'Infantilised' students and staff rapped

Therapeutic education damages acquisition of knowledge, say authors. Melanie Newman reports

June 12, 2008

A "therapy culture" pervading universities is creating a generation of "hapless" students and lecturers. A new book, to be published on 14 July, argues that this is undermining the pursuit of knowledge.

In The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone of Oxford Brookes University argue that institutions presume that students and staff are at emotional risk. According to the professors of education, this is creating a culture in which:

  • "Can't cope" lecturers perceive bullying in any workplace situation they do not like.
  • Expressions of emotion are valued as highly as expressions of ideas.
  • "Infantilised" students seek difficulties to declare such as dyslexia so that they can get more support.
  • "Diminished managers" are afraid to take decisive action.

"Turning teaching into therapy is destroying the minds of children, young people and adults," Dr Hayes told Times Higher Education. "Therapeutic education promotes the idea that we are emotional, vulnerable and hapless individuals. It is an attack on human potential."

The authors argue that "therapeutic education" is at odds with objective intellectual inquiry and the acquisition of knowledge because it views the emotional skills associated with learning as more important than subject content.

In the therapeutic environment, people are encouraged to express themselves, but they may talk only about their feelings - criticism is discouraged, they say. Staff development sessions, one-to-one reviews and personal targets are "staples of therapeutic education" found in the university workplace, the book says.

The authors cite the case of "Jane", a lecturer who wanted more time to do research. At her departmental meeting, staff were asked to identify "one thing they valued or achieved" and share it with others to help "develop a positive attitude" to work.

"Instead of being able to raise the real issue of workload, we get 'circle-time'," she said.

The book also cites the case of an academic team leader who approached senior management for help in dealing with a difficult colleague. The managers suggested team counselling. When the team leader balked at this, managers concluded that she was the problem.

Viewing the expression of emotion as equal in importance to expression of ideas weakens academic freedom, the book argues. "Individual academics are subjected to more restrictions based on the subjective feelings of students, colleagues and managers."

Times Higher Education reported in January that lecturers at the University of Leicester were being asked to tap into students' feelings to improve their teaching. A workshop led by Alan Mortiboys of Birmingham City University encouraged academics to create a supportive environment for students.

In their book, Professor Ecclestone and Dr Hayes say such schemes stem from a perception of students as "diminished".

"The infantilisation of students reveals itself in the increased presence of parents on campus," they say, and when parents leave, counsellors, guidance and support officers are there as substitutes. "Everyone looks for a difficulty to declare, like the hundreds of students who register themselves as 'dyslexic'."

The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education says the "not-so-hidden assumption" of guidance for students is that intellectual challenge is difficult to cope with, while staff-counselling services encourage a view of the lecturer's role as inherently "psychologically damaging".

Professor Mortiboys denied that teaching with emotional intelligence is based on a generalised notion of personal vulnerability. "To treat all students as vulnerable would be an emotionally unintelligent approach," he said. "By equating the assumption of vulnerability with the use of emotional intelligence, the authors demonstrate a frequent misconception of emotional intelligence - that it is all about not upsetting people. Instead, it is about treating learners and their feelings with respect but still being ready to challenge their ideas," he said.



One key characteristic of "therapeutic education" is the "can't cope" lecturer who suffers from stress and perceives bullying in any work relationship he or she dislikes.

Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone list incidents that academics have described as bullying: not getting their way in meetings, having their lecturing schedule changed, being made redundant, being asked to do extra work, being denied a pay rise and being lobbied for a vote.

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