The battle of educational ideas: the resistable rise of therapeutic education

Last night I had the great pleasure of hearing Kathryn Ecclestone present her professorial inaugural lecture at the University of Sheffield. Kathryn is well known for her work on the political and cultural rise of what she sees as a ‘therapeutic culture’ which is reflected in policies designed to promote resilience and well-being. Her lecture was concerned with the growing tendency of government, teachers and parents to present young people as vulnerable.

Drawing on her own experience of teaching unemployed youngsters at the time of the miners’ strike, Kathryn argues that the therapeutic culture is a new phenomenon that has become pervasive during the last three decades. Her writing clearly speaks to a large number of people who are worried by the turn towards introspection, emotionalism and self-analysis in our society, and who are concerned at the consequences for young people’s and adults’ education. I think that she is pointing to a trend that is widely discussed in the world at large but largely ignored within educational studies.

I do, though, have misgivings. The main one is conceptual: Kathryn situates her work within the broad body of conservative cultural critique that is most flamboyantly represented by Frank Furedi. Typically, this approach seizes on a cultural trend, and chews over it as a symptom of a pervasive societal state of anxiety and dependency.

Furedi and his supporters usually pick out interesting and topical trends. With their origins in a now-defunct Trotskyist grouplet, they tend to adopt a fairly combative style, exemplified in their online journal, Spiked, and know how to pull the tail of the political Left. Its most prominent representatives are good speakers, and have a high media profile; one of my old friends is able to work himself into a fury over their influence in programmes like the BBC’s ‘Moral Maze’.

On the whole, I find their work interesting and provocative, but shallow. Remarkably, for former Marxists, their analyses are largely ahistorical, often comprising a contrast between critique of a very specific contemporary cultural pattern and an unsupported assertion that this did not occur in the past. They rarely attend to causality; no one knows how or why any particular deplorable cultural practice or belief has arisen. And finally, they are often less than impressive on what might be done to remedy things.

People in past times certainly were concerned about well-being. During the 1930s, for example, hard-nosed Communists like John Gollan and Wal Hannington drew attention to the effects of unemployment on mental health. Of course, psychologists and other medical specialists also focused on these issues; I’ve blogged about one of these, Marie Jahoda, who studied resilience and vulnerability among the unemployed. Of course, while there was debate over young people’s vulnerability, much of it focused on the economic conditions that were undermining security and resilience.

So if there is an ‘affective turn’ in our society, what has fuelled it? One possibility is that it has arisen solely because of a successful lobby from vested interests. My impression was that last night was that this is largely how Kathryn sees the rise of political and educational concern over young people’s vulnerability – it is, she seems to suggest, largely driven by the growing army of therapists, psychiatrists and others. This seems pretty unconvincing; unless she knows something that I don’t, this is not the most powerful and united lobbying group that occurs to me.

A more convincing explanation is that well-being now matters
more. I think this is highly likely, and that in our affluent, consumption-driven society, people are far more likely to worry about their own mental state. As I’ve said elsewhere, I see much of the interest in counselling, positive psychology and self-help therapies as connected to wider tendencies towards individualisation and introspection that arise from deeply-rooted social trends, combined with the rapid expansion of post-secondary education, and growth in the importance of qualifications and skills. In short, what was once a private trouble has become a public issue as a result of deep-rooted social and cultural change.

Arguably, too, our modern world is creating more insecurity and new sources of anxiety. The well-known phenomenon of precariety is often understood to refer mainly to people who work on the economic margins, in insecure and fragmentary jobs that might end at any moment. But the experience is also felt in many other occupations that once were highly secure, from policing to sales. These occupations no longer provide a solid foundation for a secure identity – and, for many people, our intimate relationships and community contexts are equally precarious.

Finally, what should we do? I worry about our ability to develop critiques and our inability to offer solutions. For some, the affective turn means that we are moving towards a softer, more caring society. If Kathryn believes that the therapeutic culture is undermining our ability to act, and to take responsibility for our actions, then surely the onus is on her to come up with a few clear proposals. Meanwhile, isn’t a world where Andy Murray cries in public preferable to one where we absorb pain in private, but present a fixed smile to the outside world?

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4 thoughts on “The battle of educational ideas: the resistable rise of therapeutic education

  1. Whilst I can’t respond to the depth of background to this post, and am happy to defer to your knowledge, I’d like to comment on the issues that Ecclestone is raising. I heard her speak about the rise of therapeutic education some time ago, and it made a real impression on me regarding the assumptions behind the way that young people are problematised (particularly in further education). Level and norm based based teaching lie at the heart of many of the structural constraints on teachers, and these are necessarily political in that they provide observable processes to audit – with its subsequent ideological misreading. Therepeutic education also restricts teachers from applying their social intelligence (Pusey 1991) to complex issues inside and outside the classroom. Now that I know this I can encourage my student teachers to look beyond the level, the descriptor, the statement of needs – all those instruments for labelling and categorising. As a teacher educator I can also resist the dominant discourse, understanding that therapeutic education also serves ideological forces that are not always in the best interests of our young people or the public good. Your thoughts on this would be helpful.

