Step outside the Rogerian circle

Gail Kinman asks whether a condemnation of 'therapeutic education' examines all the evidence

August 28, 2008

This thought-provoking and controversial book critically examines the implications of the "therapeutic ethos" that the authors believe has permeated the British education system. Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes argue that emotional literacy skills, based on populist therapeutic assumptions, have become so heavily promoted in UK schools, colleges and universities that the emotional curriculum has become privileged over the intellectual. Such interventions are believed to have implications for educational policy and practice as they engender an "unhealthy" preoccupation with the self, resulting in increased emotional vulnerability, anxiety and fearfulness.

Activities designed to enhance emotional wellbeing, self-esteem and resilience are described and evaluated in chapters focusing on primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities. "Circle Time", based on Rogerian ideas of empathy and positive regard, and used in primary schools to promote emotional literacy and wellbeing, is examined. In a chapter entitled "The therapeutic secondary school", the authors highlight peer mentoring and mediation schemes, as well as the increasing emphasis on personal, social and health education, as symptomatic of the rise of the "education of the self" at the expense of the intellectual curriculum.

Ecclestone and Hayes argue that the therapeutic ethos has more serious implications in universities, as it compromises the idea of a university as a place of knowledge, reason and independence. They assert that students have become infantilised, "mollycoddled" and overprotected by the excessive provision of counselling and an expanding array of student services; consequently, students increasingly view themselves, and are viewed by others, as educationally and personally vulnerable.

Services provided by universities to support and enhance the wellbeing of students and staff are discussed in a somewhat dismissive fashion. The authors suggest, for example, that student claims of dyslexia are exaggerated in order to obtain extra help and avoid criticism. Although many readers might agree that some of the examples of interventions reported seem overly protective, others, such as offering support for exam stress, panic attacks, depression and substance abuse for students, or offering therapeutic support to distressed staff, are surely examples of good practice. Similarly, interventions that aim to assist healthcare students in coping with the emotional aspects of their work, such as dealing with patient death, are likely to be thought highly desirable by most healthcare professionals.

The authors reiterate the view that stress is an imaginary phenomenon, used as an excuse by people who "fear hard work". They also express their disapproval of researchers of emotional wellbeing, and those who aim to enhance it in educational environments. Psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists are seen as influential in creating a "thriving commercial industry" where expensive training in "happiness" is provided to gullible victims.

The UK is experiencing an epidemic of mental health problems. Research evidence suggests that young people in Britain are more likely to feel socially excluded, awkward and lonely than their peers in other developed countries. Claims of workplace stress, bullying and work-related illness are also widespread. The Government plans to fund a range of interventions, based on research findings, to tackle these problems. Ecclestone and Hayes challenge the state's sponsorship of therapeutic education as a new and insidious form of social engineering. They invite parents to question the interventions that are being "imposed" on their children and invite suggestions on how best to resist the dangerous rise of therapeutic education.

There is a body of evidence that highlights the importance of emotional management skills in successful interpersonal communication, health status, quality of life and career success. Nonetheless, Ecclestone and Hayes appear to be convinced that such interventions are profoundly anti-educational and reduce the achievement of human potential. Is the pursuit of self-knowledge and emotional literacy really antithetical to intellectual pursuits? Is revealing the vulnerable, emotional self essentially diminishing and disempowering? 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. That said, Ecclestone and Hayes provide an interesting and challenging polemic that might well give educational policymakers and providers considerable cause for thought. This no doubt was their intention.

The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education

By Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes


200pp, £75.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780415397001 and 397018

Published June 2008

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