Bad stories: I own myself

selfIn traditional communities, the old take it upon themselves to teach the young. Such communities are moral orders, and elders have the confidence to attempt teaching because the sense of order is widely shared. It is understood that young people owe respect to their elders and to the community. It is understood that our lives are not simply our own.

When we lived in traditional communities, we had responsibilities, duties, obligations and debts. Whether we were thought a good person or an inadequate one was arrived at mostly by comparing our conduct to a community standard of doing our part. We thought of ourselves as having parts, because we assumed there was a whole we shared-whether this whole was the family, the town, the nation or all of humanity. This whole provided the context for judgement.

I don’t want to romanticize traditional communities. Sometimes those communities were stifling and blinded by obsolete or superstitious traditions, and sometimes they were cold and inhospitable to people who were different. Sometimes their understanding of both what was possible and what was desirable was narrow and rigid. Sometimes they were governed by petty tyrants.

Today, with ready access to information from around the world and the means to move away from places that are not congenial to us, most of us have an unprecedented freedom from local control. And so we find ourselves facing different problems. Many of them flow from thinking all those contexts of family and neighborhood are mere resources for individuals in pursuit of gratification. It appears that many of us have come to feel a stronger sense of duty to our own fulfillment than to our families or our communities.

This is partly an effect of the rise of therapeutic culture.

As modernity increased our choices and our sense of liberation, all the usual ways of finding unhappiness were widely tried, including experiments with addictive substances, inattention to the well-being of others, uncontrolled sexual practices and ethical shortcuts in business and in personal affairs. Once troubled people might have gone to churches to examine the stories of their lives, perhaps revising their personal narratives through repentance. But science had undermined the authority of religion, so unfulfilled, angry and numb people looked for other places to talk about what had gone wrong.

A class of nonjudgmental technicians of the psyche arose, turning on the meter and speaking the modern dialect with a slightly scientific inflection. They offered hope to people overwhelmed by confusion after following thousands of paths that had turned out not to be paths at all but mere openings in the jungle that led nowhere.

The scientific study of the human mind is a vast endeavor that can’t be accurately characterized by any brief summary. Sincere and talented people have advanced our knowledge on hundreds of fronts, and what we have learned about organic irregularities in the brain, the causes of depression, the chemical mechanisms of insanity, the catalysts for criminality, the ways we miscommunicate and all the other issues that attract the attention of psychologists have brought us many blessings.

But it’s also true that we have developed a thriving market for therapies, and that new therapies are spread and advanced by inventing catchy names for new maladies and costly promises of relief. In fact, descriptions of maladies and cures have become a major genre of imaginative literature consumed by the middle class.

Miserable people are vulnerable to promises of help, and such promises have proliferated like diet plans and get rich schemes, and for similar reasons. The most notorious in the realm of education might be the self-esteem movement. This was the topic of a 1996 cover story in the American Educator, the official publication of the American Federation of Teachers. Psychologist Barbara Lerner argued that the “post-modern psychology” that “swallowed up modern psychology and most of education too” in the 1970s, “reduced every problem in life to question of self-esteem or the lack of it, blurring the boundaries between therapy and school, diluting both, and making education a subservient profession.” In doing so, “it made a relentless focus on the self the order of the day in classrooms across the land.”

Psychology professor Roy E. Baumeister, in the same issue insisted that in spite of all the passionate rhetoric about the positive effects of high self- esteem, the evidence that has been mustered indicates that “self-esteem doesn’t have much impact” on all the personal and social ills that believers have associated with it. Nevertheless, making schools responsible for improving student self-esteem had far-reaching consequences. “The results,” according to Lerner, “were dismal–kids learned less, respect for teachers declined, disorder and violence and unhappiness increased, and a lot of Americans lost faith in schools and respect for teachers.”

The self-esteem movement has now lost its momentum, persisting as network of conventions and unexamined pieties, but new therapies arrive with the regularity of the seasons. In schools, the language of therapy has all but driven out the language of education. By translating personal difficulties into language that sounds impersonal, objective, and rational, therapists project a welcome appearance of competence, a sense that someone understands what is happening and that therefore things are under control. They offer administratively simple solutions to vexing problems. Administrators can “address” even the most tangled messes by recommending that someone get counseling. It is seldom necessary to discuss what, exactly, a counselor might do or whether it will actually work. All that usually needs to be said is something about “servicing needs.”

