EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s guest author is Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D, an Emeritus Professor in the Honors Program at Northern Illinois University. He is author of The Psychedelic Future of the Mind, co-editor of Psychedelic Medicine and editor of Spiritual Growth with Entheogens. His website is: niu.academia.edu/ThomasRoberts. Below, he reflects on the history and purpose of his course in Psychedelic Studies, one of the first to be offered in the U.S.
“Psychedelics!? You mean they let you teach a course about psychedelics? I wish I could at _____.”
“Well,” I thought, “ now that I’ve started teaching a university course about psychedelics, the ice is broken. Professors in other colleges and universities can start theirs too.” So I thought in 1981. Naïve optimism can be a great asset. For the next 30 years almost nothing happened except at some specialized graduate programs near San Francisco.
In 1980’s, there wasn’t much new research on psychedelics. The War on Drugs was in full swing with DARE, “Just Say “No’”, and a lock-em-up attitude. “This is your brain on drugs” aired in 1987. As Nancy Reagan said, “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart and replace it with a nightmare.” This wasn’t an auspicious time to teach a psychedelics course, and my optimism about other professors following suit was wildly optimistic.
Now, however, things are beginning to pick up. NYU Langone Medical School – Bellevue Hospital has a course for medical students that’s open to others too, and at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Health, Dr. Nicholas Cozzi includes a psychedelics unit in his Integrated Neuroscience course. Two undergraduate courses are going now, at last. The College of DuPage, a community college west of Chicago, has Psychedelic Mindview, which is mostly oriented toward both mental health professionals and the general student body. Best of all, the University of Pennsylvania Comparative Literature and Literary Theory Department, for the first time in the fall of 2014, offers Drug Wars: The Influence of Psychoactive Rhetoric.
History of the course
The exact origins of my course are lost in the mists of history and the fog of my memory. I know that in the early and mid-1970s, I offered a special topics course on transpersonal psychology. This was probably in the wake of a conference I organized in 1973 that looked at consciousness and transpersonal psychology, including psychedelics. I know that when Stanislav Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Psychotherapy was published, the class took turns reading chapters from my copy and discussing them in class. That was 1975.
By 1981, the transpersonal special topics course became focused on psychedelics and took on the name Psychedelic Research. The first time I taught it — in fact, for its first two decades—I offered it as one of those one-shot special topics courses that are commonly titled “Special Topics in X”, “Selected Readings in X,” or “Advanced Study of X.” This didn’t require approval beyond an OK from my faculty chairperson. Fortunately, I was in the Educational Psychology Faculty of a College of Education. Unlike some departments in the liberal arts and sciences (which guard their intellectual boarders jealously) and others that restrict research only to an approved paradigm or two, colleges of education are singularly open-minded. A common College of Ed attitude is, “If it works, or even might work, let’s take a look at it.”