Thursday 2 October 2008

Therapy culture and its critics

The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education , by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes (Routledge)

We all have our own examples of the therapeutic turn in education. For example, my 8-year-old stepsister’s maths book many years ago showed ticks and dots alongside her sums – dots having replaced crosses so as not to be so negative, she explained to me. It’s one thing for individual citizens and educators to note, with bewilderment, the rising tendency to obsess about students’ self-esteem, but quite another to pull together the evidence to provide an explanation and searching critique, the goal of this provocative and original new book.

Therapy Culture…

The bulk of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education provides generally strong evidence of the rise of ‘therapeutic education’, understood as the progressive hollowing-out of subject matter in favour of focusing on raising the self-esteem of learners. Rather than seeing psychological problems as something afflicting a tiny minority, Hayes and Ecclestone reveal teachers’ assumptions that most students are ‘vulnerable’, ‘at risk’, ‘damaged’ and ‘traumatised’ by modern life. Therapeutic education responds by getting students to explore their ‘issues’ and become ‘emotionally literate’.

Although the chapter on further education is the best, since the therapeutic turn in this sector began in the 1980s and is thus a well-articulated development, the discussion about primary schools is the most disturbing. The Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning initiative provides a ‘daunting and prescriptive list’ of desirable outcomes that show the sinister and intrusive micromanagement of emotion. ‘Circle time’ is introduced as a form of group therapy; children are told to write down their issues for the ‘worry box’, and those who have none are prompted to think harder and come up with something.

Despite the progressive aura surrounding these initiatives, Ecclestone and Hayes expose the ritualistic, forced nature of therapeutic education as a process in which once-private feelings now become topics for class discussion and teacherly interventions. Children are encouraged to see themselves as emotionally vulnerable and steered into ‘appropriate responses’; older kids are brought in to help the transition to secondary school, invoking fear and suggesting conformity to smooth the way. Teachers focus on boosting pupils’ self-esteem, setting aside issues of logic or truth.

Though the authors show that assumptions of frailty exist throughout the education sector, the evidence cited to prove therapy culture is the dominant pedagogic ethos varies in quantity and quality. The book has attracted fierce controversy and some very biting reviews. This is partly because the stinging critique of the therapeutic ethos essentially hits the mark, prompting defensive, trite responses (anticipated and countered in chapter eight) and in some cases anti-intellectual attacks on the authors’ own psychological states.

There is nothing to defend in such intolerance, but perhaps these reactions stem from Ecclestone’s and Hayes’ tendency to elide potentially positive initiatives with therapeutic education. For instance, the idea of teaching students how to learn as a generic skill, through methods like formative assessment, is wholly unobjectionable and in no way ‘therapy’, despite being treated as such (pp32-3). It is entirely possible to argue, as they do later, that whatever is positive about non-therapeutic interventions may be rapidly hollowed out given the dominance of the therapeutic ethos (pp. 48-50), but this argument needs to be sustained throughout.

Perhaps more seriously, the evidence for the therapeutic turn in higher education seems very weak. The chapter on universities contains a stirring defence of education for its own sake but also rails against fairly unobjectionable ideas and, in stark contrast to the carefully researched and evidenced chapter on further education, reads as polemical (see especially pp 97-100). Likewise on workplace training, the book asserts, rather than proves, the centrality of emotion (p115).

Concerns over evidence aside, the reason this general shift is ‘dangerous’ is because of the central role education plays in articulating a vision of what it means to be human and what sort of society we want to live in. As the authors rightly argue, therapeutic education articulates ‘diminished subjects’, assuming and projecting a view of human beings as emotionally scarred and inept, enfeebled and constantly in need of ‘support’ from the authorities, learning to ‘appropriate responses’ to ‘cope’ with anomie and meaninglessness.

It raises the spectre of people permanently and narcissistically fixated on their own emotions and well-being, rather than experiencing fulfillment through the pursuit of goals external to themselves; obsessed with transforming themselves rather than the world around them, and becoming dependent on state intervention in the most personal aspects of their lives to help them along. This is a mostly theoretical assertion and, while difficult, it would have helped the book’s argument if it were developed empirically. Nonetheless, it is rightly identified as a profoundly depressing vision we need to resist.

Ecclestone and Hayes seek instead to initiate a ‘battle of ideas’ with educators and briefly promote their preferred alternative, a ‘radical humanism’ that emphasises human potential, celebrates technical and scientific progress, and gives everyone a rounded, substantive education based on subject knowledge, to enable them to engage purposively, meaningfully and intelligently with the world, rather than withdrawing to the therapist’s couch. Whatever the weaknesses of specific aspects of the book, the trend the authors identify is undoubtedly real and disturbing, and both institutionalises and reinforces the prevailing gloomy vision of human capabilities. All educators should read this book and accept the invitation to a battle of ideas, because the very notion of what education is for, what sort of people we want education to produce, is at stake.

...and its critics

While the authors argue therapy culture began in 1997 with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, they recognise aspects were present in society from the 1980s (pp28, 38, 72, 76). There is thus confusion with the causal story, but the essential argument is that therapeutic education arose within an overall cultural context of a loss of faith in human progress and the ‘death of the subject’. The post-war consensus about the purpose and importance of a comprehensive, humanist education gave way to the insertion of workplace-related training in the 1970s, followed by the large-scale introduction of therapeutic education in the 1980s as Thatcher attacked ‘socialism’ and dismantled unions and other social institutions, leaving anomic individuals and families in her wake.

