Joyous distrust is a sign of health. Everything absolute belongs to pathology.

Maybe those bored by debating the purpose of education feel the way they do because everyone keeps saying the same things over and over with the result that we all become a little more convinced of our own rightness. Perhaps this is because of the way the debate has been framed?

The Great Educational Debate has always been framed as being between Traditionalists and Progressives. While no one is ever happy with attempts to try to pin down these positions, they can be summarised thus:

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Of course it’s possible to argue that you do ‘a bit of both’, but you can only really have one priority.

Having just read Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes’s magnificent book, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education, I now think we might do better to reframe the debate as being between the aims of therapeutic and academic education.

The book was published way back in 2009 and I can only imagine the controversy with which it must have been met at the time. I would have probably been horrified if I’d read it then. This was the dying days of the New Labour project and, if you remember, we didn’t even have a Department for Education back then; it had been rebranded as the Department for Children, Schools and Families which tells you something of the priorities of the day. This was also the height of Christine Gilbert’s reign as the head of Ofsted, a time when the inspectorate was characterised as the ‘child-centered inquisition’, when inspectors really were enforcing progressive teaching orthodoxies. 

Times have changed, and so have I.

Ecclestone and Hayes set out a compelling case. They aim to show how the sorts of activities which had become – and mostly still are – prevalent in schools, activities that “embed populist therapeutic assumptions, claims and process throughout education, signifying the idea that emotional well-being, emotional literacy and emotional competence are some of the most important outcomes of the educations system.” (page xi) All of this is predicated on the concept of a ‘diminished self’: the idea that we’re all damaged, vulnerable, emotionally fragile and suffering from low self-esteem.

They view this as damaging because, “therapeutic education [is] profoundly anti-educational” and “whatever good intentions lie behind it, the effect is to abandon the liberating project of education.” (p. xiii) In concentrating on what is immediately relevant, inclusive, engaging and reflects students ‘real needs’, a ‘curriculum of the self’ lowers expectation and aspiration, hollowing out and replacing the goals of an academic curriculum.

Maybe the differences between therapeutic and academic education could be characterised like this:

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The book suggests that therapeutic education reflects the values of modern society. Therapy is all around us. What was once seen as a treatment for those who were disturbed or mentally ill is now embraced as nurturing for everybody. We are all damaged by our toxic childhoods and we all need to talk about the underlying causes for everything all the time.

I’m not all sure this is nearly as helpful as is usually assumed. Borton and Casey have shown that trying to suppress negative feelings actually makes you think about them more and, contrary to our intuitions, discussing our problems with someone else often makes them worse. There’s also Zech & Rimé‘s accusation that positive psychology tends to pathologise normal emotions and behaviour, labelling ordinary feelings of sadness or anxiety as ‘bad’, and underestimating their adaptive function (e.g. defensive pessimism – predicting negative events so that you can take action to avoid or prepare for them).

This is certainly borne out by my own experience. After some regrettable experiences in early adulthood , I was referred to various therapists and counsellors all of whom wanted to help me explore my past to get at why I was the way I was. Eventually, I began seeing a psychotherapist for 3 hours a week. After six months of navel-gazing and utter tedium I decided that I’d had all the therapy I could ever tolerate; if it had taught me nothing else I’d learned that I really didn’t need to rehash my childhood any more.

I’ve come to believe that, contrary to common assumptions, talking about our feelings can be problematic. For instance, whenever I’ve had a dispute, I’m always keen to clear the air and discuss exactly why the other person said what they said and why I did what I did. Really though we’ve no idea why we do and say what we do. When we articulate reasons for our actions we give them a compelling narrative power. Our post-hoc rationalisations become true as soon as we’ve spoken them aloud. Maybe the goals of therapy are self-defeating? As Ecclestone and Hayes put it, “the rituals associated with a populist version of ‘knowing yourself’ amount to no more than scripted forms of social training.” (p. 43)

Anyway, enough of the confessional. it’s enough to say that the case laid out in The Dangerous Rise… chimes with my experiences and my instincts. Our preoccupation with therapy and well-being makes the normal abnormal and far from teaching resilience, it seems to make us all more fragile and unhealthily aware of our vulnerability. It teaches us that we’re damaged and that we need professional help to undo this damage. It leads us to label certain families – particularly working class families – as unable to deal with children’s emotions and invites schools to intrude ever further into children’s lives.

The aims of therapeutic education appear antithetical to those of academic education. Interest in personalised learning, student voice, learning to learn and assessing transferable skills “erodes the belief that young people need subject knowledge.” (p. 47) This is never stated so clearly as by the ex-head of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon: “There is no more important objective for a school than to help teachers help its pupils find out who they are and how to lead happy and decent lives.” Well, that’s fair enough for highly privileged, privately educated students perhaps; maybe they don’t need a rigorous academic curriculum in order to be successful? But no. Seldon goes on: “The more deprived the area the more vital this version of schooling is.”

And if you think no one really thought or believed that therapeutic aims were in opposition to academic ones, never forget the sorry case of the ATL’s 2007 vision for education, Subject to Change. With no apparent irony, the authors state:

The major difference from previous curriculum models is that it should consider the needs of the whole person without assuming that the academic or intellectual aspects should have a higher status than the others. The first truly comprehensive curriculum should rebalance the academic, situated in the mind, against those parts of humanity situated in the body, the heart and the soul. Curricula may well be designed by people for whom the mind predominates, but those designers should see that the twenty-first century requires a population with higher levels of social, emotional and moral performance, and a regenerated capacity for doing and making. [my emphasis]

They went on to say, “We need a bit of honesty in this analysis. Most people are not intellectuals. Most people do not live their lives predominantly in the abstract.” As soon as we accept that most people are not intellectuals then it becomes easier to give them what they might want instead of what they might actually need in order to have chance of being an intellectual.

In this model “learning a body of worthwhile and inspiring knowledge, or learning to love particular subjects, or aspiring to excel in them, have become invisible as educational goals.” (p. 62) In 2009 it really did seem that “therapeutic education … jettisons and disdains the intellectual in favour of emotions.” Why does matter? Because therapeutic education does not “lift young people out of everyday problems, whether those problems are banal or serious. Instead [it] immerses young people in an introspective, instrumental curriculum of the self, and turns schools into vehicles for the latest political and popular fad to engineer the right sort of citizen.” (p 64)

I fervently hope that this is no longer the case and that changes in education policy since 2012 have started to reverse a little of the rot, but I fear we’ve a long way to go before we rebalance the intellectual with the emotional. As a case in point, read Tom Bennett’s blog on the current mental health ‘crisis’.

This book provides a new vocabulary and new conceptual framework for expressing some of the problems with contemporary education. Of particular interest is the final chapter in which the authors anticipate and counter all the likely objection you might have. Whatever your ideological stripe, whatever your preconceptions, I urge you to read it.

In other news, I’m delighted to hear that Kathryn Ecclestone will be speaking at the researchED National Conference in September.