Many students have learned that they do not have to submit to the demands of schooling, because they can blame their failure on a system that has not provided the right service. Many parents are coached by an expanding corps of nonteaching service professionals, who have to a large extent won control of the public discourse of education, to think of every misbehavior as a sign of an “unmet need.”

A few years ago, while teaching at a psychiatric hospital for troubled adolescents-nearly all were diagnosed as “oppositional-defiant”–I made a routine classroom request, “Take out your work from yesterday.”

A 15-year-old boy exploded with anger and began shouting obscenities. He threw his desk at me, screaming violent threats. To protect myself and other kids, I restrained him and dragged him from the class, where several other staff members rapidly came to help. Later, other staff members and I met with him. He had stopped swearing and begun crying.

“It’s your fault,” he said. “You’re supposed to fix me-” he pushed out his lower lip-“and I’m still like this.”

No doubt the kid had problems. “Needs,” he’d been taught to call them. He was searching, albeit ineffectively, for something beyond the self. He covered his notebooks and forearms with gang insignia, dreaming of belonging to a group that would provide an identity. I wish the sort of problems he faced were rare, but the truth is that most teachers face at least some young people like him. Some teachers face a great many of them every day–kids who demand that we cater to them and blame us for all their failures. We only exist, in the story we have told them, to provide services to meet their needs. But try teaching someone who has been systematically taught to blame you for his poor conduct.

One of the greatest popularizers of the therapeutic view was Abraham Maslow, and the general tone he helped create is still a powerful presence in many schools. Though he is now widely criticized his language is ubiquitous in schools. Nearly every teacher in America has been taught his “hierarchy of needs.” He promised to provide a “scientific” basis for the study of motivation (though his method was closer to a cocktail party than a laboratory) and at the same time promised welcome liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies. Maslow argued that the old “regime” with its concern for “discipline” should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: “If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness.”

He described an ideal “self-actualizing” person as the superior human that the new therapeutic regime would foster. This new type would be “healthy.” People with “unmet needs” were “unhealthy.” He used “needs” to refer to everything from the body’s dependence on oxygen, to the soul’s desire for a mate, to the addict’s desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need.

With this value system in place, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as “sick-man-created” gratuities. If a person was truly superior, i.e., healthy, doing what he wanted made all the sense that needed to be made. “Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about …… perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs.”

The tale Maslow told was little more than the dream of self, a theory of selfishness packaged with a smattering of jargon. For him, the “self-actualizing human” was at the apex of creation, and love was a mid-level appetite. He seemed puzzled by what other writers said about love. He mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies “responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge,” because “this sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness.” Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, “can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily.”

Civilization should exist to encourage the gratification of instincts. Education should serve the appetite. Healthy people are “lusty animals” who don’t make commitments. It was a small step from such beliefs to the faith that all social and personal problems stemmed from insufficient catering to the desires of the self, and to the resulting self-esteem movement, that attributed all social ills to people not feeling good about themselves.

The ecologist Aldo Leopold taught us that living systems are full of laws that begin working at some lower limit and stop working at some upper limit. In education, many questions are not so much about what is right or wrong, as about how far a good approach stays good. Building students’ sense of self-worth is a good thing. But making the enhancement of self-esteem the main focus of schooling is as harmful as eating too much healthy food.

Freed by therapeutic culture from inhibitions once implanted by education, civilization, rationality, religion and law, many young people find little that is binding. They tend to be nonjudgmental, as they have been taught, but this is linked to the daily challenges of indifference and disengagement which they handle by sending a text, or finding a new game, seeing more and more surely that nothing is sacred and that life is absurd. The killers at Columbine High laughed uproariously as they went about their latest game. “Nobody else is like us,” they had written. “We’re the only two people who seem to understand the meaning of life.”

So the self ends, with nothing to interdict its fantasy. Not long before the shootings at Columbine High, Anthony Kennedy, writing the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), had confused the dream of self with the law of the land. The Court proclaimed in its notorious “mystery passage” that “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

We are truly in strange times when the highest court seems to agree that education, civilization, rationality, religion, government and apparently even the rule of law should not impinge on one’s personal concept of things.

