Thursday 13 November 2008

Therapy culture revisited

Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes reply to Lee Jones’ critique of their critique

Lee Jones’ review of our book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education is more thoughtful and nuanced than most (1). His assessment that ‘the evidence cited to prove therapy culture is the dominant pedagogic ethos varies in quantity and quality’ shows the careful attention he has given the book. Because of this, his review challenged us to explain further several of our ideas.

The counter-attack of the therapists

Jones is a standard above most of the recent commentators and reviewers who showed that vested interests were on the defensive before the book was even published. David Hinton, the chair of ‘Dignity At Work Now’, in a letter to the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine written before the book was published,  railed against ‘this appallingly slipshod work’ (26 June 2008). This rant prompted an (unpublished) reply from Bill Gibson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes University, that you used to say you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover, but apparently now you can judge a book without ever having seen the cover! Hinton’s response shows that many are deeply involved in a ‘victim’ culture and see a threat to the income stream the therapeutic industry opens up for a huge industry of consultants, psychologists and university research centres. Lee Jones is right that this sort of tirade does not deserve serious consideration and its self-interest is blatant.

A more measured response in a review by Gail Kinman in the THE raised the same issue as Jones, that of evidence: ‘Unfortunately, the authors provide little in the way of peer-reviewed evidence for the strong assertions made in the book. They rely heavily on “pop psychology” texts and unsupported hypothesis.’ (2)

Of course, supporters of therapeutic education agree with our criticisms and also dismiss much of what goes on as poor ‘pop psychology’. An easy appeasement would be to say ‘yes’, and accept that there is much that goes on that is good. But, apart from specialist work that treats serious psychological problems, all the interventions and activities we chart in the book are part of the dangerous therapy culture in education.

Arguing that we need more ‘peer reviewed’ evidence not only overlooks the vast array of documentary and practical evidence we brought together in the book, but, more importantly, avoids the point that it is perfectly proper to assert, and argue and that this has logical priority in pursuing research. First you make a case and argue its implications and then you carry out empirical research (3). Otherwise you won’t know what to look at, or what the implications might be.

Millions are being poured into therapeutic projects and a few fairly cursory ‘peer reviewed’ evaluations which are overwhelmingly supportive of the aims to start with because they work with a circular set of assumptions about a diminished human being. They assume that improving the self-esteem, resilience, self-confidence of children, young people and some adults are both ends in themselves and a first step towards being able to take part in education or training, let alone being able to benefit from it. For example, the London school of Economics is evaluating happiness classes, but you do not need to undertake an empirical study of something that is logically self-defeating. Self-esteem, confidence and happiness are all by-products of pursuing other things.If they become end points in themselves, whether in lessons or life, then they slip away. It you ask yourself ‘Why can’t I be happy?’, you won’t be. ‘Get a life!’, or ‘learn something meaningful’ is the right advice for those doubting their emotional wellbeing. Getting people to try to be ‘happy’ ensures they will continue not to be!

Evidence by example

Our methodology reflected the fact that we were trying to demonstrate a cultural shift manifesting itself in different ways in different contexts, and not the impact of a particular policy initiative or education programme. In discussions, many people have said to us that they just ‘don’t see’ what we draw attention to. Conversely, others have said that we illuminate things going on in their institutions. That is why we chose a methodology based on giving example after example to shift people’s perception of what was happening in schools, colleges, universities and workplaces. The power of examples is that they enable people to look and see for themselves by sensitising them to similar things so that they may shift their views. As Wittgenstein said, a solution to many problems in the way we try to understand the world was to follow the advice: ‘don’t think, but look!’ (Philosophical Investigations).

It is seeing things in ahistorical and old-fashioned or politically blinkered ways that is the problem. Building confidence and paying some attention to the affective aspects of learning while educating people, as some teachers did in the context of the social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, is not at all the same as building ‘self-esteem’ now in a context of no political struggle and, arguably, no politics at all.

Of course examples do not constitute a well-funded, peer-reviewed empirical survey, but are in no way poorer for their particularity. Their weakness is that they can be both powerful and misleading, but the response is still that we have to look and see whether they are misleading or whether they resonate with people’s experience. Even a major survey only puts together many examples and then challenges us to look and see if what is concludes is true.

A great benefit of this methodology is that it enjoins people to think for themselves. And many people, especially teachers, who did not agree with us at first, now write to us regularly with examples to show that our critique is correct.

