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Guidance in an Age of Technology

by Joost A. M. Meerloo - 1961

There are many influences reaching man's mind and molding him without his being aware of them. Especially technology and the growing process of automatization are factors that unobtrusively alter man's attitude toward compliance and conformity. This process teaches us the new technocratic philosophy that the shortest and easiest way is the best way, in direct conflict with the psychological experience that toil, resistance, challenge, and difficulty are the builders of a strong personality.

Western civilization used to exhibit a clear trend toward individuation. Starting with the Renaissance, it declared the unique value of the individual and his fullest maturation. In an ideal way, this meant going beyond collective consciousness and traditional thinking. In our shifting 20th century society, a reversal has taken place. Both technical and political developments attach little or no value to the individual and his unique qualities, unless he is an approved partisan. In the growing process of automation, human relations are threatened with disruption because the machine takes away the idea of individual human service.

There are many influences reaching man's mind and molding him without his being aware of them. Especially technology and the growing process of automatization are factors that unobtrusively alter man's attitude toward compliance and conformity. This process teaches us the new technocratic philosophy that the shortest and easiest way is the best way, in direct conflict with the psychological experience that toil, resistance, challenge, and difficulty are the builders of a strong personality.


Technology has the tendency to provoke man's magic and automatic thinking. It makes a social insect out of him, fitting him into the proper mosaic of social patterns. It teaches people a new cold ritual of knobs and handles, leaving them lacking in faith and religious communion. Passivity and luxurious overprotection vie with greater recklessness as empty expressions of empty personalities.

Paradoxically, technical security increases cowardice. The technical world which we ourselves have created replaced the very real challenge the struggle with nature originally afforded man's imagination. No longer is he openly compelled to face the forces of nature outside and the forces of instinct within himself.

How technology has quietly intruded into the old equilibrium of the home and into the parent-child relationship is illustrated by a form of neurosis that I call television-apathy, the result of a child's failure to establish personal relations. It is with the spellbinding, fascinating TV screen that these children communicate rather than with their parents or peers. True, many parents started the dilemma by becoming fixed to the TV screen themselves, hardly speaking to one another because of the hypnotizing effect of this new toy. The moment the adults are prepared to leave the screen alone, the children are, as a rule, perfectly willing to follow suit. But to a troublesome degree, automatic, lifeless tools have come to substitute for the parental function of taking care and giving affection. Between children and parents a technical, mechanical world, in which few real and warm feelings are exchanged, has developed. Small wonder that the children refuse to learn to read in school! Instead of the condensed, symbolic communication offered by the printed letter signs, they crave a more archaic, warmer, and direct communication, frustratingly lacking in homes where the ancient art of conversation has disappeared.

Thus, our technical age has changed the communicative pattern of many a family. A modern household is dominated by the different schedules of its various members. TV programs, school busses, and commuter trains interfere with the formerly quiet breakfast communion of a family. In a survey of the breakfast habits of schoolchildren (New York Times Magazine, March 2, 1958), more than 30 per cent skipped their breakfast altogether. For many families, even the daily gathering at the dinner table has been abolished. Only Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Passover are reserved for reunion and communion. In such an "atomized" family, there is little true exchange of affection, little warmth, little kissing, little spirited conversation. Words serve merely as a medium for commands.


A continual exchange of words and ideas within the family has both a cultural and a psychological function. The same is true for the classroom. If parents and teachers do not set a consistent example, the child has no positive model to follow. Where early yearning by the child for communion with adults is unfulfilled, the learning of the alphabet and the subsequent reading of books is often inwardly experienced as an act of separation coming between him and his parents. Although he may have a good potential intelligence, an inner resistance to learning to read already exists. Reading—a highly complex function involving different forms of verification of reality—not only creates a greater distance from the spoken word, but it demands extra activity as well. What we usually call "reading block" is really a learning block, caused in many such cases by the child's unconscious refusal to progress from the promiscuous verbal communication from radio and TV into a private, dialectic relation with the printed word. Hearing a word is passive undergoing; reading a word is active verification. To the child wanting to stick to a close symbiotic relation with either a dominant mother or an easy mechanical means of communication, learning to read is synonymous with increasing interpersonal distance.

I do not want to make my subject too complicated, but it must be stated that often one of the parents, because of his (or her) own communicative inhibition, contaminates the child with an even greater inhibition toward intellectual expansion. Since learning is felt as separation, a "learning block" can be understood as a defensive barrier against a threatening impending loneliness. For these children, television takes the place of a grown-up who is forever patient with him.

