Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and School Psychology
By Ralph E. “Gene” Cash
“Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Rijksmuseum and the Museum of Van Gogh in Amsterdam are a study in contrasts. Housed in each are extensive works by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and Vincent Van Gogh respectively, two of the world’s most recognized, renowned, and accomplished artists. Despite their proximity—the two museums are within a few blocks of each other—the artwork housed within each could hardly be more different. Rembrandt was a master technician. His works are like high resolution photographs; the detail and the verisimilitude are truly amazing. Van Gogh, on the other hand, produced masterpieces of feeling tone. While his paintings are not nearly as true-to-life as those of Rembrandt—Van Gogh did not claim to be a technically sophisticated artist—there may never have been a painter who could imbue a canvas with such affect. Which was better at his craft? I truly cannot say. All I know is that the world would be a poorer place had either not lived, worked, and remained true to his capabilities.
Perhaps by now you’re asking what Rembrandt and Van Gogh have to do with school psychology. Rembrandt was apparently not emotionally disturbed and self-destructive like Van Gogh, so that’s not the connection. We can’t even be sure that each would have been identified as gifted, if there had been school psychologists available to evaluate them during their eras. No, the connection with school psychology doesn’t have to do with their diagnoses or need for special education. It has to do with the art of school psychology—that which makes us something other than just well-educated educational technicians who could be replaced by professionals from other disciplines. In a Rembrandt-like fashion, there are those school psychologists who can select instruments and interventions with precision and can ensure their administration and implementation with exactness and integrity. They know how to read and to interpret research, and they are determined to be rigorous in its application. They are efficient and effective practitioners of the science of psychology and education. Having learned a model for applying scientific principles to school-related problems, they do so with an enthusiasm and a perspective that is worthy and admirable. These school psychologists have moved our specialty forward, and they are true professionals.
Unfortunately, neither education nor psychology is an exact science. Despite our best efforts, we cannot always tell from research what to do in order to help a particular individual. Human beings vary so much in their make-up and complexity that it is sometimes ineffective to apply nomothetic strategies to idiographic problems. Some individuals just don’t behave or learn like the group to which they apparently belong. For them, no amount of evidence-based intervention seems to work. To say, then, that they must be learning disabled or that they belong in special education is to sidestep the real issue. Will they be left behind because they don’t fit the mold? Is it just a matter of trying scientifically determined methods until one finally works? Shall we give them more and more of the same, and, if so, at what cost financially and in terms of their overall curriculum? It is here, in attempting to provide interventions that work with these students, that our Rembrandt-like meticulousness falters. And it is here that creativity and art can make a significant difference in the life of a child.
Fortunately, there are also Van Goghs among school psychologists. To them, a comprehensive evaluation is not a waste of time, a study in futility, or strictly a means of classification. To them, evidence based interventions are not the be-all and end-all, but rather the starting points of individualized prescriptions. To them, teaching and counseling are not a series of procedures but rather innovative processes of growth, development, and exploration. Van Gogh school psychologists believe that psychoeducational reports must be truly diverse and individualized and that they exist for the recommendations. They are convinced that the essence of school psychology consists of flexible, creative problem-solving and not a routinized set of steps. They also contribute to progress in the field of school psychology but in a quite different way.
Both Rembrandts and Van Goghs are necessary in the complex and challenging intersection of psychology and education. Perhaps it would be ideal if each school psychologist incorporated a bit of each, and some certainly do. The most important point, however, is that there is not only room for both in our field and in NASP, but both perspectives are critical and welcome. NASP is an association for all school psychologists. To accomplish our goal of removing barriers to learning for all students, we must have creative artists and consummate scientists. To be a powerful organization capable of retaining our title and our right to practice, we must be inclusive. We must put aside our internal differences in order to make a difference for students and for school psychology. Both Rembrandts and Van Goghs are welcome in NASP! Vive la difference!
Gene Cash, PhD, NCSP, is a Florida licensed psychologist and a faculty member at the Nova Southeastern University Center for Psychological Studies in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.