Therapy culture

Our definition of therapeutic education is an education that emphasised emotion over the intellect. The question ‘But isn’t there a role for emotional education?’ has been raised by many people at our post-publication talks. Our reply is that therapeutic education is not aesthetic or emotional education, but one that systematically downplays the intellectual.

Jones suggests in his review that often the things we mention are not obviously therapeutic, but more explicit therapy is just one aspect of therapy ‘culture’; the other is the ‘culture’ itself in which seemingly normal activities, such as tutoring (even the Oxbridge Tutorial!), start to emphasise the emotions over the intellect. Initiatives like ‘assessment for learning’, and its techniques of feedback and questioning, started out as ways to improve pedagogy for better cognitive understanding within subject domains: in a therapeutic culture, assessment for learning has been easily hijacked for subject-free processes that focus on emotional aspects of learning.

Therapy ‘culture’ is just that, and although it is ubiquitous, it is stronger in certain arenas than others. It is because of this that the evidence for the therapeutic turn can seem to be patchy in our book. And although the nature of things makes it patchy, we argue that explicitly therapeutic education will deepen therapy culture.

Take the idea of the ‘therapeutic university’ as an example. Jones says that there is less convincing evidence in the book for therapeutic culture in universities. What he ignores is the strength of the theoretical instances we explore. The example of the major and most influential thinkers writing about the university in therapeutic terms (Ron Barnett, Stephen Rowland, John Cowen) shows that, despite the obvious difficulties of the university abandoning scholarly subjects to deal with the human subject in a therapeutic way, it is merely a matter of time unless this powerful theoretical therapeutic tendency is challenged. Since the book was published we have already collected many more examples of therapeutic initiatives in universities that make them seem more like school, from therapy days for staff to ‘emotional support pets’ for students.

Asserting subjects not subjectivity

Our short chronology of therapy culture shows it passing through various stages from the 1960s and accelerating in the 1990s, with the collapse of traditional working class institutions and of the faux alternative to capitalism represented by ‘Communist’ regimes. Therapy culture filled a political vacuum and gave politicians a way of relating to people. The strongest shift in political attitudes was from fear of the worker to fear for the worker. Instead of the active working class, there were now merely bullied victims in the workplace. Jones doesn’t see the force of much of what we briefly say about the workplace, perhaps because, in line with the educational focus of the book, we restrict what we say to training and staff development. Yet, therapy culture is everywhere at work. This chapter has had particular impact on many readers who are not teachers, opening their eyes to what is happening to them at work. That said, this is certainly a topic that we could write more about.

‘Class war’, we said, has been replaced by therapeutic ‘couch war’. But what is distinctive about the rise of therapeutic education, and what makes it very dangerous, is that it is an attack not just on workers but on the active human subject per se. The therapeutic educational project extends and deepens therapy culture: in a generation or so all children could, if it is not halted, grow up with a diminished notion of what it is to be a human being.

A point we began to develop in the book, and have developed further in recent writing and debate (4, 5) is that the undermining of the human subject, which presents people as hopeless, hapless and unable to cope, is part of a two-fold attack on both the human subject and on the curriculum subject. The curriculum made up of subjects is, of course, key to young people’s access to human knowledge. To deny them this is to take away their ability to know things and control their lives. The attack on knowledge removes the possibility of young people becoming fully human.

Jones says that we assert subjectivity instead of dealing with the political and sociological conditions that undermine subjectivity. Our view is that education is now the key to our future. This is not to revert to an archaic form of change through education but to recognise that, at the present moment, it is only by asserting subjects that we can develop subjectivity. How that will develop we cannot predetermine but without a defence of the subject, a defence of subjectivity will be as meaningless as Jones suggests.

1) Lee Jones, Therapy culture and its critics, Culture Wars, 2 October 2008
2) Gail Kinman, ‘Step outside the Rogerian circle’, THE, 28 August 2008
3) For example: Ecclestone, K., De Abreu, G., and Quinn, J. (2008) The impact of interventions for emotional well-being on constructions of the self in educational settings, Research Proposal to the Economic and Social Science Research Council, October 2008
4) See Ecclestone, K. and Hayes, D. (2009) Changing the subject?: the educational implications of emotional well-being, forthcoming special edition of the Oxford Review of Education
5) Ecclestone, K., Clack, B., Hayes, D. and Pupavac, V. (2008) Changing the subject?: interdisciplinary perspectives on emotional well-being and social justice, Economic and Social Science Research Council Seminar Series, 2008-2009


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.