    • Thanks for the reblog and for the comment above. I agree that Kathryn addresses important issues, and understand that the language of vulnerability can be used to stigmatise. I am, though, still reluctant to accept her analysis of those issues. I guess that I still don’t understand why therapeutic education prevents teachers from thinking, and I can’t yet find out who these ‘ideological forces’ are that drive the motor of therapeutic education.

  2. John Field and I have been colleagues and friends over many years and have debated the themes of my lecture often, informally and in print. We rarely agree!

    I started my lecture by saying that new and important research questions often arise from noticing small everyday changes in how we treat people, our assumptions about them, our informal and formal assessments of them, or how they talk about themselves and present themselves to us.

    My interest in the emergence of what I referred to as an ‘age of vulnerability’ was sparked a few years ago by comparing images and assessments of students now, with those at the start of my education career with unemployed teenagers in the late 70s and early 80s and then with adults on Access to Higher Education courses – the type of students we still refer to as ‘non-traditional’.

    This was a time of mass youth unemployment, with the first wave of employment schemes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, alternative qualifications with alternative forms of assessment for low achieving 15 and 16 year olds, and the start of a big wave of programmes to get ‘non-traditional students’ into higher education. The turmoil of the miners’ strike defined the lives of the young people I worked with in Rotherham and many were highly politicised. The idea that the adults and young people that my colleagues and I worked with were vulnerable didn’t enter our or their heads.

    In the lecture, I then offered a tiny number of many, many examples of images of vulnerability, both where young people and adults present themselves as vulnerable, and where others attribute that image to them. Following the interest of cultural historian Raymond Williams in how words and terms are embedded in culture and how they change, and in CW Mills’ injunction to relate private troubles to public issues, I’m interested in why vulnerability has become such a preoccupation at this point in history, and in this culture, and where it comes from.
    I’m interested in who we regard as vulnerable, or who sees themselves in that way, how vulnerability changes how we regard each other, the ways in which we present ourselves to others, and the ways we respond to expressions of vulnerability. I’m interested in how vulnerability changes our everyday expectations and practices and I want to ask whether we should regard these changes as educationally and politically progressive: rather than offering solutions, I raised questions about how educators might respond.
    It goes without saying that the ‘causes are not straightforward. John says that I seem to suggest that a growing army of therapists, psychiatrists and others are driving the phenomena I discussed. I didn’t say that, and don’t think it either: that would be falling for a simplistic conspiracy theory. The rise and rise of emotional well-being consultants, advisers and creators of products and programmes, drugs for disorders etc, is more of a symptom than a cause. Many – but by no means all – are self-serving, it is true, but they couldn’t do that without something else much deeper going on – people aren’t dupes.

    A therapeutic turn in culture, politics and social institutions is evident, and many researchers and other commentators are picking up on this around the world. And I and other sociologists working in this area do look historically – we don’t just ‘seize’ on a cultural problem and whinge about it: it’s a serious attempt to grapple with and understand serious social and cultural and educational phenomena and, in my case, to explore their educational limitations.

    In my co-authored book The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education and numerous articles, I explore the political, social and cultural mechanisms and roots that generate a sense of vulnerability and a powerful and rarely challenged sense of crisis about declining levels of emotional well-being, and the therapeutic interventions they give rise to. In the lecture, I acknowledged roots of vulnerability in precarious economic and social times but said that the emergence of vulnerability wasn’t solely found in social and economic conditions. In my books and articles, and in my lecture, I point to the demise of collective political aspirations and radical projects, and their turn towards emotional support as much a source of the turn to vulnerability as economic and social conditions but, of course, those social and economic conditions give rise to those turns.

    The curious part of John’s blog is undermining the credibility of my arguments by associating them with the allegedly ‘conservative’ work of Frank Furedi who is, in turn, guilty of association with a defunct Trotskyite sect etc etc, and their supposed infiltration into the BBC’s Moral Maze!

    I’m not going to debate Furedi’s except to observe that neither of us can remotely be called ‘conservative’. Nor am I interested in the liberal left’s continuing obsession with 30 year old debates amongst defunct fractious and fractured left and far left groups. Invoking these avoids proper and serious engagement with the ideas raised now, whether on Moral Maze or wherever.

    I was surprised to see the recourse to this in John’s blog– it reminded me of numerous times when psychotherapists have attributed my views about therapeutic education to my ‘esteem issues’ or when radical feminists have applied cursory psychoanalysis to detect my suppressed elitist loathing of the working class ‘Other’. Hilarious at one level, but cheap at another.

    The other criticism, about critique and no solutions, is not valid either. In the lecture and in all my presentations to practitioner audiences, I raise questions about how we should respond to the things I identified, and about their educational, practical everyday implications. At Sheffield, academic and support service colleagues have engaged with my lecture and we’re going to discuss our collective and individual responses to the vulnerability zeitgeist; support services are dealing with a deluge of students presenting as ‘vulnerable’, some with diagnosed disorders, many not. Thinking about responses and their implications for what we do as educators is becoming more pressing.

    Finally, I’ve never said in print, public debate or my lecture that we should all just ‘button up’ and suffer pain in private. Andy Murray can cry all he likes – I’m more interested in why a nation turned from disliking him intensely to liking him as soon as he did!

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