Slouching Toward the Therapeutic University: Part 1

Tom Wood

In one of my recent postings (“Charles Murray and Progressive Education”), a book by Diane Ravitch called Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms had a very prominent place.Among other things, Left Back is a sustained attack on the student-centered movement that had its origins in the progressive educational theories of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ravitch freely acknowledges that some aspects of American education that needed reforming (e.g., the emphasis on rote learning and abusive classrooms and teachers) benefited from the student-centered movement in education. But she makes a compelling case that beyond certain specific, limited reforms the impact of the student-centered movement on American education has been disastrous.


In the hands of the zealots (who have been legion) the student-centered movement led to the view that everything in the classroom must be immediately relevant to the lives of the students. Anything else represented the survival into modern times of the hidebound and the traditional, and was a violation of the students’ freedom to learn. According to the educational theorists of the progressive movement, the idea that the job of the instructor was to transmit information and an important body of knowledge was erroneous, authoritarian, and retrograde.


Implicit in the student-centered view of education is the idea that the teacher must wait for students, even in their earliest years, to show what interests them, the teacher being only a facilitator or guide in the learning process. It is a short step from this view to the notion that anything that students cannot immediately or easily relate to their present selves is actually damaging to them and to their educational needs.


The student-centered movement in education had its beginnings in the lower forms, as a reaction by the progressives to those they called “the college men.” Progressives saw these theorists as wishing to impose their foolish and outmoded collegiate ideas on K-12 education. Eventually, however, the ideas of the student-centered movement in K-12 percolated up through the various grade levels to find a place in American higher education as well. These notions played a central role in the weakening of the academic curriculum in universities in the Seventies, when similar notions were pushed by student radicals and revolutionaries in the wake of the free speech movements of the Sixties.


Left Back, however, does more than simply critique progressive theories of education. It also resurrects the memory of important educators and educational theorists of the American past who have long been in the shadows of better known progressive educators. These stalwarts stood against the progressive tide—albeit unsuccessfully—in the defense of solid academic values. One of these, W.T. Harris, deserves a memorial by those who appreciate the values of liberal education.


Harris was the U.S. commissioner of education from 1889 to 1906. He has been described by historians of American education as a “conservative,” on the grounds that he was a tireless advocate of providing quality liberal education to all of the country’s citizens. He was also a fierce opponent of the progressives’ enthusiasms for manual training, child study, and specialized vocational training.


What struck me most in Ravitch’s account of W.T. Harris was the emphasis he placed on “self-alienation” in education:


Harris defended classical studies on unusual grounds. Traditionalists talked about mental discipline, and educational progressives wanted school to be more practical and more like everyday life, but Harris spoke of the value of “self-alienation.’’ He believed that education should involve a period of estrangement from the common and familiar. The pupil must be led out of his immediateness and separated in spirit from his naturalness, in order that he may be able to return from his self-estrangement to the world that lies nearest to him and consciously seize and master it. Without a period of self-alienation, the student would remain “merely instinctive and implicit.” To create self-alienation, Harris suggested that the student needed to be removed from his familiar surroundings and allowed to “breathe the atmosphere of the far-off and distant world of antiquity for several years of his life.”


Ravitch sees things the same way:


[Harris’] concept of self-alienation explains the fascination that many young children develop for learning about dinosaurs or lost civilizations, which are remote from their own lives. What Harris called self-alienation is the learned ability to step away from one’s immediate experience and view it with critical perspective.


“The learned ability to step away from one’s immediate experience and view it with critical perspective” is probably as good an account of the purpose and nature of liberal education as can be found in one short sentence. Yet Harris’ view was controversial and widely disputed at the time. It is a view that is still controversial and not widely accepted. 


Harris emphasized the educational importance of ancient Greece and Rome, but this focus was too narrow. In fact, the idea that self-alienation has a fundamental value in education needs to be extended from the humanities to all of the liberal arts, including the study of math and the sciences. Students can be turned on to the beauty of a mathematical proof or a scientific theory, just as they can be turned on to Homer or Virgil. In fact, the value of self-alienation in education could be said to apply even more directly to science and math than to great works of literature. From the point of view of student-centered education, science and math can be seen as almost self-alienating in their essence. Cosmology provides a good example. What could be personally relevant or meaningful to the student of events that happened billions of years in the past or that will happen billions of years in the future? The same point can be made about virtually anything that is covered in a math or science course. How is the student-centered instructor to present topics like vectors and matrices, ions and neurons? Neurons and ions, matrices and vectors are not personally relevant or meaningful in the student-centered sense. Of course, products that we use in our daily lives and could hardly do without are based on modern science, but that is a different matter.


Nothing could be more antithetical to the purposes of a university than orienting it to what students are before they have been transformed by a rigorous liberal education. The purpose of the university is to stretch and challenge the student, not to shrink the universe of significant academic and intellectual matters to the lives and minds and personalities of the students who attend the university. Good instructors will know the strengths and weaknesses that students bring to the classroom, but that knowledge only tells the professor where she must begin: it cannot be allowed to dictate the pedagogy of the classroom.


