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The Therapy of Education: Philosophy, Happiness and Personal Growth

reviewed by Catherine Scott - July 26, 2010

coverTitle: The Therapy of Education: Philosophy, Happiness and Personal Growth
Author(s): Paul Standish, Paul Smeyers, and Richard Smith (eds.)
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 0230247091, Pages: 272, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

The observation is no longer new that education has much in common with therapy OR alternatively that of late education has been corrupted by the urge to make it over into therapy. As the previous sentence suggests, the crossover between therapy and education is either a good thing or something to be resisted, depending on one’s perspective. Professors of education Smeyers, Smith, and Standish examine the conflicting views in their book, The Therapy of Education, originally published in hardback in 2007, now available in paperback.

The authors steer a middle path in the debate: as their title suggests, education is both a type of therapy and itself in need of therapy. Time is devoted to critically evaluating how the therapeutic currently manifests itself in education and to examining how a properly therapeutic sensibility would improve education as it is currently conceived and practiced. On the first issue, early chapters of the book cover the ways in which “self esteem” and its cultivation and promotion have become a central theme in educational policy and discourse. The term is deconstructed and its instrumentalist use – for better “managing the self” - is critiqued.

Also critiqued, and rightly so, is the tendency for “self esteem” to be understood in crude and schematic terms, and regarded as most appropriately manifested as self confidence and assertiveness. The consequent denigration or relegation of such less in-your-face virtues as modesty, diffidence, and humility are discussed.

In the latter part of the book the critique of contemporary education as overly, or maybe that is entirely, instrumentalist is expanded to consider ways in which a more therapeutic sensibility or approach would benefit those who participate in it. Contemporary schooling is depicted as doing violence to the emotions of both practitioner and practiced-upon and thus ripe to be reformed by the adoption of the therapeutic virtues.

The book is a work of philosophy rather than having a basis in empirical investigations. The writings of a wide variety of philosophers and other authors are drawn upon, but particularly Wittgenstein’s, whom the authors cite extensively. Regrettably, Smeyers et al. may quote Wittgenstein’s advice that “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be put into words can be put clearly” (p. 41) but they do not follow it, choosing, in other words, not to observe the politeness of philosophers, which is clarity.

The book is plainly not intended for practitioners, nor teachers-in-training. Its dense contents and its prolix style make it unlikely to be accessible or palatable to anyone not well-versed in reading philosophical discourse in the post structuralist style. The inclusion of odd little illustrative anecdotes about anonymized teachers, students, and even literary figures (characters from children’s fiction and Mr. Darcy and Lizzie Bennett make initially de-identified appearances as case studies) is very jarring, given the book’s relative inapproachability. If these are intended to make the dense and user-unfriendly text more palatable to those not trained as philosophers the authors do not succeed. There is certainly no law against playing to the gallery of one’s peers, in this case philosophically inclined educational theorists: however, it is desirable to stick to that original intent rather than to make gestures in the direction of an audience one is unlikely to attract.

Many observers have lamented the invasion of education by the therapeutic, this reviewer included, however Smeyer et al.’s book does little to add to an understanding of why schools now seem, to at least some observers, to be less concerned with academic education and more with activities variously described as “therapy” or “social engineering” or similar. Taking a middle path, or if one wished to be philosophically nasty, resorting to the fallacy of the golden mean, and maintaining that education is both getting it wrong by emphasising self esteem and that it should be more “properly” therapeutic does not usefully cast light on the current state of affairs.

As implements of cultural reproduction, schools are inevitably shaped by the large forces at work in society. Ours is a culture much concerned with therapy. The profession that delivers it – psychology – has grown steadily in size and influence. Its language and themes appear everywhere: in popular culture, political debate, theological discourse, and daily conversation. It is a fair question to ask why this state of affairs has arisen: why are we a therapy-obsessed or driven culture? It is also worthwhile considering why the therapy obsession manifests itself so often as a concern with individuals’ “self esteem.”

The need for therapy implies a harm that requires healing. It is a worthwhile first step to assume that the overwhelming urge to heal is a legitimate sign that there exists some affliction that requires treatment. The work of English clinician Smail (1993), who Smeyer et al. cite approvingly, provides clues both as to the nature of the harm and why the therapeutic emphasis has been on building “self esteem.”

Smail’s thesis is that unhappiness is not the result of personal failings or infirmity but of damaging influences from outside the person. He discusses social inequality and the ways in which social class is a wound inflicted on those not of the “higher orders.” Although I know of no place where Smail draws attention to the massive increase in inequality over the last few decades, it is nonetheless a fact of life for citizens of Anglophone countries and those also influenced by the economic rationalist policies that saw the dismantling of the welfare state in the UK, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

At the level of individual lives, inequality is experienced as an increase in insecurity, discontent, physical illness, and mental distress, and a diminishing of both life prospects and trust in and solidarity with one’s fellows, with further consequences for personal isolation and distress (Judt, 2010). Always before one’s gaze are the images of those who have “made it,” the rich and the famous, and the extent to which one is not among those who “matter” is – consequently – always in one’s awareness, either starkly or as a vague sense of one’s insignificance. Where the meek no longer inherit the earth there is little consolation for those who “don’t rate.”

The distress extends beyond those who suffer deprivation, however, and all who live in grossly unequal societies experience a diminishing of their well-being. As Judt (2010, p. 3) quotes Adam Smith: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” A seemingly obvious “quick fix” for the individual sense of insignificance and distress is to work on those emotions and to seek to build in people a sense of self worth (“self esteem”) regardless of their circumstances. Regrettably, rather than a boost in true and secure self valuing, these efforts often lead instead to the sort of compensatory narcissism that underlies much of the interpersonal callousness and downright violence that blights contemporary life (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009).

Rather than taking sides over the desirability or otherwise of schools making therapy part of their core business, understanding the origins of the wide-spread feeling that we have all been harmed and need mending offers the possibility of moving forward, both at the level of rhetoric and in the social arena, where the effects of inequality afflict us all.


Judt, T. (2010). Ill fares the land. Allen Lane: Penguin Books: London.

Smail, D. (1993). The origins of unhappiness. Harper Collins: London.

Wilkinson, R., and Pickett, K. (2009). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. Allen Lane: Penguin Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 26, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16083, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 4:06:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Catherine Scott
    E-mail Author
    CATHERINE SCOTT is a senior research fellow at ACER. She has a background in primary and secondary teaching and also has 20 years experience of teaching and researching at the university level, in the fields of psychology and education. She has also studied counselling and has worked as school counsellor/psychologist. She has post graduate qualifications in early childhood development and a PhD in developmental/educational psychology. She is on the editorial boards of Tutoring and Mentoring and PsychCritiques and reviews for a number of other international journals, including Educational Researcher, the British Educational Research Journal and Journal of Educational Administration. She is a visiting fellow at Huddersfield University and a senior associate of RMIT. She is currently reaching emerging and/or alternative models of teacher preparation; integrating learning and development birth to eighteen, and change and education.
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