2. Psychotherapeutic Interventions, Transformative Learning, and the Dorms of U Delaware

Tom Wood

The ResLife program at the University of Delaware has received a great deal of well-deserved ridicule and opprobrium in recent weeks, but virtually all of the attention has been directed at the details of the radical views on race it promulgated. Little or no attention has been given to placing these details within the larger context of the concept of "education" that inspired and drove the program. This is unfortunate, because understanding the wider context of the ResLife program at Delaware is as important as the details.

The architect of the Delaware program was Shakti Butler, an Oakland, California-based diversity consultant who stresses the importance of "transformative" education. The advocates of transformative education view traditional education, very broadly defined, as quite insufficient for the larger and much more important task that modern-day educators should be setting for themselves.

Some of the principal elements of Butler's concept of "transformative" learning are set out at the web site of her organization, World Trust:

Transformative Learning (what it is)
Transformative learning is a form of adult education involving experiences that result in a deep, structural shift in thoughts and feelings, which then inform one's actions. This shift in consciousness can be very subtle or quite extraordinary. Often, it alters our way of making meaning and being in the world. Such a deep-seated shift involves our understanding and our relationships with other people, the natural world, and ourselves.

Transformative Learning In Practice
Whether transformative learning is approached through a conscious rational process or a more intuitive, imaginative or spiritual one, it fosters and develops capacities that invite people to live more meaningfully. It can also provide ways to invite the power of the intellect to join the wisdom of the heart. Expanding and evolving human consciousness supports social transformation that embodies joy, peace and equity for all people.

The Alchemy of Reflection
re·flec·tion: consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose.
Basic to the transformative learning model, personal reflection harnesses the power of the mind to bring about unlimited personal transformation. It invites the power of the intellect to join the wisdom of the heart and bring about a deep, structural shift in thoughts and feelings, which then inform one's actions.

Perhaps the clearest account of the kind of learning (actually therapy or behavior modification) that is being marketed here is found in the following account of the practice of Dr. Yolanda Ronquillo, who is on the board of directors of World Trust:

Dr. Ronquillo integrates technology in the sharing -- exchange of each person's cultural wisdom in digital stories, or other products of this project, with students, teachers and family members. All participant's bring learning alive through experiences of creative interpretation through the arts by identifying patterns from their own lives and culture thereby discovering meanings scarcely suspected before. These imaginative encounters are the stuff of stored images, memories, feelings, perceptions, and understandings that many times lead to developing a sense of enablement and voice therefore supporting increased student achievement and academic success.

Dr. Ronquillo is also the author of the Excellence through Equity Principles and training of trainer model for professional development in equity and technology integration.

Anyone who has lived through the 70s and 80s recognizes this kind of language. It belongs to the realm of psychotherapy, self-help, and personal change. Critics of the ResLife program at UD have also compared the Shakti Butler program there with Maoist thought reform. There are, in fact, obvious similarities, and in particular obvious overlaps in techniques, between political thought reform and behavior modification in psychotherapy.

It is not my purpose, however, to criticize psychotherapy or even behavior modification. The important question is this: What does this kind of psychotherapy or "transformative learning" have to do with higher education? What was it doing in the dorms at U Delaware? Psychotherapy (even behavior modification) might have value for certain people and in the appropriate context, but surely a program organized by a university in one of its dorms is not one of them.

"Transformative learning" as the Shakti Butlers and Yolanda Ronquillo think of it is not so much antithetical to the learning that should be taking place in higher education as it is essentially very different from it. Some of us, at least, still think that the essential--and indeed the sole--role of a university is to train the mind and all that this involves: to develop research and analytical skills, to teach students to make their thoughts and ideas clear and precise, to develop the ability to test ideas against logic and evidence--basically, to develop the skills of an intellectual. This in itself is a huge undertaking, but to accomplish the task, the faculty does not need to have the skills of a psychotherapist. In fact, it would be highly inappropriate to use such skills in the classroom even if one did have them.

In a psychotherapy session, the therapist might with some reason take a particular patient's use of reason, logic and evidence in a particular context as evidence that she is too "defended." But there is no such thing as too much reason, logic, or evidence in a class discussion or term paper in college. These are precisely what courses in the sciences and humanities in higher education are about. When good education at the college level transforms students, it is not through an "intuitive, imaginative, or spiritual process" that produces "structural shifts in thoughts and feelings" in ways that alter our "understanding and our relationships with other people, the natural world, and ourselves." Good education at the college level is transformative simply by virtue of developing the desired intellectual skills.

The administrators who bought into Shakti Butler's "transformative learning" program, and introduced it into ResLife there, were also unaware, apparently, of the legal implications of introducing "transformative learning," at least as Butler and her colleagues perceive it, into the educational context.

One expects a faculty member to be able to grade a college student according to the normative academic criteria, but it is absurd to expect anyone at a university to evaluate or grade a student according to criteria appropriate to a Shakti Butler-type "transformative learning" experience. Nevertheless, ResLife at U Delaware did try to do this. The results were sinister and bizarre. In one of the few "evaluations" that have been made available, a student who denounced her father as "racist and opiniated [sic]" received a "best" rating from her Residential Assistant. (Richard B. Spencer, "Four Year Plan: Freshman Orientation Lesson 1: All Whites Are Racists.") It apparently never occurred to the administrators at UD that such gradings or "evaluations" might involve extremely grave violations of the participants' First Amendment rights.

As astonishing as it all is, the whole scheme was perfectly predictable, given the postmodern university's enthusiasm for both "personal transformation" and "diversity." We do not yet know whether other ResLife or "living learning" programs at other universities were toxic in quite the same way that Delaware's was. But we already do know that U Delaware was not alone in having a "living learning" or "residential learning" program devoted to the themes of multiculturalism and diversity. Some of the programs falling under this description at other universities will be the subject of the next posting.

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