Saturday, January 08, 2005

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 2
   I own myself

“Man cannot stand alone in the face of eternity: he needs the comfort of purpose, the peace of forgiveness, and the confidence of truth.�
Eric S. Cohen

Failing to teach Jason

A few years ago while teaching at a psychiatric hospital where nearly all the troubled adolescents were diagnosed as “oppositional-defiant,� I made a routine classroom request, “Take out your work from yesterday.�

Jason, a 15-year-old boy, angrily began shouting obscenities. He stood up and threw his desk at me, screaming violent threats. To protect myself and other kids, I restrained him and dragged him to the floor. Several other staff members rushed to help. Later, other staff members and I met with him. He had stopped swearing and begun crying.

“It’s your fault,” he said. “You’re supposed to fix me–” he pushed out his lower lip–“and I’m still like this.”

No doubt the kid had problems. “Needs,” he’d been taught to call them. He was searching, albeit ineffectively, for something beyond the self. He covered his notebooks and forearms with gang insignia, dreaming of belonging to a group that would provide an identity.

I wish the sort of problems he faced were rare, but the truth is that most teachers face at least some young people like him. Some teachers face a great many of them every day–kids who demand that we cater to them and blame us for all their failures. We only exist, in the story we have told them, to provide services to meet their needs. But try teaching someone who has been systematically taught to blame you for the consequences of his conduct.

The world according to Maslow

One of the greatest popularizers of the therapeutic view that has overwhelmed our schools was Abraham Maslow. The ideas he popularized are still powerful in some schools. He promised to provide a “scientificâ€? basis for the study of motivation (though his method was closer to a cocktail party than a laboratory). At the same time he promised liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies. Maslow argued that the old “regime” with its concern for “discipline” should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: “If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness.”

His ideal was a “self-actualizing” person, the superior human that the new therapeutic regime would foster. This new type would be “healthy.” People with “unmet needs” were “unhealthy.” He used “needs” to refer to everything from the body’s dependence on oxygen, to the soul’s desire for a mate, to the addict’s desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need.

With this value system in place, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as “sick-man-created” gratuities. If a person was truly superior, i.e., healthy, doing what he wanted made all the sense that needed to be made. “Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about …… perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs.”

The tale Maslow told was the dream of self, a theory of selfishness packaged with a smattering of jargon. For him, the “self-actualizing human” was at the apex of creation. This left love as only a mid-level appetite. He seemed puzzled by what other writers said about love. For example, he mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies “responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge.” This puzzled Maslow. It “sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness,” he said. Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, “can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily.” “Healthy” people are “lusty animals” who don’t make commitments.

Living in traditional community

This view dismisses the wisdom of traditional communities, where the old take it upon themselves to care for the young. Such communities are moral orders. When they flourish it is because elders have the confidence to attempt teaching--a confidence that grows out of the shared commitment to that order.

Those of us who still live in such communities, most often religion-centered, understand that our lives are not simply our own. We have responsibilities, duties, obligations, and debts. We talk about these more than we talk about rights. Whether we are thought a good person or one who is struggling has much to do with how others comparing our conduct to a community standard for doing our part, whether that part is large or small. We think of ourselves as having parts because we assume there is a whole that we share–and this whole includes other parts such as the family, the town, the nation and all of humanity. This whole provides the context for judgement.

I don’t mean to romanticize traditional communities. It’s also the case that such communities can be stifling and blinded by obsolete or superstitious traditions. They can be cold and inhospitable to people who are different. Sometimes their understanding of both what is possible and what is desirable is narrow and rigid. Sometimes they are governed by petty tyrants.

Nonetheless, such problems are not the main problems we face today. With ready access to information from around the world and the means to move away from places that are not congenial to us, most of us have an unprecedented freedom from local control. Our problems more often flow from a widespread predilection to think of all those contexts of family and neighborhood as mere resources for individuals in pursuit of gratification. Most of us are burdened by people we know who feel a stronger sense of duty to their own desires than to the other people around them.

This is a natural consequence of the rise of therapeutic culture.

The rise of therapeutic culture

Fewer and fewer people understand churches as places where the cause and meaning of their lives could be examined, and their personal narratives revised through repentance. Thousands and thousands of sermons about service and love were once preached every week in this country, but people today are as likely to hear sermons based upon the teachings of Abraham Maslow or Carl Rogers as those based upon the interdictions of Moses.

