Commentary

The Role of 'Therapeutic' Schooling

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Sol Cohen's Commentary, "'Therapeutic' Schooling Endangers Reform'' (March 2, 1988), presents a simplistic and misleading analysis of a complex problem.

The essay's major flaw is its relentless one-sidedness. Beyond identifying the conception that educators should "take responsibility for the psychological adjustment of children'' as a "barrier'' to the success of current reform efforts, Mr. Cohen implies that this outlook is also the primary cause of the problems schools face.

He thereby discounts the significance of a host of social, economic, and political factors that many scholars view as far more consequential.

Teachers and schools are overburdened by conflicting expectations and demands. The family is losing cohesiveness, the influence of the church is waning, and the environment is being degraded. Teen-agers get pregnant, get shot, or just drop out.

Meanwhile, industry wants a competitive labor force, and the Defense Department wants trainable recruits.

National political leaders who would ameliorate business recessions through widespread unemployment are advising the schools, while governors who prefer to finance education through lotteries rather than risk raising taxes are registering their demands.

And corporate executives--some of whom, through cost overruns and illegal overcharges, daily raid the Treasury--have also proclaimed themselves experts on education.

Against these pressures, the burden placed on educators by "mental hygienists'' pales into insignificance.

Indeed, as a source of ideas and support for beleaguered educators, the tenets of an empathic psychological approach help teachers perform their work under nearly impossible conditions.

The influence of the mental-hygiene movement of the early 20th century, which Mr. Cohen characterizes as "overlooked,'' has in fact been more realistically weighed in most comprehensive accounts of what ails American education.

Preoccupied with remote derivatives, he is often correct about local and superficial issues but mistaken about fundamental causes and remedies.

With the zeal of a cop uncovering a conspiracy, the author leads us through a specious historical analysis. Where most would find a labyrinth, he discovers a straight and narrow tunnel. Along the way, he points to a few landmarks of particular interest or annoyance to him.

By the end, we are more impressed by the opinions on which his conclusions are based than by the evidence adduced. The works cited by Mr. Cohen represent at best a fragment of the record--and only of the rhetorical record at that. He describes the positions advocated in these documents but does not define precisely their actual influence on the development of policy.

In fact, the movement Mr. Cohen inveighs against has never achieved the power that he attributes to it. And such influence as it may have held has been declining since the ascendance as intervention paradigms of community psychiatry--at about the time of Sputnik--and of behaviorism a bit later.

The debate over school reform does not, as the essay hints, pit advocates of excellence against those who oppose it, for no one in principle opposes excellence. Rather, it centers around contrasting visions and ideologies for achieving that ideal. The organization and curriculum of the schools have for decades reflected a shifting series of compromises as the political power of various groups has waxed and waned.

Those who prefer a less constricted view of educational history than Mr. Cohen's fortunately can turn to Diane Ravitch, Larry Cuban, Lawrence A. Cremin, Walter Feinberg, and David Labaree, among others.

Nor is Mr. Cohen's harangue against progressivism and therapeutic schooling original. I recall hearing similar allegations while in graduate school decades ago.

Such complaints made little sense then, and are even less plausible today. Those bar graphs U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett continually uses to show the decline of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have as their initial high plateau the period during which the clinical perspective in education was far more powerful than it is today.

There is, however, an element of truth in Mr. Cohen's interpretation. His caricature of educational history might be read as a pale version of a more robust conception recently advanced by the psychologist and educator Jerome Bruner. Developmental theory, Mr. Bruner has suggested, may be understood as a "culture'' or formative environment: The ideas of such intellectual giants as Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget may have become so influential as to give social reality to the very processes they seek to explicate.

But where Mr. Bruner's conceptualization would allow for a dispassionate analysis that could disclose the benefits as well as the costs of such influence, Mr. Cohen is committed to blame-seeking. Bundling together a motley assortment of what appear to him objectionable practices, he unfairly and erroneously attributes them to a common doctrinal source.

Several serious misrepresentations further weaken Mr. Cohen's argument. Not only academic achievement and mental health, but also sound character development and academic excellence, he implies, are inherently incompatible.

Such thinking marks those--no matter what their position on the empathic psychoanalytic perspective--who have read only half the book.

Every cause can be embarrassed by loyalists whose enthusiasm exceeds their understanding or ridiculed by enemies eager to quote out of context. Scholars usually try to differentiate the original ideas from degraded forms of them. A thorough reading of Freud or John Dewey would lead to conclusions different from those reached by Mr. Cohen.

My experience as psychologist and educator leads me to conclude that what is needed is not a diminished but an increased stress on an empathic attitude in education. Mr. Cohen may rail against the expectation that schools must make up for the deficiencies of some parents and families, but without special attention, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not going to achieve the excellence he wants for them. Exhortation and edicts surely will not work.

Thus far the meager harvest of "reforms'' is limited to some salary gains, increased graduation requirements, and a host of mean-spirited regulatory changes, which typically reduce accountability to mere accountancy. Glaringly absent are a commitment of federal resources, an attitude of genuine caring for the young, a supply of admirable leaders, a national valuing of scholarship, and a more equitable distribution of economic opportunity.

Many who believe that the critics of schools are placing a disproportionate share of the blame on teachers and students might nonetheless agree with Mr. Cohen's implication that some students and some teachers can do better. But his analysis inadvertently reminds us that the same holds true for the professorial cadre: Excellence demanded requires excellence exemplified.

Vol. 7, Issue 29, Page 24

Published in Print: April 13, 1988, as The Role of 'Therapeutic' Schooling
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