinking about them as a reminder to myself how fortunate I am to be part of a community where disagreement, even intense disagreement, can lead to learning — and not violence. At Wesleyan we will engage issues, and we will do so in order to understand ourselves and the world a little more clearly. The point of this understanding is to be empowered to act more effectively and responsibly beyond the university. Our learning community is one that values inquiry, and, of course, inquiry can often be upsetting, even destabilizing. But we should know that our campus is a place that refuses violence and cultivates care. Our willingness, our responsibility, to look out for one another is one of the qualities that make alma mater such a vital place.

As summer winds down and students, faculty and staff get set to begin the academic year, let us be aware of the work we still have to do to make Wesleyan a more equitable, inclusive and positive community. And let us also be thankful that it is already a place at which we can learn from one another, disagree with one another, and know that we do so within an ethos of peace and respect.

Back on Campus

I just arrived back on campus after spending part of the summer in the Berkshires. That’s a place we’ve grown to love, and I find we get a fair amount of work done on our research and course preparation while also enjoying the outdoors. I think Mathilde enjoys it most of all:

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Over the next week I’ll be meeting with staff and faculty to plan for the coming year, and I am looking forward to my first discussions with student groups. Arrival Day will be here very soon, and this quiet campus will be all abuzz with the energies of the Class of 2018.

A recent alumnus, Peter Frank ’12, recently invited me to take the “ice bucket” challenge to call attention to the importance of giving support to research to find a cure for ALS.

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Please join Peter and me, and many, many Wesleyan alumni in supporting research to find a cure!

 

 

Yesterday I spoke about liberal education with NPR’s Eric Westervelt on All Things Considered. Here are a few excerpts:

On the long debate over liberal arts education in America

This tension between the useful and the wide-ranging, that tension goes all the way back to the founding of this country — because even though Jefferson and Emerson, let’s say, were very much in favor of a wide-ranging and broad education, they also thought the proof was in the pudding. You had to be able to do something with it, and Jefferson talked about the useful arts. He thought you’re going to be less useful or less pragmatic if you narrowed yourself too early.

On whether higher education is necessary for success

There are people who just think, “Some of us just don’t need a lot of education. Most people need something more specialized because the economy has shifted.” … Throughout American history people have said, “Yes, it’s because the economy has shifted.” They said that in 1918, they said that in 1948, and now they’re saying it again.

Today the shifts in the economy mean technological change will only produce accelerated pace of innovation, of changing relations to audiences. A broad, wide-ranging education is the best way to be able to shape that change rather than just be victimized by it.

You can listen to the full interview here.

Wesleyan recently created a new graduate program to help develop the field for curators of performance. Here’s what the website says, in part, about the program:

Contemporary performance is at a distinct crossroads. The co-existence and cross-pollination of idea- and technique-based performance practice has created a dynamic dialog over the past several decades. The Internet and other new technologies have created a vast social fabric of interconnectivity and information. Walls between disciplines are increasingly porous, and interdisciplinary performance practice is informed by a wide range of cultural, aesthetic, and historical landscapes.

The ICPP program is firmly rooted in Wesleyan University’s commitment to the liberal arts and embodied learning practices. Through a low-residency model, the ICPP asks its students to not only engage with ideas but also to simultaneously put those ideas into practice in their professional lives, developing responsive curatorial practices that address the inter-disciplinary nature of performance work today.

 

This Friday, July 25th, ICPP and Danspace Project will present a livestreamed panel and talk on performing arts curation.

ICPP has invited performing arts curators and leading field professionals to the Wesleyan University campus on Friday, July 25 and Saturday, July 26, 2014, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The convening attendees, facilitated by ICPP Program Director Samuel A. Miller, will discuss topics including creating an artist-centered curatorial practice, and the curator’s role in activating the public imagination around live performance.

As part of the convening, Danspace Project and ICPP will co-present two events to be livestreamed from Beckham Hall on Friday, July 25, 2014:

11am – 12:45pm (EST)
Curating as a verb: What is artist-centered curatorial practice?
Panel discussion with ICPP faculty Philip Bither, Curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center; Thomas Lax, Associate Curator, Department of Media & Performance Art, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); and Judy Hussie-Taylor, Executive Director, Danspace Project; moderated by Pamela Tatge, Director, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University.

3:30pm – 4:15pm (EST)
Keynote Address
by ICPP faculty Kristy Edmunds (Director, Center for the Art of Performance, UCLA)

Visit http://www.wesleyan.edu/wescast
to view a free, live broadcast of these events. You can also follow these ICPP events on Twitter and Instagram at “wesicpp.”

This week we sadly remember the three-month anniversary of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok. The world’s attention for these victims of brutal terrorists has underscored that the battle for equality in the developing world is inseparable from the battle for access to education for girls and women. Unfortunately, no hashtag campaign, no matter how popular, will liberate the girls from an army so convinced of its religious superiority that it rapes, tortures and murders with impunity. An international military effort is needed to defeat Boko Haram — otherwise a protracted civil war in Nigeria will further immiserate the poor in the entire region. Only when these terrorists are defeated will the people of the region have a chance to to share in the benefits that education brings.