The function of the analyzing reading eye is completely different from that of the more passive listening ear. The eye verifies critically and can return to what it has read before for renewed scrutiny. The ear must be more acceptant, even submissive, to what it hears, because it cannot return to what it heard before. While listening and talking are always collective interaction, reading is an individual action in a lonely corner.

A survey in 1958 disclosed that out of 16,000 seventh graders from the New York City schools, 4,000 could not be promoted because of an existing reading block. The reading ability of 25 per cent of the children was at the fourth grade level or lower (New York Times, June 24, 1958). These cases are particularly important because the child guidance counselor can often attain his greatest triumph among them by trying carefully to change the outlook of the family. In some cases, the father can be urged to become a more active family member and to give some private attention to the blocked child. Instead of watching TV, one father learned to play "Scrabble" with his son. This helped both to break through a vicious circle and aided the child to become a more effective reader.

The psychological task here is that of leading the child from the emotional dependency of infancy towards a more objective confrontation of social issues. In several cases, children have overcome reading and learning blocks as a result of a changed and warmer attitude and greater family involvement on the part of the father. In other instances, help has come from the provision of "fatherly" attention from outside the family. The need for men in school guidance work is more crucial than has been recognized.


Psychotherapy postulates that the therapist-patient relationship is the most important factor for effecting personality change and behavioral cure. In the therapeutic relation, older relationships are symbolically relived and can be examined and worked through from a more mature standpoint. The various studies on this phenomenon of transference belong to the most revealing chapters of psychology because they illuminate the tyrannical impact of the earliest patterns of man's relations upon his later life. Usually, the teacher is the first social force from outside the family to take an authoritative part in this molding process. When the teacher is aware of this process of transference in the classroom, of how the child uses him unwittingly to repeat older parental relationships, he will be more conscious of the tremendous impact of his example and the part he has in the total rearing of the child. The example of how we adults live and what we do is often far more important than what we try to teach in words.

The neurotic teacher, for example, who brings in his own unsolved, childish patterns can do the child a lot of harm regardless of the teacher's technical training. I have in mind the hidden hostility, the seductiveness or indifference, the overindulgence, the inconsistency and the other symptoms of the problem teacher. Children feel very keenly their teachers' ambivalence and hypocrisy. In my own psychoanalysis, for example, my awareness of latent homosexual tendencies in one of my grade school teachers played an important role.

At the beginning of every process of understanding stand these primary relationship processes of identification and transference. Something is understood and taken over and grasped intellectually because of affection for a teacher who cares. Without such mutual empathy, words and explanations remain empty. The class group promotes such transference feelings. Many children start to learn by proxy because one enthusiastic youngster inspires them with the right attitude. The skill of the teacher must enable the students to take advantage of this proxy without making a teacher's pet out of the pacemaker.

Various subtle initiation rites can be observed at work within the learning group at school. Through these, some children are taken up into the collective spirit; others are rejected. A number of learning problems are related to this kind of group rejection in the classroom. It is difficult to liberate the scapegoat from the blame heaped upon him unless we teach the class what "man's need to blame" means. This task entails intimacy and warmth in classroom relationships.

Let us consider a little more closely the unique individuality of the child. Giving special attention is not solely a question of time, as many teachers claim. It is as much a question of educational skill. Counseling need not be formalized. It can be done in a personal talk, an unobtrusive encounter after school hours, or during a trip. Such personal contacts, based in genuine but unsentimental concern and maintained as part of a real relationship, can do more to promote positive transference by the pupil than almost any demonstration of sheer pedagogical technique or formalized guidance service.

Similarly, relationships that facilitate learning and personal growth can be developed by imaginative and constructive approaches to recurrent school problems. Cheating provides an example. In many ways, cheating is encouraged through our rigid examination rules and the situation, created through the formalisms of schools, in which teachers and students enter into a kind of game in which one side tries to outwit or outdo the other, one trying to break the rules successfully, the other trying to enforce them to the letter. Why, instead, do we not allow children to help one another in the solution of common problems, including the problems posed by challenging examinations?

A highly compulsive teacher, whom I once had in psychotherapy, complained bitterly about the children's cheating. As she began to shed her need to blame others, I suggested that this tendency to cheat could be transformed into self-directed cooperation with help from her. She instituted the experiment of permitting the youngsters to help each other on their various tests and quizzes. The enthusiasm for learning in the class increased almost at once to a startling degree. The teacher's own responsibility for grading and evaluation became more complex and difficult, but she understood that this was less important than a zestful and positive class spirit. She found that she was teaching not only facts, but how to grasp problems in promising ways and how to learn the facts and ideas relevant to more fully apprehended problems of a meaningfully formulated kind. Having grown honestly curious about how the children would behave without her angry and often sullen interference, she found that her pupils were becoming curious with her about the subjects they were collectively studying.


