Barry Schwartz reflects on a long, happy career

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“Barry Schwartz has truly lived a good life.”

This remark from the symposium honoring the esteemed psychology professor of 45 years best sums up the sentiments expressed at the event, held in late March. Schwartz’s colleagues spoke in Lang Concert Hall, exalting the depth and impact of his research, the reach and meaning of his teaching career, and, most notably, his admirable way of being.  I sat down with Professor Schwartz to discuss the event, his prolific career as a professor and psychologist, and his hopes for the college.

“It was stunning,” Schwartz described his experience attending the symposium. “It was just unbelievably gratifying.”

A wide variety of students attended the event to celebrate Schwartz’s long career, as well as to hear talks from well-established psychologists around the country, including a personal video from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.

Hearing the impact of his classes and collaborations came as a surprise to the professor, who describes feeling grateful for the ways Swarthmore’s liberal arts programs have shaped his own career and knowledge.

“People find nice things to say and everyone exaggerates a little bit,” he insisted.

Professor Schwartz remains remarkably humble, even when we discuss his highly prolific career. He has written 6 books and published over 20 works of research and opinion, in addition to teaching psychology courses.

“I tell everyone: my education began at Swarthmore,” he said. He came to Swarthmore as a psychology professor in 1971 because it was geographically convenient and says he stayed because he fell in love with it.

Schwartz believes that working at Swarthmore has afforded him opportunities unavailable at a big research university. Instead of only developing relationships within the psychology department, working at Swarthmore has allowed him to meet sociologists, historians, and biologists. He is a better psychologist for it, he tells me. He also appreciates the students themselves and the relationships forged with them over the years.

“They don’t realize it, but I love when they disagree with me,” he insisted.

Schwartz remarked on the changes he has seen at Swarthmore over his 45 years.

“It’s become more professionally-oriented,” Schwartz explained.

He thinks that the faculty and students alike are thinking more so about specialization and research, maybe at the cost of breadth and institutional welfare.

“They want to get into the lab before they know why,” he said.

We talk about whether Swarthmore could or should be involved in getting students to reflect on themselves and their time in college, so that they avoid getting, as Schwartz said, lost in the details.

“It might be worth a try,” he said, about specifically instituting a class or series about self-reflection.

As far as their success at Swarthmore, he likens classes and programs in personal reflection and personal development to an ethics class in business school. They can be meaningful and thought-provoking if done correctly but, he cautions, when they become boxes to check off, they’re not just unproductive but counterproductive.

“Why are you doing this? Why does it matter?” he encourages students to think about in their own lives.

His own popular “Happiness” course is an example of such topical classes done correctly. Each time it’s offered, it fills up more than 5 times over. Last time, over 70 students were lotteried for just 12 spots.

“I told them this isn’t a self-help class! You’re not going to learn how to be happy,” he said.

Despite being a psychology class concerned with research and theories of happiness, students treated the class as far more than an academic exercise. Schwartz described this high level of engagement and excitement with pride.

“It became more than an academic exercise to them. It just became incredibly fun to teach.”

Still, Schwartz’s proudest moments at Swarthmore didn’t involve classes or research.

He told me about his role in supporting student activism in pushing for a living wage and the ways his position in the school gave the cause increased legitimacy, which ultimately paid off.

He similarly cited a proposal he made about community-based learning and social action as central to the conception of the Lang Center. He’s proud to see the Center become important to students and the college institutionally.

Aside from that, he fondly looks back on his style of relationship and collaboration.

Referring to a class he taught with Professor Ken Sharpe, Schwartz said, “We taught a fantastic class based on friendship and collaboration. It was just pointed out to me how unique it was to have personal and professional relationships where you can’t see where the friendship ends and the collaboration begins.”

Ultimately, he described Swarthmore as a model for other schools, making our decisions within the college of added importance.

“There need to be some pristine institutions,” he explained.

In terms of hopes going forward, he added that we might find a way to encourage political diversity and student resilience, in particular.

“Students seem afraid to hurt each other’s feelings, which is a good thing but also not a good thing,” he asserted. “Liberals are getting sloppy. The conservatives here are in much better shape because they’ve been pushed on so much.”

Schwartz looks back on his time at Swarthmore, his relationships, and collaborations with deep satisfaction.

Ultimately, he is hopeful for the future of Swarthmore and proud of what is sure to be a profound legacy here.

“No regrets,” he concluded. “Not one.”

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