As the idea of human beings as subjects of history became eroded, pop-therapy ideas drawn from psychology became popular, and it was this that New Labour seized upon as a way of reaching out to these atomised citizens and investing their education policy with some sense of purpose. As Ecclestone and Hayes argue, the underlying problem is not, as is commonly assumed, that children are ‘disengaged’ from ‘traditional subjects’ but that the political elite no longer believes in education for its own sake or in the capacity of all children to undergo a real education. Therapeutic education masks these contemptuous assumptions by at least giving schools a role in helping citizens ‘cope’ with the aftermath of this social catastrophe.

This overall story is largely unobjectionable, particularly read in conjunction with James Heartfield’s brilliant The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, cited by Ecclestone and Hayes. But there is an issue with the relative balance of material and cultural/ideological forces in their account. Drawing heavily on Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture, the authors argue it is the culture of therapy that has rushed into the void opened up by the ‘death of the subject’. The implication is that the phenomenon can be analysed predominantly at the ideological level and a sufficiently robust ‘battle of ideas’ could restore sanity and a more promising view of the human subject.

However, it is telling that Ecclestone and Hayes’ analysis cannot ignore the social forces that give rise to such conditions. They rightly note that the crucial ‘subject’ whose ‘death’ makes way for therapy culture is that of the organised working class: the view of people as fragile and anomic is not simply fictional, but reflects the fact that the mediating institutions of social life – unions, churches, political parties, etc – have crumbled or been smashed, which really has left people atomized and more impotent, bereft of a sense of meaning and confronted with apparently impersonal forces like ‘globalisation’ that the neoliberal state does little to defend them from. There is a strong sense in parts of the book that therapeutic education plays a role in articulating what might be called the neoliberal subject – someone who can cope with the psychological effects of living under late capitalism – such as the idea that universities should embrace and thereby help students to cope with a world of uncertainty (p95).

Ecclestone and Hayes argue originally, albeit briefly, that emotions are becoming increasingly important in the workplace because the ‘workplace has become the location of what no longer exists in wider society and is often described as the end of tradition or the collapse of community’ (p109). They also acknowledge that the state first promoted therapy not under New Labour but under Thatcher, to help (ex-)workers cope with de-industrialisation (p119). Although Althusser’s harsh structuralism should be rejected, his idea that education plays a key role in ‘interpolating’ subjects in line with the demands of prevailing socio-economic structures is surely a valid insight (cf. Maria Grasso on Althusser’s On Ideology).

Indeed, it is implicitly reflected in the observations noted above, plus scattered references to the way therapeutic education ‘disciplines’ and ‘socially engineers’ people. Focusing on these more structural concerns might also partly explain the variation in the quality and quantity of evidence the authors find for therapeutic education across different educational settings. It is strongest in areas deliberately targeted by New Labour to combat ‘social exclusion’ – ie, directed at those worst-affected by the ‘collapse of community’ – like schools and further education, and weakest in areas where therapeutic priorities are held back by the more mundane training requirements of businesses, although therapeutic education also trains people for ‘emotional labour’ in service-sector jobs (p79).

Yet, despite all this, Ecclestone and Hayes seem to want it both ways, using material (ie. social) factors to explain the rise of their bête noire, yet dismissing their importance when they reject ‘the need to offer therapeutic repair to the large numbers assumed to be so emotionally “damaged” by capitalism that they need therapeutic support’ (p161) and arguing that therapy culture leads us to massively inflate the number of ‘damaged’ individuals, and exaggerate non-problems. The implication of the call for a ‘battle of ideas’ is that if people could just snap out of it and express a more robust subjectivity, all would be well in the world. But then why is the collapse of social institutions so important to their story, if it does not leave people objectively worse off, disoriented and groping for meaning and support?

The authors reject the idea of reviving Paulo Freire’s radical pedagogy of the oppressed since the ‘structural and material conditions that shaped it are starkly different from current conditions’ (p161), but they do not consider that today’s ‘structural and material conditions’ may be incapable of supporting the alternative they offer, instead powerfully anchoring the therapeutic turn. Indeed, they seem quite sceptical of their own solution, arguing that ‘educationalists do not have the confidence for this defence because, deep down, they no longer believe children and young people are capable of education of the sort we have defined’ (pp162-3). Of course, this ‘belief’ is subjective, but it is connected to objective social factors.

Perhaps therapeutic education not only interpolates the neoliberal subject but has joined the revival of superstitious belief as part of what Marx identified as ‘the opiate of the masses, the heart of a heartless world’. If so, while the authors are entirely right to criticise the unions’ embrace of therapeutic notions in their obsession with workplace ‘stress’ and ‘bullying’, which turns the objective, collective experience of being a worker under capitalism into a psychological – and thus inherently individualised – problem, undermining the potential for worthwhile collective action (p110), their similar focus on subjective factors does not provide an alternative way for workers to conceptualise their plight.

Ecclestone and Hayes rightly note the effect of the social changes underpinning the therapeutic turn ‘is to set the mass of working people back to a state something like the eighteenth century, when politics was largely the preserve of the upper classes’ (pp140-1), and rightly deride the way therapeutic education encourages workers to become emotionally reconciled to their position, noting that in ‘older traditions of working class education, consciousness of discontent was a spur to individual or collective action’ (p159). The problem is that in the epoch of ‘There Is No Alternative’, it is not immediately obvious what such ‘collective action’ would be directed to achieve. Why do we need a robust subject rather than a diminished one? The answer can only be rooted in dissatisfaction with the prevailing order and a desire to transform it.

Perhaps Ecclestone and Hayes hope that restoring humanist education would provide workers with the means to reconceptualise their plight and develop new, transformatory visions. Certainly they deserve better than the utter tosh presently offered to them under the guise of ‘education’, and ‘radical humanism’ is a vastly better alternative. But if social atomisation produced the therapeutic turn, it also constitutes a barrier to escaping it, and cannot simply be willed away by an exhortation to rediscover subjectivity.


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