'Therapeutic' Schooling Endangers Reform

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"Excellence" has become the watchword of the school-reform movement. Calling for a dramatic improvement in the quality of elementary and secondary education, reformers suggest that excellence can be achieved through a rigorous curriculum in the "basics" or the "new basics," tougher graduation requirements, and a renewed emphasis on discipline and orderly learning environments. My recent study of an overlooked facet of the school crisis, however, raises questions about how--or whether--the reform movement can succeed.

Current school practices and policies are sustained by a "therapeutic" conception of the school that, in my judgment, stands as a barrier to the success of the reform movement.

By the "therapeutic" outlook, I mean a conception of education comprising a mixture of psychiatric and psychoanalytic norms, concepts, and language of discourse. In this framework, the school becomes a kind of psychiatric clinic, the teacher a quasi-therapist, and the ambiance of the classroom that of a therapeutic session. The overriding concern of the educational enterprise, according to this conception, is the prevention of mental illness and all forms of psychological maladjustment.

The therapeutic conception of the school assumes as a corollary that parents are the child's natural enemy. If the family is the seedbed of neurosis and maladjustment, then the school must make up for the deficiencies of parents and take responsibility for the psychological adjustment of children.

The language and thinking of the therapeutic model are a part of the everyday consciousness of American education. Schools' preoccupation with the psychologically scarring or traumatic effects of failure on the self-esteem of those who fail, for example, and the common tendency to explain or excuse students' misconduct in school in the language of "frustration of their needs" reflect the hold of the therapeutic conception of education.

The inspiration for this model of schooling and the driving force behind the infiltration of its norms and language into American educational thought and practice was the mental-hygiene movement. The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, the organizational spearhead of the mental-hygiene movement, was founded in 1909. In the early 1920's, flush with Commonwealth Fund support, the ncmh turned its attention to school reform and formulated its blueprint for the school as the strategic agency for preventive psychiatry or applied mental hygiene.

How could the school become general headquarters for applied mental hygiene? Not by adding psychiatric personnel to its staff or courses in mental hygiene to its curriculum, but by removing or eliminating as far as possible all sources of frustration or stress in school.

Hygienists were convinced that psychiatry had isolated a specific factor--stress--as the chief precipitator of psychological maladjustment. At the same time, they believed that the public school was a uniquely stressful and psychologically pathogenic milieu for children, responsible for untold cases of emotional disorder and nervous breakdown as well as truancy, juvenile delinquency, and crime. In the view of mental hygienists, two sources of stress in particular had to be remedied: the schools' grading and promotion policy, and their disciplinary procedures.

School failure was singled out as the cardinal sin against wholesome psychological adjustment. Mental-hygiene theory held that failure led first to feelings of inferiority and then to "undesirable defense mechanisms," such as withdrawal, or to "compensations," such as truancy, delinquency, crime.

On the other hand, success led to feelings of self-worth and a positive approach to reality. To shield students from failure, hygienists called for easing competitive pressures and de-emphasizing examinations and grades. And they suggested a new definition of school success. Instead of progress in academic achievement, hygienists proposed as the measure of students' success the degree to which they progressed in their psychological adjustment. By this criterion, theoretically, even the least able in academics would be spared the trauma of failure.

If the school were to be transformed into a therapeutic environment, traditional ideas about discipline would also have to be rethought. The mental-hygiene model required that the theories psychiatry was then beginning to apply to the understanding and treatment of delinquents and criminals also be applied by teachers to the misconduct of students in the classroom.

Adherents of this view assumed that a student's misbehavior in class was aimed at satisfying some emotional "need," largely determined by experience during the childhood years. Because the student had little control over this "more or less unconscious" need, he could not be held responsible for his misbehavior. The student who broke rules, defied orders, and otherwise misbehaved was not willfully "bad" or malicious and thus in need of discipline or punishment. Rather, he was sick or maladjusted, and needed understanding--diagnosis--and treatment. The underlying cause or motive was the key: Misbehavior in class was a symptom of dissatisfaction or frustration; the student's "needs" were not being met.

The mental-hygiene movement envisioned a school that would immunize young people against mental illness or heal the afflicted. In pursuit of this goal, the movement provided American education with a new model of the teacher: the teacher as therapist, an expert in the mental hygiene of children.

