Thursday, 2 September 2010

Book review: Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos

Childhood, Well-Being and a Therapeutic Ethos
Richard House and Del Lowenthal (eds)
Karnac Books, 2009

Thinking about a therapeutic ethos in education means confronting a dilemma. On the one hand, therapeutic approaches offer a longed-for alternative to thinking about education as merely the achievement of targets. So the fresh thinking promised by this volume feels like a welcome opportunity to consider possible meanings of childhood, rather than league-tabled outcomes.

Yet, as Stephen J. Ball (2003, 216) argues, things become problematic for teachers when we describe, or perhaps enscribe, ourselves “in the lexicons of belief and commitment, service and even love, and of mental health and emotional well-being.” Ball cites Foucault’s notion of professionals who are “technicians of behaviour’, their task ‘to produce bodies that are docile and capable’. One might substitute “emotion” for “behaviour” and wonder, as Kathryn Ecclestone does in this volume, whether a therapeutic ethos might end up producing a generation of docile and diminished children.

Richard House and Del Loewenthal, the editors of Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos, take somewhat contrasting positions in this lively and eclectic book. Loewenthal generates a contemplative, philosophiocal tone, drawing on Plato to call into question the increasingly technological direction of both therapy, especially cognitive behaviour therapy, and education. House, on the other hand, takes up a Steinerian position which is principled and traditional in its opposition to the modern notion of early years education. However, the desire to preserve a tradition like the the Steiner movement is always likely to place orthodoxy and purity before critical discussion. For example, House (2009, page 166) wonders “which position is likely to generate more net damage to [children’s] development: assuming that children live in a spiritual ‘dream consciousness’ when in reality they don’t; or assuming that they don’t, when they really are?”. It is doubtful whether anyone who is not already a Steinerian will be convinced that children must be be kept in a spritual space, safe from the threat of shared adult:child thinking (constructivism) in early childhood education.

Yet co-existing uneasily with this romantic defence of the traditional, there is a tabloid-shrill discourse of emergency, with “facts” sometimes seeming to be impulsively torn from “research”. House (2009, page 156) draws on the BBC news website and the Daily Mail as evidence for his argument that there is “a major increase in child mental-health and behavioural problems” . But even the BBC’s website is more nuanced, noting that “experts cast doubt on the findings”, whilst the summary from the Office for National Statistics states that “one in ten children in Great Britain aged 5-16 had a clinically recognisable mental disorder in 2004. This was the same as the proportion recorded in the 1999 survey.”  Therborn (2008, page 129) describes Bourdieu’s commitment to theory as the “guiding compass of empirical investigation". On occasion, it can seem as if some contributors are waving a rather large magnet around that compass, swinging “facts” into posiiton.

More generally, the book’s overall argument for a therapeutic turn in education, and life as a whole, does not adequately consider whether that this might merely generate another “regime” for the pinching and shaping of the individual’s soul. For example, Oliver James (2009, page 223) commends the process by which a group of staff were guided by a consultant to cope with the demands of their unreasonable boss. The consultant worked with the staff to consider how how their boss made them feel. Together, they produced an image of him as a “tremendously insecure, lonely man”. But I would argue that such a way of thinking and working diminishes everyone. It is not possible to “pin down” another person’s emotional state with such certainty by working on our own feelings. The staff members do not seem to have been helped to stand up to unreasonable behaviour; instead they are all left in a sort of hall of mirrors where emotional hurt is endlessly reflected. They are hurt by their boss, who is himself the victim of some other process of emotional hurt which then acts on them, and so on.

In this respect, Ecclestone’s concern about the “diminished self” (2009, pages 129 to 154) is an important critique. Yet in making a strong argument against inadequately-theorised notions like “self-esteem” and “emotional literacy”, she does not consider the pressing need for schools and educators to to find some way of responding to numbers of pupils who present with angry, confused or withdrawn behaviour. When she cites the problem of young trainee teachers who “uncritically reproduce claims from advocates of emotional literacy” (2009, page 147) one wonders whether her concern might be better directed towards what she sees as a general failure to develop critical thinking. The pedlars of self-esteem remedies, circle time and other simple solutions to difficult problems are straw men in this argument.

Ecclestone does not engage with more sophiscticated practice or theory, like Ricky Emmanuel’s contribution to the collection (2009, pages 91 to 98). Emmanuel’s description of his work with a young child’s suffering is, I would argue, neither diminishing to the child, nor uncritical in its thinking. Emmanuel draws on the Kleinian notion of play therapy, but without the continual verbalisations which Lacan (1988, page 68) complained were symbolisation slammed onto the child “with complete brutality”. Emmanuel describes a process which is like Klein by freeze-frame, the therapist as witness to trauma depicted in a child’s torturing play with plastic animals.

The urge to deny that children suffer is discussed by Sue Gerhardt in her interesting chapter (2009, pages 113 to 126). She disapprovingly quotes the Times columnist Mick Hume, who suggests that “there is no right way to bring up baby. And whatever hotch potch method you use will have no long-term effect on your child. As one wise man said, if you can avoid locking them in a wardrobe or beating them on the head with a frying pan, they should be fine.” On the face of it, his light-hearted argument might be seen as an affront to loving parents: a denial of the power of our affection or its lack. But perhaps it is more deeply unsettling for another reason: that we cannot reliably calibrate the outcomes of love and care, whether at home or in schools, and we cannot understand how one child appears traumatised by what another seems to shrug off.

Childhood, Well-being and a Therapeutic Ethos is provocative and interesting, but I found it unpersuasive. I was left thinking of the English pioneer of experimental education and psycho-analytic theory, Susan Isaacs. She had, for the most part, a keen eye and ear for the suffering and traumas of childhood. Yet she also had an uncompromising commitment to children’s freedom, in contrast to the fearful, “dimished” child. Visitors to her school were shocked to discover children sliding off the garden shed; and Jean Piaget found that his current notion of age-related stages of thinking was effectively demolished as a child riding a bicycle freely about the place theorised out-loud about cause and effect. Yet after years of practice, both as teacher and psych-analyst, Isaacs (1933, page 412) cautioned that “an admixture of education and analysis tends to ruin both”.

First published in Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Volume 11, Number 4 2010


Ball, Stephen J (2003) “The teacher's soul and the terrors of performativity

Isaacs, S (1933) Social Development In Young Children. A Study Of Beginnings

Lacan, J (1988) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954 Book I

Therborn, G (2008) From Marxism to Post-Marxism