Memory of Abraham Maslow faded, not forgotten

Scholars recall pioneering psychologist, founder of Psychology Department

Photos/Brandeis University Archives & Special Collections

Dr. Abraham Maslow teaches a class at Brandeis in 1968.

You can find Dr. Abraham Maslow in the pages of every introduction to psychology textbook. You can find Maslow on every list of influential psychologists, among the ranks of Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner. You can find his papers and correspondences on exhibit at The Center for the History of Psychology at the University of Akron in Ohio.

But walk into his former office in the Brown Center for Social Sciences and you’ll find nothing of Abraham Maslow. There is no plaque, no picture, not even a doorstop marking the place where one of the world’s most influential psychologists did his most important work. 

There is one fellowship offered in Maslow’s honor. The Abramson Family Endowed Fellowship was established in 2005 to support a graduate student in psychology who "carries on the legacy of Dr. Abraham Maslow."

For many, however, Maslow’s legacy seems to have all but faded from memory.

“Maslow endures in the memory of those who worked with him and studied with him but institutional memory of Maslow has basically vanished,” said Steve Whitfield, the Max Richter Professor of American Civilization, who is writing a book about the political history of the university.

Maslow, who founded the Psychology Department at Brandeis and taught here from 1951 to 1969, is best known for his theories on self-actualization and motivation. His “Hierarchy of Needs,” visualized in a multi-colored pyramid, explained the spectrum of human needs, from basics like food to complex social needs like respect. A person could not achieve higher needs without satisfying basic ones, Maslow theorized. 

Maslow advocated a holistic and humanistic approach to psychology, deviating from the behaviorism of Skinner. Unlike Freud, who was interested in what went wrong with people, Maslow wanted to understand what went right. Why are certain people successful?

This was a question few psychologists asked before Maslow. Today, even though many psychology academics still reject his hierarchy of needs, Maslow is considered one of the fathers of positive psychology, which seeks to understand positive attributes in people and humanistic psychology, which focuses on individual transformation.   

His hierarchy of needs is also used in business schools across the country to provide an analytical framework for successful management.

It is generally hard to preserve the legacy of professors, even ones as influential as Maslow, Whitfield said. Yet, the extent of Maslow’s absence from Brandeis – the library has few personal papers, the psychology department has nothing of Maslow in its archives – suggests there might be more to the story.  

Margie Lachman, the Minnie and Harold Fierman Professor of Psychology, said departmental politics and a clash of world views might have contributed to Maslow’s disappearing act.

When Maslow founded the psychology department in 1951, the field was becoming increasingly scientific and empirical, thanks to Skinner and other behavioral psychologists, Lachman said. Scholars were expected to support their ideas with rigorous testing.

But Maslow was more interested in theory than experiments.   

“I think there were a lot of people in the department who didn't appreciate his views,” said Lachman, who once occupied Maslow’s office as department chair from 2004 to 2009. “Maslow was very philosophical in his approach and there were tensions between him and the experimentalist psychologists."

Many psychologists at the time, including several at Brandeis, dismissed Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs and peak experiences for lack of empirical evidence.  

Ken Feigenbaum, who currently teaches psychology at the University of Maryland University College and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Washington, D.C., was an associate professor in Maslow’s department from 1962 and 1965. He witnessed the struggle between Maslow and his colleagues.

“There was a constant battle as to what the nature of the department should be,” recalled Feigenbaum. “Many students came to the department because of Maslow’s work but what they found was a semi-experimental department.”

Maslow’s own demons also may have contributed to his isolation in the department, Feigenbaum said. He was warm and friendly but blunt and honest to a fault. In Feigenbaum’s hiring interview, Maslow opened by saying, “Let’s call a sh--t, a sh--t.”  

Maslow also feared dying young, Feigenbaum said. That fear drove him to travel frequently, giving lectures across the country and often leaving his students to fend for themselves.

“In that way, he became more of a national figure than a Brandeis figure,” Feigenbaum said.

Maslow’s fear turned out to be well founded. He died from a heart attack at age 62, while on sabbatical from Brandeis — yet another reason his legacy was cut short.  

It’s well past time for Brandeis to reclaim Maslow as it own, Feigenbaum said.

“There is still enough interest in Maslow to generate a chair,” Feigenbaum said. “Even if you think his hierarchy is nonsense, Maslow as a man deserves recognition.”

Lachman agreed that Maslow’s legacy should be honored, especially in a way that would support current research in the same vein as Maslow’s interests in human potential. Though there are no plaques or chairs dedicated to Maslow now, his legacy survives in the research of the Psychology Department, Lachman said.

“Many of us are focused on studying healthy growth and development across a life span and that is very much in the spirit of Maslow,” Lachman said. “If he came back to the department today, I think he would be happy to see the work we are doing."

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences

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