The teacher-therapist faced a complex set of expectations: to be able to interpret students' behavior problems as symptoms of maladjustment; to go beyond students' overt behavior and get to know their secret hopes and fears, and to inquire into their relations with parents and siblings; to undo or overcome the psychological damage inflicted upon students by home and family circumstances; to create a sort of nonevaluative, nonthreatening classroom atmosphere that would invite students to show themselves for what they were; and to foster the personality adjustment of all students.

Hygienists understood well that their conception of education was a radical one: Educators had traditionally given academic achievement and character development the highest priority, while remaining oblivious to the psychological or emotional needs of young people. For the therapeutic perspective to make headway among school practitioners, its proponents knew there had to be a change in the climate of public opinion.

To influence public opinion, hygienists followed a course of first disseminating the therapeutic point of view and language among progressive parents and professionals, and community and opinion leaders who would, in turn, encourage acceptance of therapeutic concepts among educators.

In the 1920's, the work of promulgating the hygienist view of education was carried out by the Commonwealth Fund's Program for the Prevention of Delinquency. In the 1930's, the Progressive Education Association became the main conduit for the dissemination of the mental-hygiene view of the school. The Progressivist slogan, "meeting the needs of adolescence," was supplied by the mental-hygiene movement and made famous by the pea

Textbooks aimed at teachers in training as well as at prospective professors of education and school administrators provided the other major channel through which the therapeutic model was disseminated in the pre-World War II period. First appearing in a thin trickle in the early 1930's, textbooks on mental hygiene and education flooded the market in the late 1940's and 1950's.

During the same period, therapeutic rhetoric and concepts began to figure in the publications of such major professional education organizations as the National Education Association, the American Council on Education, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the Educational Policies Commission. By the end of the 1950's, the therapeutic conception of the school had become part of the consciousness of all those concerned with education. Today, it remains firmly entrenched in the thinking of parents, school professionals, and the general public.

Implicit in the mental-hygiene movement was a trust that has now become a credulous faith in the omnipotence of the school. Whatever the social problem, we are gravely assured that our salvation depends on the school. Pressure is put on the school to adopt ever-widening surrogate functions.

No doubt some children have been spared the humiliation and self-doubt of failure and of harsh or insensitive discipline. (How many, we do not know. Hygienists were not inclined to research or evaluate the basic tenets of their school-reform activities.) But there have been some unanticipated consequences also.

Teachers have become overburdened with conflicting and even contradictory messages. On the one hand, they cannot forget that they still have to be concerned with students' behavior and academic performance; they are still expected to achieve certain instructional objectives and to maintain order and discipline. On the other hand, the widespread diffusion of the notion that failure must be avoided at all costs has undermined schools' confidence in the setting of standards and diverted attention from positive efforts at programs of remedial education.

And the widespread acceptance of the notion that children cannot be ''bad," but only sick or maladjusted, has weakened schools' confidence in their disciplinary or character-building function. Little wonder that schools' emphases are ambiguous, their purposesconfused and unfocused.

Moreover, the values of the therapeutic conception of education, entrenched as they are in schools, will inevitably collide with those embodied in the reform movement.

To take the most obvious example, the excellence movement necessarily involves the setting of high academic standards. Some students, perhaps a large number, will not be able or willing to meet those standards. Will society allow schools to enforce standards, impose sanctions, fail students, expel them?

Society expects schools to be concerned with students' psychological welfare. The therapeutic conception of the school has become so ingrained a part of society's consciousness about education that there is no discussion of it.

If the reform movement is to have any deep or lasting impact, it will have to identify and contest the entrenched therapeutic concepts of education. Such a challenge might loosen the grip of the therapeutic outlook. It might open for debate the premises of the idea that schools are responsible for the psychological adjustment of students, and stimulate fresh consideration of the relative responsibilities of parents, schools, and other agencies in the education of children.

Without such a debate, any reform movement having as its objective the creation in schools of a new content and direction will be as ineffectual and ephemeral as other post-1950 reform movements in American education.

Vol. 07, Issue 23, Page 40

Published in Print: March 2, 1988, as 'Therapeutic' Schooling Endangers Reform
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