Providing a safe place for girls and women to pursue their education is the best vehicle we know for combating poverty, disease and economic injustice. The demand that girls and women have a right to a full and equal education is not a parochial Western value — it is a fundamental human right. It is worth fighting for the ability of girls and women to have a safe, equitable and inclusive education wherever that right is compromised by the dogmatic assertion of male privilege.

Many in the United States have been focused recently on the ways our own culture denies girls and women equal educational opportunities. And the issue isn’t only one of gender. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attacks — from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially sexual assault, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Sexual assaults are dramatically underreported across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. This will only change when survivors know they will be treated with respect and care, and when the process for pursuing their claims is fair and timely. Schools have a responsibility to work with judicial authorities, but they also have a duty to ensure the safety of their students beyond what police departments and the criminal justice system can do. On my own campus, we know that any assault is deeply painful for the survivor and a serious blow to the community’s ongoing mission to create a challenging but safe environment for learning.

Violence of any kind has no place on campuses, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it can have long-lasting traumatic after-effects and insofar as it plays on stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. When women, or any group, are made to feel more vulnerable, they are less able to receive the full benefits of learning. Activists across the country should be supported in their efforts to empower students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with the mission to promote fair and equal access to education.

The free inquiry at the core of a genuine education often leads to challenges to traditional hierarchies. Genuine education challenges privilege and can empower people to change their lives. That’s why the girls in Chibok went to school, and that’s why American students demand access to educational opportunity without the menace of violence. Yes, Chibok is a long way from my university, Wesleyan, and the lives of women in the two places are so very different in many respects, but when we remember our commitment “to bring our girls home,” we remember too our commitment to fight everywhere for the rights of girls and women to claim an education free from the threat of violence.

Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?

That’s what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree has been a marker of independence as graduates embrace the opportunity to stand upon their own two feet, but today those receiving degrees are often riddled with debt and with doubt. When these graduates wind up back in their parents’ basements, when they feel clueless about how to enter a challenging job market, when they have no idea how to convert their classroom experience into action in the world, they exemplify the failure of the American promise that education makes you free and self-reliant. We in higher education must renew that promise by demonstrating how pragmatic liberal education provides students with greater independence and capacity for productive work well beyond graduation day.

As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, this promise has been part of our history since the earliest days of the republic. It would be hard to find an American figure more devoted to a broad, liberal education than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He argued that the health of a republic depends on the education of its citizens because only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful. His “frenemy” John Adams maintained that citizens of all walks of life deserve to learn the principles of freedom:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Although our nation’s commitment to education runs deep, we’ve also long been suspicious about what those kids were really learning. Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the guys up at Harvard were largely being schooled in cultivated condescension, and populist criticism of higher ed today rightly condemns the amenities arm race through which supposedly rigorous schools pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Colleges may be selling the full spa experience to wanna-be investment bankers, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.

Another of America’s great prophets of independence is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave his celebrated lectures “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” in the mid-1800s. Emerson saw education as a process through which one learned to absorb more of the world while also acquiring abilities to respond productively to it. Higher education should ignite students’ spirit and intelligence: Colleges only serve us well, he wrote:

“When they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Setting hearts aflame for Emerson didn’t just mean creating a sense of inner transformation – he was committed to the idea that a liberal education made you more effective beyond the university. Becoming more effective in the work you have chosen was at the core of what he called self-reliance. The opposite of self-reliance for Emerson was conformity, a pervasive force in his time as it is in ours.

Hoping to capitalize on the anxieties of parents and students, many today are calling for a more vocational style of learning. Unfortunately, demands for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the guise of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Some claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This runs counter to the American tradition of liberal education. From the Revolutionary War through current debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning addresses the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of choices. Liberal education in this tradition means developing independence of mind and habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one’s independence through one’s ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity — and also to economic and cultural mediocrity. We need intellectual cross training of the whole person — not nano-degrees in commercial codes and tactics (no matter how digital) sure soon to become obsolete.

The ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, if we truly want to declare our independence, we need to support greater access to pragmatic liberal education.

 

cross-posted with HuffingtonPost

My review of Adam Phillips’ excellent new biography of Sigmund Freud, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, was published in the Washington Post today. I’ve been writing about Freud ever since my frosh classes at Wesleyan, and every so often I still return to psychoanalysis. In reading Phillips’ account of Freud’s early years, I was reminded of Hayden White’s remarks at this year’s Commencement.

