Knowing me, knowing you

‘Therapeutic education’ and the human subject

Education consultant Stephen Heppell argued recently on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the problem with twentieth century education was that is was based on teaching and then testing on the model of ‘have you met this before?’. For Heppell, this is no longer appropriate, because, ‘The world we’re in is a world where we’ve never met anything before’ (1). He thus favours project work that helps children acquire the skills they need to cope with things they’ve never ‘met’ before, as opposed to filling their heads with soon-to-be-redundant knowledge.

The first problem with this is that it’s obviously hyperbole. For all that the world is changing, there’s a lot to be learned that really doesn’t change much, especially when it comes to primary school (which is actually what Heppell was discussing). The second and deeper problem with the argument is that it misrepresents the very nature of education.

In fact, someone who has already ‘met’ and got to know lots of living and breathing people is more likely to be a good judge of character when it comes to new people, even very different people, than someone who has merely been on a networking course and learned disembodied ‘people skills’. And so it is with anything else.Having a grasp of certain basic facts and ideas is essential to recognising, let alone understanding, how and why the world is changing. More fundamentally, it is not possible to make a rigid distinction between ‘learning’ as a generic activity, and whatever ‘stuff’ it is one happens to be learning.

Learning, like knowledge itself, must have an object, and to disparage that object as somehow secondary is to render learning meaningless. Nonetheless, Heppell’s approach is increasingly orthodox. The hook for the BBC radio item was Sir Jim Rose’s recent review of the English primary school curriculum, which put a premium on the use of information technology, and favoured topical cross-curricular projects rather than a grounding in traditional subjects. The ‘old-fashioned’ content of education is taking a back seat to the new dogma of ‘learning to learn’.

What is at stake here is not only the nature of knowledge and the purpose of education, however. This kind of thinking is closely bound up with the trend toward teaching ‘well-being’ in schools, which has been discussed on Culture Wars recently in Lee Jones’ review of Kathryn Ecclestone’s and Dennis Hayes’ book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education (2), and in a response by the authors (3).Schooling has always been to some extent about socialising children and equipping them to lead productive and fulfilling lives as well as developing academically. But the relatively recent move away from a focus on education in the sense of traditional subject knowledge to a more direct concern with preparing children for life in a changing world reflects a broader transformation in what it is considered important for children to learn, and indeed how we think of what it’s like to be a person in society.

This was the subject of a seminar organised by Ecclestone and Hayes at Oxford Brookes University in December (4).The seminar revealed a certain ambiguity about the reason for the emergence of the well-being agenda in education. Sometimes it is presented as an adaptation to a changing world, along the lines suggested by Heppell. It is suggested that in an increasingly fast-moving world, education has to prepare children for an uncertain future: rather than learning facts that are likely to be quickly redundant, children need to learn the social skills that will enable them to cope with change – and negotiate an increasingly flexible labour market. At other times, though, the new agenda is presented as a result of developments in educational thinking – often drawing on neuroscience – a realisation that the traditional curriculum neglects important elements of the educational experience.

The implication is that well-being should always have been a more explicit concern in schools, and it’s a good thing that we’ve finally recognised its importance.In fact the distinction between these two accounts is often blurred, and both are used at different times by the same advocates of the well-being agenda. Whether what’s changed is primarily pedagogy or society itself, however, it should be noted that ‘therapeutic education’ posits a particular and novel model of individual subjectivity.

At the seminar, Frank Furedi, sociologist and author of Therapy Culture (5), traced the development of therapeutic education beginning in the US from the 1970s, arguing that a growing focus on self-esteem and the feelings of individual children rather than shared cultural values represented a move away even from socialisation towards something more like behaviour management.

Despite the more individual focus of therapeutic education, Furedi argued that it is in fact more coercive, since children are expected to conform to certain forms of behaviour and even emotional dispositions tacitly, as good boys and girls, rather than explicitly, as subjects capable of questioning social norms and grasping their importance for themselves. By the 1990s, educational thinkers were explicitly rejecting the idea that cultural values should be passed on through the generations.

Instead, education was to be ‘child-centred’, focused on the supposedly unique needs and abilities of each child.For Furedi, this was neither an enlightened response to a better understanding of human beings, nor a necessary adjustment to a transforming society, but rather a kind of abandonment of young people: it is not just academic subject knowledge that is sidelined by the well-being agenda, but the very idea of education as a socially rather than merely individually-oriented exercise. Furedi was explicit in acknowledging that for him – following Hannah Arendt – education is a conservative endeavour: not in the sense of being politically reactionary, but in the more literal sense of conserving knowledge and giving young people a ‘grounding’ in the social world around them. This means not just academic study, but also other activities, whether sports or even religious instruction, to the extent that these point to something beyond the self.

