Friday 7 August 2009

Historicising the therapeutic turn

Changing the Subject: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Emotional Well-Being and Social Justice, Seminar 5: Perspectives from History, Oxford Brookes University, 7 July 2009

Every generation seems to harbour the delusion that it faces entirely new problems distinct to its own era, when in fact various social issues and moral panics have countless precedents. It is only a historical approach that allows us to grasp what is distinct about contemporary life. In the fifth seminar of the ‘Changing the Subject’ series, therapeutic concerns were set in a properly historical context. (1)

The task of historicising the therapeutic turn is not aided by what Bill Gibson’s paper termed ‘the therapeutic abuse of history’. Gibson’s lively and powerful polemic identified two forms of ‘abuse’. First, the retrospective diagnosing of historical figures with psychological disorders in order to explain their behaviour, on the basis of very little evidence indeed: Newton as a manic depressive; Darwin as an Asperger’s sufferer. The sole purpose of such work, Gibson argued, was to normalise mental ill-health and make contemporary sufferers feel better. Second, the plundering of history by an ‘apology industry’ to fuel a ‘cult of conspicuous compassion’. Apologising for slavery or ethnocide while offering no material restitution serves only to attract attention to publicity-seeking, ‘I feel your pain’ politicians, while distracting attention from ongoing injustices and from historical realities (eg, the Atlantic slave trade was dwarfed by slaving among Arabs and Africans).

Gibson distinguished such abuses from truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) like those in South Africa and Northern Ireland. The distinction is arguable, however. Kevin Rooney pointed out that the effect of Northern Ireland’s TRC has been to encourage a view of the past which emphasises a shared sense of victimhood, thus erasing the politics and principles underlying the war in Ireland, and rewriting history. The legacy of such psychologising accounts of the past leads to views of populations as permanently ‘traumatised’. Recent anti-Roma violence in Belfast was sufficient for many commentators to suggest that the Northern Irish were deeply atavistic, lusting for some new hate objects to replace sectarianism. (2)

Two papers then provided historical accounts of non-contemporary concerns for children’s well-being. Harry Hendrick’s paper on ‘The Coming of the Child as an Emotional Subject’ reminded us that children have always been a target for politics and adults’ delusions and ambitions, including attempts to rescue society from the problems of modernity. Hendrick argued that in the interwar period in Europe, the breakdown of moral certainties, social conventions and liberal expectations of progress led to a widespread fear of interpersonal violence and irrationalism, exacerbated by social unrest. Psychology, whose terminology and ideas had entered popular culture by the 1920s, stepped up with a deliberate aim of scientifically regulating children to ensure social cohesion.

This occurred in various phases. After WWI, behaviouralists –  a ‘sophisticated version of Supernanny’ – sought to regulate child-rearing, poor practice of which was blamed for physical and moral degeneracy. Appropriate habits were to be instilled through rigid procedures like toilet training to ‘rear model children’ for American capitalism: self-regulated children accustomed to discipline and to the absence of working mothers. A different approach emerged in the 1920s as ‘child guidance clinics’ sought to diagnose children’s fears and phobias, heralding the beginning of the child as a psychological subject. After WWII, a new ‘liberal’ child-rearing philosophy was pioneered by Spock, emphasising the need for adults to adjust to children’s needs. Responding to elite fears of totalitarianism and the early Cold War, the family was reasserted as a humane, ‘democratic’ and basic unit of Western society. Major US foundations funded the massive expansion of such approaches in order to help breed the ‘willing cooperation’ demanded by industrial, democratic societies. At all these moments, Hendrick argued, the concern of child psychologists – who were all deeply rooted in their social milieus and concerned to contribute to the stabilisation of Western societies – was principally for the consequences of children’s distress on the socio-political order, not with emotions themselves.

John Stewart then provided a more in-depth look at the British ‘Child Guidance’ movement. Founded after WWI and funded by the Commonwealth Fund of New York, the movement had established around 100 clinics by 1945, and its provisions for the treatment of ‘maladapted’ children were incorporated into the postwar Education Act. What is striking is the movement’s expansive definition of ‘maladapted’. Its core principles included the notion that even apparently normal children were potentially at risk from mental illness, and ‘shyness’ and ‘reserve’ were treated as ‘maladaptation’ which was potentially symptomatic of deeper psychological disturbance. Even ‘good’ children were potentially suspicious, and parents were encouraged to adopt a permanent state of vigilance to spot signs of abnormality. Thus, the contemporary view taken by therapeutic educationalists that most children are potentially ‘damaged’, and the inclusion of shyness in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, turn out to be not so novel. (3)

Child Guidance tried to encourage children to ‘adapt’ to their environment, rather than campaigning for social reforms, in the view that successful adaptation would benefit society as a whole. Despite espousing a ‘holistic’ approach, its interventions were confined to families – and, in practice, they tended to be working-class – since parental attitudes were more readily malleable than their material circumstances. Child Guidance was part of a broader correctional movement which sought to create ‘integrated personalities’ and thus create the ‘freedom to accept [the] freedom [offered by modern society]’ by resolving individuals’ personal strife first. Without such interventions, it was feared, social breakdown could follow.