“The image of ourselves as center of the world is fantasy-” says theology professor Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. “perhaps, in its sheer detachment from reality, even a form of madness.” One would like to hear how Justice Kennedy would explain to the Columbine duo, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, why their concept of existence and meaning of the universe should not stand, assuming he believes it should not.

Some years ago Philip Rief in Fellow Teachers said of “therapeutics” that “their final know-how will be to. . .play games, however intellectualized, with all god-terms in order to be ruled by none. In their moral modesty, therapeutics will be capable of anything; they will know that everything is possible because they will not be inhibited by any truth.” Violence, he said, is the final therapy of therapies.

Nietzsche had warned us that as the authority of religion receded, it took with it the rationale for any authority. Each person became a law and a kingdom unto himself. Every obligation began to feel like an infringement. Those with will and commitment would do what they would do. Power would heed only power. “If you will not have God,” T. S. Eliot wrote, seeing that Nietzsche was right, “you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”

My troubled student had been in therapy nearly his entire life and was literally screaming that he felt enslaved to moods and appetites, and that he needed to escape from the prison of self. His normal adolescent egocentricism, which a sensible family or school would once have contradicted as a matter of course, had instead been nurtured. We were supposed to care about him, but now we were confronting him about his bad behavior. We were supposed to improve his self-esteem, but he still didn’t feel good about himself. We were supposed to make school fun, but he still felt miserable. What could he possibly think? He had heard all his life about our responsibilities toward him, but he had heard little about his responsibilities to the other students, to the teacher who had come prepared to teach, or to the community that surrounded him.

He understood no adequate rules of conduct, no power to constrain his passions, no understanding of the linkage between action and consequence. He had no sense of the future because he had not glimpsed how steady, long-term work comes to fruition. He knew nothing of the sacred or of devotion realities beyond himself. He knew something was wrong, and he was begging us to fix it.

The psychiatric hospital where I worked illustrated a likely future for much of public education. The medicalization of education is a huge and growing business. The hospital was a for-profit operation. Most of the money came from Medicaid and other government programs. Staff meetings focused on which services were billable and which were not. Counseling and drugs were billable. Teaching was not. The explicitly stated goal was to provide as many billable services as possible while keeping nonbillable services to the legal minimum. People would be foolish to expect anything different from corporations that proclaim their goal is profit.

Each of the kids saw a doctor a couple times a month, because his signature on a diagnosis authorized sending bills to the government. Even in less drastic environments, many kids today are dependent on their counselors and their medications to get through the day, and new problems are identified every year. As Ivan Illich pointed out years ago, the problem industries thrive by creating problems and providing services, and there so far seem to be few limits to growth in this direction. Already estimates say that half of Americans suffer from some form of “mental illness” sometime during their lifetimes. The other half are being studied.

Education and therapy are polar opposites with a continuum between them, so one can’t draw a clear line between them. In a nutshell, education aims at replacing solipsism with information, knowledge and wisdom. It looks outward, to the world. Therapy aims at justifying the self’s desires. To teach is to assume authority, and the therapeutic approach is to dissolve authority. In therapy, the self is the final authority. In education, truth is the final authority.

A kind of self-forgetfulness is necessary to become educated. It’s necessary to obey some authority, even it’s only the authority of a text or of an unbending reality. The path to mastery, as every master knows, is through obedience. We learn what is necessary and those relatively few ways that will work. A person preoccupied with his or her needs will have trouble paying much attention to multiplication tables, the periodic chart, Shakespeare, the governing of the Roman Empire, Boyle’s gas laws, or even theories of patriarchal oppression.

Self-forgetfulness, a merging of one’s mind and will with issues beyond the self, is one of the great pleasures of learning. It’s sad to think of young people not being taught how to put their suffering in perspective by visiting stories in history or literature or scripture, not learning the instant release from many depressions that follows serving someone else, not being helped through personal tragedy by being drawn into meaningful work and not being shown how to get out of predicaments by studying the mechanism of the trap.

As community disintegrates, the demand for therapy grows.

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