Naturally, the historical context for the decline of this ideal of education (which of course was rarely fully realised) is important. The transformation of education has been part of a wider trend: the gradual fragmentation of traditional institutions, from political parties to the family, and a resulting atomisation of society.

One important question to be answered is whether the therapeutic turn in education has merely reflected this trend or accelerated it, whether it is a more or less inevitable adaptation to a changing society, or a driver of social fragmentation. Furedi’s analysis would seem to indicate the latter.Also speaking at the seminar, Matthew Taylor, director of the RSA, acknowledged some of the criticisms made by Furedi and others, but ultimately presented the rise of the well-being agenda very differently. Taylor welcomed the end of what he called the ‘neoliberal dogma’: that is, in this context, the idea that given adequate information, individuals act rationally in their own interests regardless of other factors. For Taylor, the well-being agenda is a useful corrective to this, recognising the importance of wider cultural and indeed emotional factors in shaping individuals’ consciousness.

While Furedi sees this agenda as corrosive of traditional education and socialisation, Taylor believes our children’s schooling can only benefit from the insights of the new ‘science of happiness’, as propagated by Richard Layard and others. In particular, Taylor believes that developments in neuroscience present a challenge not only to the ‘neoliberal dogma’, but also to more humanistic conceptions of education, and indeed human nature.

Taylor revealed that according to neuroscience, there is no ‘I’: the sense that we are coherent subjects who act according to rational decisions, even some of the time, is an illusion created by our brains. Of course this is an extreme view, and one it is probably impossible to take entirely seriously, since even in its own terms, subjectivity is a necessary illusion. But clearly this kind of thinking opens the way to a more instrumental approach to the emotions, which places less value in psychological interiority and individual responsibility. If people can be manipulated in ways that make them behave better and feel better about themselves as they do so, why not make that a focus of education?

What is interesting about this approach is that it is premised not simply on the idea that society is changing rapidly, but further, that our previous understanding of human subjectivity has been shown to have been mistaken, an illusion that can no longer be sustained. It has long been maintained in postmodernist circles that the ‘rational self-determining subject’ was nothing more than a construct of nineteenth century liberalism, reflecting the particular and one-sided experience of a white, male, bourgeois elite.

To the extent that there is or was such a thing as a neoliberal dogma, it might be seen as a dumbed down version of this, perhaps best captured in Margaret Thatcher’s insistence that ‘there is no such thing as society’. But conceptions of human nature and subjectivity are always contested to some extent, and always reflect particular historical circumstances (6).If bourgeois liberalism is guilty of neglecting the complexities of human experience and the social constraints on individual subjectivity, today’s therapy culture, even when informed by supposedly hard science, is no less guilty of constructing an idea of human nature on the basis of partial and one-sided impressions. Indeed, it seems to reflect the fatalism of a political era still coloured by another of Thatcher’s dictums, ‘There is no alternative’.

Even the threat of a massive economic downturn has not revived what might be called ‘popular macroeconomics’, meaningful public engagement with the big socio-economic questions, because there is no social movement representing an alternative. Consequently, we simply do not feel in control of our destiny, either as individuals or a society. For this reason, it might be argued that what’s important is not to try to understand society in such a way as might enable us to change it – a utopian fantasy – but instead to acquire the skills necessary to cope in a changing world that is out of our hands.

In this context, the prescriptions of Stephen Heppell and the Rose review of primary education make more sense: knowledge is less important than savvy, and schools need to prepare people to be happy in themselves rather than asking impossible questions about the world. This is the pedagogy of therapy culture. But it is more than a reflection of a changing society or new theoretical insights: it is a cynical accommodation to drastically lowered horizons. It is one thing to acknowledge the seemingly limited possibilities of the current juncture, and quite another to teach our children that this is it, this is the human condition. The betrayal is all the more galling because it is precisely through knowledge of our bigger human story that we can find hope of breaking out of the suffocating present.

Superficially, most stuff is not relevant to children; most of the world is ‘not about us’. It is only education that broadens our horizons so that hitherto uninteresting subjects begin to seem important. The wealth of human knowledge and the tradition of critical engagement with it is something we can pass on to the next generation regardless of current circumstances. If that makes them unhappy with the world as they find it, so much the better.

1) Today programme, BBC Radio 4, 13 December 2008
2) Therapy culture and its critics, by Lee Jones, 2 October 2008
3) Therapy culture revisited, by Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes, 13 November 2008
4) ESRC seminar, ‘Changing the Subject: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Emotional Well-Being and Social Justice’, Oxford Brookes University, 9 December 2008
5) Frank Furedi (2004) Therapy Culture: cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age, Routledge. See Culture Wars’ review by James Heartfield, and further commentaryby Dolan Cummings.
6) For more on this, see The trouble with being human these days, by Dolan Cummings.

First published on Culture Wars.