The movements these papers described seem to provide further strong evidence for my earlier claims that therapeutic interventions in education are primarily about encouraging people to adapt to the alienated conditions of late capitalist modernity. (4) Concerns about the impact of individuation, competition and alienation arising from market relations on social order, however, go back much further than these movements. Indeed, they animated the scientific study of society pioneered in the late nineteenth century by figures like Émile Durkheim and Max Weber.

Durkheim in particular had interesting things to say both about what we now call ‘mental health’, and about education, which reflect the path not travelled by movements which chose to focus on the individual and the family at the expense of wider society. He argued that as the ‘mechanical solidarity’ provided by the mores, religions and morals of traditional society broke down in the face of the ‘cult of the individual’, Western societies had failed to devise new shared meanings to provide an ‘organic solidarity’ for more complex societies. Consequently, people suffered from what he called anomie, a sense of normlessness and alienation which, he argued, provided a crucial explanation for the rapid rise in suicide rates, which had trebled or quadrupled during this social transition.

Despite being a committed participant in France’s educational reforms, however, Durkheim specifically rejected the idea that changes in educational practice could overcome anomie:

…this is to ascribe to education a power it lacks. It is only the image and reflection of society. It imitates and reproduces the latter in abbreviated form; it does not create it. Education is healthy when people themselves are in a healthy state; but is becomes corrupt with them, being unable to modify itself… The strongest wills cannot elicit non-existent forces from nothingness, and the shocks of experience constantly dissipate these facile illusions.

A few ‘shocks of experience’ were relayed by secondary school teachers participating in the ‘Changing the Subject’ seminar. One argued that teachers were simply not capable of providing the therapeutic support demanded by the government, and schools consequently focused more on completing a paper trail than helping pupils. Another complained that this was a serious distraction from the task of subject teaching – a point reinforced by a third teacher who reported that many of his Year 9 History students had been absent from half of their classes for six weeks doing an ‘emotional literacy’ course.

Durkheim continued:

Education, therefore, can be reformed only if society itself is reformed. To do that, the evil from which it suffers must be attacked at its source.

The ‘evil’ being the social fragmentation caused by capitalism, Durkheim called for a radical reorganisation of the political and economic spheres, promoting the drastic reduction of social inequalities through the abolition of the inheritance of wealth, and a form of guild socialism whereby occupational groups would provide social support to individuals, build the values required for ‘organic solidarity’ and reinvigorate democracy.

Whatever you think of ‘guild socialism’, Durkheim’s warning against expecting education to be a magic wand capable of resolving social problems seems especially apt today, as the government loads ever greater responsibilities onto schools – nutrition, emotional well-being, citizenship, environmental awareness – without seeking to transform the social and economic problems that give rise to the problems these initiatives are naively expected to resolve.

Historicising the therapeutic turn produces at least three distinct challenges to different groups of people. First, it challenges contemporary theorists of therapy culture to locate their critique historically and to specify exactly what is new – and what is not. One answer to the former question might be the widespread acceptance of therapeutic ideas. In 1949, the Labour Cabinet reacted with bafflement to the suggestion that it adopt policies to enhance children’s emotional experience; today, such goals are mainstream. Why? Perhaps postwar governments still had something of Durkheim about them, focusing on socio-economic reform, rather than retreating into the regulation of individuals and families. In any case, an account of what has changed and why is a necessity.

The second challenge is to historians, who in contrast to neophyte sociologists are perhaps more predisposed to believe that there is nothing new under the sun, to be wary of inflating the scale and significance of past instances of therapeutic intervention. Hendrick’s and Stewart’s papers both failed to set therapeutic movements into context and compare their weight with other social policies of the day, or to examine how targeted families reacted to medical or state interference: was today’s apparent acceptance of state meddling in family life preceded by greater resistance in a more politically and socially antagonistic age?

The final challenge is for all of us to think in a historically informed way about education’s place within wider society, to ask what education is for and to be realistic about how much education can do. At their best, good teachers can inspire, widen horizons, transform minds, and empower people to think for themselves. But they cannot solve all of society’s problems. The history of the comprehensive school system showed that educational reform cannot abolish class distinctions; decades of therapeutic intervention have not stemmed the rise of alienation, disaffection and mental illness, nor have they created social justice. Education can realise a progressive role only as part of more fundamental transformations of society. Geoff Mulgan, a former advisor to the British Prime Minister, has suggested that well-being will become as important to governments as military prowess was in the nineteenth century. But there is an alternative, one recognised by a child of that century – Durkheim:

As long as there are states, so there will be national pride, and nothing can be more warranted. But societies can have their pride, not in being the greatest or the wealthiest, but in being the most just, the best organised, and in possessing the best moral constitution.

1) For reports on the previous seminars, see Dolan Cummings, Knowing Me, Knowing You, Culture Wars, 16 January 2009; Lee Jones, Resisting Emotional Education, Culture Wars, 3 February 2009; Lee Jones, Adapting to Alienation, Culture Wars, 10 June 2009.
4) Cf. Brendan O’Neill, Hatred is not natural; it’s a political outcome of those “poisonous foundations” , Slugger O’Toole, 19 June 2009.
3) See Katherine Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (London: Routledge, 2008); Ken McLaughlin, The ever-expanding world of mental illness, spiked, 28 July 2009.
4) See esp. Jones, Adapting to Alienation.


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