Liberated from authoritative teaching, people turn their attention to the time-tested methods of finding unhappiness, including experiments with addictive substances, inattention to the well-being of others, undisciplined sexual practices, and ethical shortcuts in business and in personal affairs.  Judging by advertisements, there’s plenty of money to made promising cures for addictions, palliatives for loneliness, and fixes for financial messes. People are looking for help.

A class of nonjudgmental technicians of the psyche arose, speaking the modern dialect with a slightly scientific inflection. Therapeutic culture rose along with the misery of people people who were learning that some of the paths to gratification were not really paths at all but the merest openings in a jungle. As they rushed from enticement to enticement, they found themselves getting a little jaded, and then a little weary, and later, downright exhausted, with hardly an idea where to go or how to get there, no longer childlike enough to hope for very much. Unfulfilled, angry, and numb people needed someone to talk to.

I don’t intend to disparage the scientific study of the human mind. This is a vast endeavor that can’t be accurately characterized by any brief summary. Suffice it to note that sincere and talented people have advanced our knowledge on hundreds of fronts, and what we have learned about organic irregularities in the brain, the causes of depression, the chemical mechanisms of insanity, the catalysts for criminality, the ways we miscommunicate and all the other issues that attract the attention of psychologists have brought us many blessings.

But apart from the science, we have also developed a thriving market for therapies that develops by inventing catchy names for new maladies, and descriptions of causes and cures that have become the main poetry substitute consumed by the middle class. The most notorious might be the self-esteem movement. This was the topic of a 1996 cover story in the American Educator, the official publication of the American Federation of Teachers. Psychologist Barbara Lerner argued that the “post-modern psychology” that “swallowed up modern psychology and most of education too” in the 1970s, “reduced every problem in life to question of self-esteem or the lack of it, blurring the boundaries between therapy and school, diluting both, and making education a subservient profession.” In doing so, “it made a relentless focus on the self the order of the day in classrooms across the land.”

Psychology professor Roy E. Baumeister, in the same issue insisted that in spite of all the passionate rhetoric about the positive effects of high self- esteem, the evidence that has been mustered indicates that “self-esteem doesn’t have much impact” on all the personal and social ills that believers have associated with it. Nevertheless, making schools responsible for improving student self-esteem had far-reaching consequences. “The results,” according to Lerner, “were dismal–kids learned less, respect for teachers declined, disorder and violence and unhappiness increased, and a lot of Americans lost faith in schools and respect for teachers.”

The self-esteem movement has now lost its momentum, but new therapies arrive with the regularity of the seasons. In schools, the language of therapy has all but driven out the language of education. By translating personal difficulties into language that sounds impersonal, objective, and rational, therapists project a welcome sense that someone understands what is happening and that therefore things are under control. They offer administratively simple solutions to vexing problems. Administrators can “address” even the most tangled messes by recommending that someone get counseling. It is seldom necessary to discuss what, exactly, a counselor might do or whether it will actually work. All that usually needs to be said is something about “servicing needs.â€?

Many students have learned that they do not have to submit to the demands of schooling, because they can blame their failure on a system that has not provided the right service. Many parents are coached by an expanding corps of nonteaching service professionals, who have to a large extent won control of the public discourse of education, to think of every misbehavior as a sign of an “unmet need.” This makes teaching difficult.

Therapy or education?

The basic move of most therapy is to cater to the self and its desires. By contrast, a kind of self-forgetfulness is necessary to education. One needs to be humble to learn. It’s necessary to obey some authority, even it’s only the authority of a text or of an unbending reality. The path to mastery, as every master knows, is through obedience. We learn what is necessary and those relatively few ways that will work. A person preoccupied with his or her needs will have trouble paying much attention to multiplication tables, the periodic chart, Shakespeare, the governing of the Roman Empire, Boyle’s gas laws, or even theories of patriarchal oppression. 

In practice, of course, there is no clear line between education and therapy. Rather, there is a continuum with education at one pole standing for the replacement of solipsism with progression through ways of seeing reality, from information to knowledge to wisdom, and with therapy at the other pole standing for the justification of the self’s desires. To teach is to assume authority, but the therapeutic approach is to dissolve authority. In therapy, the self is the final authority. In education, truth is the final authority.

