Syllabus: Lerner, “Madness, Science, and Society in the Modern West”

The following is the first installment in our series on university and college courses dealing with the history of madness, mental illness, and psychiatry.  For the next two weeks, we will be posting syllabi from courses across the world, along with the comments of their creators and instructors.  If you teach a university or college course about the history of mental disorders and their treatment, please contact Greg Eghigian ( with details.  We will be happy to post all relevant submissions.

Paul Lerner is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern California (USA).  He is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth-century Germany and Central Europe with particular interest in the history of the human sciences, Jewish history, gender, and the history and theory of consumer culture. He has written on the history of psychiatry, specifically on hysteria and trauma in political, cultural and economic context in the years around World War I in Germany, and he is now working on the reception and representation of department stores and modern forms of marketing and consumption in Germany and Central Europe. This project pays particular attention to the notion of the “Jewish department store” and the ways that various movements deployed images of Jews to critique excessive consumption or mass consumer society. Lerner is also part of a long-term project on gender in German Jewish history and is co-editing a volume of essays entitled: “Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender and History.” Lerner’s books can be found at: here and here.

Let me note that the course is part of the Thematic Options program, an honors track alternative to the university’s regular General Education curriculum.  Most of the students in the class were majoring in psychology, neuroscience, or biology and this served as a history/philosophy of science course for them.

What worked well:  the films, powerpoint presentations with pictures of asylums, and artistic renderings, readings such as S. W. Mitchell, Charcot, Pinel, W.A. F. Browne, in short, accessible primary sources that the students could really get into it.  Discussion of ECT and especially leucotomy generated intense discussion and debate.  They had some difficulty digesting Metzl, but it led to good discussions. Lecture on Nazi psychiatry provoked strong reactions as did a guest lecture on eugenics in the US.  The class also produced a number of creative and thoughtful final projects.

What didn’t work so well:  students complained, as usual, about Freud and I was disappointed that our discussions remained somewhat shallow. The Healy book on Mania was a flop.  It would have been nice to do something on non-Western societies or colonial madness – still looking for good teaching sources on these topics.  Presentism is always a danger with this class, especially when I have so many psychology majors and pre-meds.  On the whole, enough students understood the historical approach that we were able to keep the presentism in check.


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