Teachers or managers of emotions?

7th November 2008 at 00:00

In my last couple of articles, I have explored the loss of meaning in education or, perhaps more accurately, the loss of meaning of education. A new book by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, explores one of the major trends that has accompanied this development and encouraged it.

The book opens with a quote from a history teacher: "You know something has changed when young people want to know more about themselves than about the world". Perhaps I was a self-obsessed and narrow-minded child but I suspect that, when I was at school and given the chance, I would have loved to "find out more about myself".

What has changed possibly, as Ecclestone and Hayes point out in detail, is that this form of self-indulgence is the preoccupation not just of immature children, but of the educational establishment itself.

Building on Frank Furedi's thesis which explored today's therapeutic culture, this book examines the extent to which "therapeutic education" is a central plank on which schools and universities develop, administer and implement education. Beyond the obvious extension of counselling, circle time and other direct forms of therapy with students, the authors note that, more significantly, the very meaning of a good education is now understood through a therapeutic language - with, for example, "self-esteem" increasingly becoming the goal for today's schools.

Ecclestone and Hayes argue that education has been transformed, away from science and the humanities, towards a "curriculum of the self" - a curriculum that retains a relation to "old-fashioned" education but increasingly does so in such a way that knowledge and an understanding of the world is replaced by an obsession with the emotional self.

One of the troubling aspects of this, at times well-intentioned, development is that education itself is undermined as therapeutic notions about "accepting yourself" or even "finding yourself" make "happiness" central to it. This is an approach which, often implicitly, undermines notions of standards, rigour, hard work and self-discipline - an approach which turns educators into entertainers, encouraging a tendency to flatter not challenge, inspire and put pressure on students.

John Stuart Mill noted that a useful life was not necessarily a happy one, summarising this approach by noting that it is better to be an unhappy Socrates than a happy fool.

For the authors, the point is that not only will today's therapeutic education result in fewer students knowing who Socrates is, it will fail to create happiness. With the underlying essence of the therapeutic approach being predicated on the notion of emotional vulnerability, young people are encouraged not only to relate increasingly to their "selves", but to see themselves as easily damaged by difficult experiences.

With therapeutic language at hand, adolescent and indeed adult hardship are transformed into issues of "stress" and "anxiety".

The lack of meaning in and of education is not resolved by therapeutic education. The purpose of education has been mutated and the manipulation of students legitimised. As the foreword states: "Every educator who wants to educate needs to consider whether they are teachers or managers of emotions."

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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