Kids like Jason who have been freed by therapeutic culture from inhibitions once implanted by Maslow’s repressive regimes of education, civilization, rationality, religion and law now find little that is binding. They tend to be nonjudgmental, as they have been taught, but this is linked to the daily challenges of indifference and disengagement which they handle by flicking the tv remote, or finding a new game, seeing more and more surely that nothing is sacred and that life is absurd. How do such selves end, with nothing to interdict their fantasies?

Nietzche said we would arrive here. When the authority of religion receded, he saw, it took with it the rationale for any authority, and as each person became a law and a kingdom unto himself, every obligation would begin to feel like an infringement. Those with will and commitment would do what they would do. Power would heed only power. “If you will not have God,� T. S. Eliot wrote, “you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.�

Philip Rief said of “therapeuticsâ€? some years ago in Fellow Teachers that “their final know-how will be to. . .play games, however intellectualized, with all god-terms in order to be ruled by none. In their moral modesty, therapeutics will be capable of anything; they will know that everything is possible because they will not be inhibited by any truth.â€? Violence, he says, is the final therapy of therapies.

Not long before Columbine, Anthony Kennedy, writing the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), had confused the dream of self with the law of the land. The Court proclaimed in its notorious “mystery passageâ€? that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

The killers at Columbine High laughed uproariously as they went about their latest game. “Nobody else is like us,” they had written. “We’re the only two people who seem to understand the meaning of life.” One can wonder what roles all our institutions had played in teaching them.

Surely there are ways in Justice Kennedy’s words are is true, but our greatest need today seems to be to understand more clearly the ways in which they are not true.  When I visit good schools, I see places where grownups do not pretend that each of us is really our own lawgiver. We have not made ourselves and cannot, alone, even hold our shape. We need others, and we need them in the forms of elders who stand for things, and of traditions that are passed on, and of judgements that are upheld. “The image of ourselves as center of the world is fantasy–â€? says theology professor Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Perhaps in its sheer detachment from reality, it is “even a form of madness.â€?

Jason had been in therapy nearly his entire life and was literally screaming that he felt enslaved to moods and appetites, and that he needed to escape from the prison of self. He had heard all his life about our responsibilities toward him, but he had heard little about his responsibilities to the other students, to the teacher who had come prepared to teach, or to the community that surrounded him.

His normal adolescent egocentricism, which a sensible family or school would once have contradicted as a matter of course, had instead been nurtured. We were supposed to care about him, but now we were confronting him about his bad behavior. We were supposed to improve his self-esteem, but he still didn’t feel good about himself. We were supposed to make school fun, but he still felt miserable.

He understood no adequate rules of conduct, no power to constrain his passions, no understanding of the linkage between action and consequence. He had no sense of the future because he had not glimpsed how steady, long-term work comes to fruition. He had no understanding of the sacred or of devotion because he knew nothing of unseen powers. He knew something was wrong, and he was begging us to fix it.

A possible future for schooling

The psychiatric hospital where I worked illustrated a likely future for many schools. The medicalization of education is a huge and growing business. The hospital was a for-profit operation. Most of the money came from Medicaid and other government programs. Staff meetings focused on which services were billable and which were not. The explicitly stated goal was to provide as many billable services as possible while keeping nonbillable services to the legal minimum. Counseling and drugs were billable. Teaching was not.

Even in less drastic environments, many kids today are dependent on their counselors and their medications to get through the day, and new problems are identified every year. As Ivan Illich pointed out years ago, the problem industries thrive by creating problems and providing services, and there so far seem to be few limits to growth in this direction. Already the mental health industry estimates that half of Americans suffer from some form of “mental illness� sometime during their lifetimes. The other half are being studied.

It’s sad to think of young people not being taught how to put their suffering in perspective by visiting stories in history or literature or scripture, not learning the instant release from many depressions that follows serving someone else, not being helped through personal tragedy by being drawn into meaningful work, and not being shown how to get out of predicaments by studying the mechanism of the trap. Self-forgetfulness, a merging of one’s mind and will with issues beyond the self, is one of the great pleasures of learning.

To whom does your life belong? The better answers to that question lead us far beyond ourselves.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/08 at 05:10 AM
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© 2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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