Barry Schwartz retires this month as Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College. A tremendously popular teacher, prolific and popular writer (most recently of Why We Work), and creative thinker, he was celebrated this spring by colleagues within Swarthmore College and the larger academic community. We spoke with Barry in the weeks before he departs for Berkeley, Cal. where he will move in order to be closer to is children and grandchildren…
… And to teach there?
I’m going to teach a course to MBAs in the fall, I taught a course in the business school at NYU a couple of years ago, and will probably end up teaching a version of that.
Did you start to do any work thinking it would be beneficial to people running companies?
No, it’s funny… When I wrote The Paradox of Choice [in 2005], it was a psychology book; it never occurred to me there was any potential interest in the world of business. It got listed as one of the best business books of the year by business publications, I started getting invited to give talks, so all of that took me completely by surprise. I have thought for a long time about what work is, and what work could be, and the assumptions that people who run companies make about human motivation and how they don’t fit with what your eyes tell you… My little book Why We Work, which came out in the fall, hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm but it’s gotten a fair amount of attention. I do think there’s a growing appreciation in the business world that the old model is not the right model.
What was your original intention as a college professor?
I came here to teach the psychology of learning when behaviorism was the dominant force in psych. I didn’t see myself as interdisciplinary at all… what changed me was being in a place like Swarthmore, where it was easy to interact with people in other disciplines… I think there’s probably less of it than there was… The dilettante-ism that is the hallmark of liberal arts education is becoming a thing of the past in high-powered places like this, where faculty aspire to having a professional standing.
What have you most enjoyed teaching at Swarthmore?
Collaborative courses have been great — students can learn more if you do it right… When I’ve done it, I’ve spent a lot of time with my co-teacher designing the course; we both go to every class; we talk about them before and after, so you can create a coherent whole out of disparate pieces. A lot of effort goes into developing a common vocabulary between the teachers.
I love teaching Introduction to Psychology, particularly in the fall… because it’s full of first semester freshmen, and they’ve not yet been turned cynical by the upperclassmen. It’s a pass/fail semester so they’re not worried about their grade… I’ve been very lucky that everything I’ve taught is stuff I’m very interested in.
Do you feel you have a legacy here?
I doubt there’s much of a legacy. The stuff that I teach now is stuff we didn’t teach before… If I’m not replaced, my legacy will end with me. Students have a very short memory.
They might want to keep my courses, but there are other desires. There’s an area in psychology called Cultural Psychology where the focus really is on how cultural constructions penetrate all the way into basic psychological processes… We now have many students who are not natives or are first-generation Americans… there would be a huge amount of demand for Cultural Psychology. They might decide it makes more sense to hire someone in that area than to replace me.
You want to do right by those students, they need to see themselves in what’s being taught, and if they get a good person to teach it, it will be just as popular as what I teach.