You can change your personal past. You do not have to continue to live with the past provided to you by all of the agencies and institutions claiming authority to decide who and what you are and what you must try to be in your future. You can change your past and thereby give your future a direction quite different from what has been marked out for you by others.” — Hayden White

White told our graduating class that “the future you deserve depends on the past you make for yourself.” Not bad advice…and very much related to the view of the self and of history that Freud developed in his early years
BECOMING FREUD

The Making of a Psychoanalyst

By Adam Phillips

The introduction to Adam Phillips’s new book is titled “Freud’s Impossible Life,” and the author makes clear more than once his view that the biographer’s task is an unmanageable one. Freud himself didn’t make things easy, destroying a lot of evidence of his early years so as to lead (as he said) his future biographers astray. And he did this long before he had anything like the kind of résumé that would have interested biographers.

As Phillips notes, Freud had a strong distrust of the biographer’s task, although he himself wrote speculative biographical studies. “Biographical truth is not to be had,” Freud wrote, “and if it were to be had we could not use it.” So much of a person’s life is underground, unconscious, and how we reconstruct it may reveal more about ourselves than about our subject. Phillips draws on two big Freud biographies (by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay), fully aware of their limitations.

In writing about Freud’s first 50 years, the author (who is also a practicing psychoanalyst) doesn’t have much evidence to go on. “Nothing, it is worth repeating, is properly known about Freud’s mother,” Phillips emphasizes, and he is also reduced to general speculations (or silence) about his father, wife, siblings and children.

But there is also freedom in the lack of evidence; one of the reasons Freud was so interested in the ancient world, Phillips tells us, was the paucity of verifiable facts. According to psychoanalysis, “only the censored past can be lived with,” and we “make histories so as not to perish of the truth.” For Phillips, psychoanalysis is part of the history of storytelling, and “a biography, like a symptom, fixes a person in a story about themselves.” What kind of story, then, does Phillips have to tell about Freud and about psychoanalysis?

His story about the life and the work is ultimately more invested in the latter. Young Freud, a secular Jew, tries to assimilate into Viennese society while also theorizing that we humans have desires that can never be assimilated with our public, social roles. He is attracted to mentors who introduce him to painstaking scientific research (Ernst Brücke), to charismatic investigations into the irrational (Jean-Martin Charcot), to clinical work that reduces hysterical misery to common unhappiness (Josef Breuer) and finally to unstable speculation on the secrets of human nature (Wilhelm Fliess). “In this formative period of his life,” Phillips writes, “Freud moves from wondering who to believe in, to wondering about the origins and the function of the individual’s predisposition to believe.”

As a young doctor in training at Vienna’s General Hospital, Freud asked his fiancee to embroider two maxims to hang in his lodgings: “Work without reasoning” and “When in doubt abstain.” This is so telling for Phillips because work and abstinence would eventually be at the center of psychoanalysis — both paradoxically reframed as dimensions of our circuitous pursuits of pleasure. The Freudian question par excellence: “What are you getting out of your abstinence?”

Phillips does tell us that, as a young child in the 1860s, Sigmund regularly found himself displaced by the birth of new siblings — six in seven years. As newlyweds in the 1880s, Freud and his wife practically repeated this history, welcoming new children — six in eight years. Surrounded by all these little ones, the young father spent more and more time trying to understand their demands on the world around them — how they communicated those demands and how adults responded.

One of the most important ways we deal with the demands we make and those made on us is to try to forget them. Unmet demands — unrequited desires — can hurt, and so in order to get back to work (and love), we may push them away. Frustration and the repression of frustration became central to Freud’s thinking in the 1890s, when he was in his late 30s and his 40s. At first he tried to understand the phenomena of pleasure, frustration and forgetting at the neurological level. Then he started paying attention to how we express in disguised form the complications of our appetites — in symptoms, in slips of the tongue, in jokes and especially in dreams: the beginning of psychoanalysis.

Now Sigmund could become a Freudian — an interpreter who showed how our actions and words indirectly express conflicts of desire. The conflicts among our desires never disappeared; they become the fuel of our histories. Making sense of these conflicts, understanding our desires, he thought, gives us an opportunity to make our histories our own.

Freud came to this realization, indeed, came to psychoanalysis, when he acknowledged that “our (shared) biological fate was always being culturally fashioned through redescription and recollection.” Our fate, then, resulted from how we remembered and retold our histories, and psychoanalysis became a vehicle for telling those histories in ways that acknowledged our conflicting desires. Psychoanalysis wasn’t a methodology to discover one’s true history; it was a collaboration that allowed one to refashion a past with which one could live.

In prose that often crackles with insights, Phillips refashions the heroic period in Freud’s life, when he believed “that making things conscious extended the individual’s realm of choice; where there was compulsion there might be decision, or newfound forms of freedom.” At the turn of the century, before there were many followers and before there was an organization to control, “Freud emerges as a visionary pragmatist.”

This visionary pragmatist understood that we could construct meaning and direction from our memories in order to suffer less and live more fully in the present. Phillips tells a story of how Freud came to that realization, making psychoanalysis as he made his life his own.

 

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