Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Interview in

AU Professsor filling the seats and causing controversy
Popular AU Justice professor makes students think "in an entirely new perspective"

by Josh Kraushaar
posted 09/18/03

Try to enroll in one of Jeffrey Schaler's three courses this fall, and you would be hard-pressed to find an open spot. Most of his justice courses - "Deprivation of Liberty" and "Drugs, Alcohol and Society" being the most prominent - filled up quickly, and for good reason. In a department where formulaic lectures on the Constitution and legal jargon can predominate, the popular and provocative justice professor prefers to talk about what he considers the greatest infringement of liberty today: psychiatry.

In Schaler's mind, mental illness does not exist, all drugs should be legalized and alcoholism is a behavior, not a disease. His class attracts many students who appreciate his politically incorrect approach to teaching.

"In a good academic environment, we would explore all sides of issues. The more controversial, the better," Schaler said. "Students seem to like that kind of no bullshit approach."

Senior Jen Metzger is one of those students. She took his "Deprivation of Liberty" class last year and credits Schaler for making her "think in an entirely new perspective."

"I think his ideas are so radical. We have never been taught that mental illness or addiction is a choice," Metzger said. "He deviates from the norm and has a reputation for doing so."

Schaler's approach has served him well. After 11 years at American University, Jeffrey Schaler can now point to evidence he's welcome. This fall, he earned a promotion in the School of Public Affairs' Department of Justice, Law & Society promoted Schaler to an assistant professor after 11 years as an adjunct professor at AU. Schaler believes the promotion speaks volumes about his teaching style in the classroom.

"I encourage students to challenge me, to play devil's advocate. I always say you should attack the professor. I want to teach them how to argue," Schaler said.

Schaler's own thinking crystallized in 1982 when he worked on the Montgomery County Drug Advisory board. An alcoholic requested help from his addiction, and Schaler responded that his alcoholism was a behavioral flaw. Denounced by his superiors, the incident inspired him to write his doctoral dissertation on why people believe in addiction. He recently published a book titled "Addiction Is A Choice" and in April appeared on an ABC News special on the topic. Currently, in addition to his teaching, he runs a counseling practice in Silver Spring.

In class, Schaler argues that mental illness is synonymous with socially unacceptable behavior, and spends the first four weeks of his course arguing that point. He views America as a therapeutic state that is depriving those labeled mentally ill of their civil liberties.

"We're free to believe whatever we want," he said. "There is no evidence that people we call schizophrenic and depressed have a chemical imbalance. All real diseases are found in the cadaver. Mental illnesses are not."

Not all students and faculty buy his arguments. One student told him that her psychology professor called his ideas "crazy." Justice professor Ronald Weiner, who currently shares office space with Schaler, tells his students to ignore him. But Schaler says he encourages students to argue with him, and he does not penalize them for disagreeing with his views.

"I thought that he had some valid reasons and ideas for what he thought, but that he was trying to push his views on us," said senior Alexis Willard, who took Schaler's "Deprivation of Liberty" course last year. "He could obviously win an argument with a student because he's been doing this for a long time and already has his arguments stockpiled in his mind."

For now, Schaler continues to argue his positions and challenges his students to think critically - whether they agree with him or not. In his "Deprivation of Liberty" syllabus, he writes "your life is going to change as a result of taking this course." Life-changing or not, Schaler's course has impacted many of his students. He said he continues to advise many former students and works with psychology students who are interested in learning a different approach.

"I think the true key is to take a little from everything you have learned, meld it together, and decide for yourself," said Metzger.

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