In the case of this teacher, we have a person who, through psychotherapy, was able to ask why she was failing with her pupils rather than why they were failing—or failing her. The answers she found pointed to her own personality and the interference she was imposing on the learning of her students through her own countertransference feelings.

Obviously, there are many motives for becoming a teacher. They range from a warm and unsentimental love of children, a pleasure in their learning and their development, to hostile and bitter needs to acquire the power and take the place of the teachers we resentfully sat under in our own childhood. On the one hand, teaching can be a means of hiding our own lack of learning capacity or our need to feel bigger, more authoritative, or stronger than others; on the other, it can reflect anything from a need to become a child again with the children or a true selflessness and freedom in giving one's own strength and interest to a needful other person. Usually, of course, these motivational patterns are mixed in different degrees and complicated in both their composition and their expression.

But there is generally a relationship between the subtle workings of the teacher's professional motivations and the morale of his class. For example, the model provided by the teacher is probably the most important factor in determining whether a class can develop a self-directed kind of discipline that lays the foundation for inner freedom and morale. A certain amount of disciplinary training is necessary if youngsters are to win that inner strength that comes from earned self-confidence, trust in the class in which they hold membership, and faith in the comprehension and helpfulness of the teacher. Such disciplinary training can be furnished without taking on the character of harshness or unfairness, however, only when the teacher cares about the children and is deeply interested in their achieving self-direction and a sense of freedom. These attitudes cannot be successfully faked for long; they can be sustained only when they reflect motivational and personality patterns appropriate to a mature person who is himself sufficiently disciplined to be free.

The subtle interaction between discipline and freedom starts in the cradle under the care, hopefully, of loving, interested, and consistent parents. Parents, then, have the first opportunity to contribute to morale and psychological strength and health. Teachers come next, but they often have to compete with institutionalized and formalized rules which, these days, derive largely from the impersonal conditions of a technologized society. When conflicts arise in classroom groups between discipline and morale, one usually finds that their members have been held together by either too much compulsion or too much externally imposed necessity. Such a state of affairs suggests, in turn, a reliance on the depersonalized forms of communication and the conformist pressures of technological overindulgence, built into the personality of an adult. When this happens, the inner coherence of the classroom is completely and unhappily different from that of the coherence of a class spontaneously loyal to a teacher who embodies as well as encourages a disciplined sense of personal identity as the root of responsible and sensitive affiliation with a group.

As in the family, so it is in school experience. The function of discipline is to promote a more contributory form of the individual's integration with the group. In turn, successful indentification with the group develops a stronger personality—that part of the personality that psychoanalysis calls the ego. With ego-development of this kind, personal freedom, the basis of effective learning, begins. Because teachers are models second in importance only to parents (and sometimes even more important than parents), it is vital that they exemplify ego-strength as well as know something about ways of facilitating its development in an educational context.


The goal of education is to improve the quality of living and thinking.

Can we adjust and reconcile people to a rapidly changing world? Did the technical box of Pandora unleash forces that man can no longer control?

Although it is impossible to outline in a short study the various means with which to present the confusing impact of new cultural factors, clinical psychology is astutely aware of the fact that insight, knowledge, and the will to face problems have in themselves a curative and regenerative action. Mutual insight diminishes tension; it teaches people to live together with all their limitations—to try to correct these in themselves but to tolerate them in others.

A free democratic world finds its own answers to problems by building up various controls through trial and error, protecting society against its own foibles and its own failures. Education is a central contributor to this process and must find its own specific answers. Applied psychology will not only be used for the students but also for teachers to help them to resolve their own problems.

The future guild of teachers has to teach the world how to convert the manifold "isms," principles, and ideologies into the patient wisdom of repetitious tactics and probable compromises. And let them not forget that the reasonable man is a lonely man. He cannot be too gregarious because he must constantly defend his individual integrity against an encroaching and depersonalizing world.

The technical age has put before us enormous new challenges, asking of men unfamiliar forms of awareness in order to control the tremendous forces they have unleashed. It is to these challenges to our very personhood that education must most creatively respond.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 62 Number 8, 1961, p. 589-589
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3205, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 4:14:48 AM

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