Dr. Milton Schwebel, who died on October 3 in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 99, was a beloved faculty member in the School Psychology program at GSAPP and a former dean of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. He was concerned about many critically important social issues, including racial equality, social justice, educational inequality, and world peace. Milt was also an expert on cognitive and social development over the life span, doing pioneering research, for example, on the impact of the threat of nuclear war upon children. His work on counseling minority youth broke new ground. Milt was also concerned about the health and wellbeing of psychologists and how it affected their work. What lay at the foundation of all these interests was his passionate commitment to maximizing human potential.
Milt’s many books reflect these interests. They include Assisting Impaired Psychologists, Promoting Cognitive Growth over the Life Span, Behavioral Science and Human Survival, Piaget in the Classroom, Guide to a Happier Family, Who Can Be Educated?, and most re- cently, Remaking America's Three School Systems: Now Separate and Unequal.
Milt was particularly concerned with the nation’s public schools and their impact on the development of children and youth. In 1968 he wrote Who Can Be Educated?, which many believe was his most influential book. Appearing at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, it presented a strong and articulate case for the desegregation of America’s schools. In 2003 Milt published what proved to be his last book, Remaking America’s Three School Systems: Now Separate and Unequal. This powerful and far-reaching work seemed to bring together so many of the themes that characterized his scholarship and activism. In it he wrote, “Real school reform will not be possible until society, through its political voice and political action, gives higher valuation to optimal human development.”
Milt’s scholarly work was appreciated by many for its incisive treatment of complex social issues. As one review of his last book noted, “What distinguishes Remaking America’s Three School Systems is Schwebel’s commanding range of information and his firm grasp of the systematic roots of the problems” (Van Hoorn & Donahue, 2003, p. 363). The review went on to praise the book’s “far-ranging synthesis of the literature, theory, and research drawn from different disciplines” (p. 363). However, the review also noted that the book was not just a work of prodigious scholarship; it was also “a call to action” (p. 363). This melding of scholarship and action was a characteristic of many of Milt’s contributions to psychology and education.
Milt’s contributions to peace psychology also were significant. He helped create the American Psychological Association's "Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Vio- lence: Peace Psychology," and he was the first editor of the journal Peace and Conflict.
While Milt’s early work on the impact of the threat of nuclear war made him particularly concerned about world peace, he was interested in promoting peace at all levels. I still remember his appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, along with his wife and two sons, to talk about the book they had just written together, Guide to a Happier Family. Milt saw family peace and world peace as equally important for the wellbeing of children.
Milt was also concerned about the mental health of psychologists. He was the founding chair of APA's Advisory Committee on Impaired Psychologists for eight years. In his book, Assisting Impaired Psychologists, he wrote about what was required to become a “well-functioning psychologist.”
Milt began working on behalf of others long before he became a psychologist. In his early years he was at various times a substitute teacher, a camp counselor, an orphanage houseparent with his wife Bernice, a career counselor, and a labor market analyst in the National Youth Administration. He earned his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at Columbia University, followed by a three-year fellowship in psychotherapy at the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health in New York. He then joined the faculty of New York University's School of Education where he served as a professor, department chair and associate dean for graduate studies for eighteen years. He left NYU to become dean of the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, serving in that position for ten years.
Milt’s passion for social justice, peace, and the realization of human potential made him an inspiring teacher at GSAPP. Several alumni have given voice to the feelings he brought out in so many of his former students. David Sacks wrote that Milt’s “knowledge, optimism, and encouragement lifted me to success. What a wonderful spirit!” Lucy Sant'Anna Takagi wrote that Milt was a “generous soul… whose sense of social justice… paved the road for the rest of us to follow.”
Milt was highly critical of American society, of how far we still had to go in order to fulfill the American dream. But he also was a perennial optimist. He believed that great change was not only needed; it was possible. At one point he wrote, "Humans possess the power to advance their intelligence, change their lives and circumstances, and achieve peaceful solutions to conflict."
I was privileged to be one of Milt’s faculty colleagues. I think my own feelings about him are best summed up by the thought that came to me soon after I heard of his death. “The world seemed like a better place while he was still alive.”
By Dr. Cary Cherniss