In this posting, I will try to draw a compelling portrait of the form that student-centered education seems to me to have taken on American college campuses today. For reasons that will be given below, I have labeled these developments the new “therapeutic university.” The therapeutic university represents, I believe, a real threat to the values of sound, liberal education. It is also one sickness in the academy that has relatively little to do, so far as I can see, with the obsessions, pieties, agendas, dogmas, and ideological certainties of either the political Left, Right, or Center. It represents an important academic and intellectual issue that cuts across all the traditional political lines in the university.


Developments in the UK


There have been similar developments related to student-centered movements in the U.K. Indeed, in certain respects the pathology seems to be even more advanced there. Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes have given a name for these developments in an interesting book published by Routledge this year entitled The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.


One of the similarities between the UK and the U.S. is that the rise of therapeutic education, to use their term, is connected with the self-esteem movement and Rogerian kinds of psychotherapy. In Rogerian, client-centered psychotherapy and the self-esteem movement, low self-esteem is seen as one of the most fundamental causes of social and educational difficulties. Even being asked challenging questions in class can be viewed as stressful and harmful, and a cause of “suffering from low self-esteem.”


They describe the educational scene in Britain this way:


Concerns about difficulties with schooling fuel calls to dismantle ‘irrelevant’ and ‘boring’ subjects in favour of learning for life. The hollowing out of subject disciplines has gone a long way through their reincarnation as vehicles for ‘relevant’, ‘real life’ learning in which emotional literacy and well-being play a key role.



Guilt about ‘not listening’ enough to young people’s anxieties and their feelings of not being listened to, of being worried and scared, lead to beliefs that stressed-out and anxious young people cannot cope with, and do not want, a traditional subject-based curriculum. Instead, there is a growing orthodoxy that they want a more personally relevant and ‘engaging’ education where adults and their peers listen to them. This view erodes subject disciplines and encourages a curriculum which assumes that topics and processes can only be engaging if they relate to the self.


Ecclestone and Hayes cite some illuminating examples of this kind of thinking. One is taken from a leaflet issued by a new university in the U.K, entitled A Guide for Students - Counselling and Supervisory Services:


Students studying in the disciplines of Psychology, Sociology or the Expressive Arts may find themselves re-examining areas of their lives which have previously seemed unproblematic to them. On the other hand, students working in competitive sports have other types of emotional issues to confront and resolve. For other people it is not a particular event that is bothering them but more a general feeling of anxiety, stress or feeling low.


As Ecclestone and Hayes point out:


Students reading the above in their induction week and scanning the publicity for their professors’ books may well have ‘a general feeling of anxiety’ about doing their academic work. What you would normally expect from being at university, namely challenging experiences and changing your mind about your most precious beliefs and prejudices, are now projected as something that must be carefully and sensitively handled. The not-so hidden assumption is that the intellectual challenge or change in general is something that people may find difficult to cope with. On this basis, every philosophy student should have a personal counsellor while belief after belief is challenged and possibly undermined forever.


Here is another example, which Ecclestone and Hayes have entitled “Big Mother is watching you”:


In the foyer of a college in Kent, a huge poster of a kind, motherly looking woman advertises ‘Dora the college counsellor’. The poster announced that she was there to give students help and advice of any sort. Next to the poster is a folder full of lecturers’ and students’ comments about what a lovely, helpful woman Dora is. One lecturer said: ‘she is the most important asset this college has’.


In Britain, attention to emotional well-being as an essential component of “social justice” has been adopted by New Labour as government policy. Ecclestone and Hayes have dubbed this government policy “the emotional state”:


The British government under New Labour has embraced disparate concerns and psychological explanations about people’s emotional states. Policies that require nurseries, playgroups, schools, colleges and universities to address emotional problems and develop emotional well-being embed New Labour’s particular view of ‘social justice’ into educational policy and practice. The goals and institutional arrangements of ‘Every Child Matters’ require welfare and education agencies to ensure that, as part of being ‘healthy,’ ‘safe’ and able to ‘enjoy’ and ‘achieve’ educationally and socially, children’s mental health and well-being are paramount.


Though there is no name for it yet in the U.S.,

the same thing is happening here


I have not found a book like The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education that covers the American university, but we need one, because the developments and trends here are very similar. So far as I know, the concept of the “emotional state” has not been applied as government policy at any level of government here, but even so, much the same thing is going on in the U.S. In fact, what is going on here may be even more insidious, because here it may be driven even more strongly than in the U.K. by powerful market and cultural forces. In the U.S., it is primarily parents and students, and a whole Zeitgeist that seems to be invading the academy. Within the academy, the main culprits and enablers seem to be administrators and Res Life and Student Affairs staff, since it is primarily these academic personnel who have succumbed most to the now widespread view that, like any business, the university must provide customer satisfaction.


In the second part of this essay, I attempt a resume of trends in the U.S. in the direction of the “therapeutic university.” This portrait of the contemporary American university includes a number of items that have appeared in CASNET and my own writings before, but they bear repeating here, because I want them to be seen now as part of a larger pattern, rather than as isolated fragments.

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