[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'One Nation Under Therapy': They Don't Feel Your Pain
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'One Nation Under Therapy': They Don't Feel Your Pain
New York Times Book Review, 5.5.1
[First chapter appended.]
By ALISSA QUART
ONE NATION UNDER THERAPY
How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance.
By Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel.
310 pp. St. Martin's Press. $23.95.
THE alarmist nonfiction book is a staple of publishing. In fact, it
is such a staple that it has its own backlash genre, the anti-alarmist
alarmist book. Anti-alarmist alarmist books argue the counterintuitive
points: that the kids are all right, that everything is getting better
not worse, and that we have nothing to fear but therapy itself.
Christine Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel's ''One Nation Under Therapy:
How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance'' is one of the
latest examples, joining a canon that includes ''The Myth of
Self-Esteem,'' ''The Progress Paradox'' and ''The Culture of Fear.''
According to Sommers and Satel, our self-pity and self-concern are
doing something far worse than simply annoying our friends.
Self-absorption, they claim, is destroying America.
''The American Creed that has sustained the nation is now under
powerful assault by the apostles of therapism,'' they write. ''The
fateful question is: Will Americans actively defend the traditional
creed of stoicism and the ideology of achievement or will they
continue to allow the nation to slide into therapeutic self-absorption
and moral debility?''
In their fight against this moral debility, Sommers, the author of
''The War Against Boys'' and ''Who Stole Feminism?,'' and Satel, a
psychiatrist and the author of ''P.C., M.D.: How Political Correctness
Is Corrupting Medicine'' (both are resident scholars at the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington), coin a word to describe their
enemy: ''therapism,'' defined as the tendency to valorize ''openness,
emotional self-absorption and the sharing of feelings.'' Therapism has
many tentacles, exemplified by a huge collection of counselors so
caricatured here that they resemble Al Franken's touchy-feely
''Saturday Night Live'' creation Stuart Smalley. Therapism is the
force behind the ''brain disease'' explanations of drug addiction that
the authors say let addicts off the hook. It is also implicit in ''the
perils of overthinking.'' (I was concerned to discover my tendency to
overthink could be hazardous to my health, although I consoled myself
with the knowledge that most of the Upper West Side was overthinking
Chapter titles, like ''The Myth of the Fragile Child'' and ''September
11, 2001: The Mental Health Crisis That Wasn't,'' convey a Grinch-like
tone. And the book just gets frostier. Sommers and Satel are most
nontherapeutic (read: coldest) when they go after educators for
coddling children, in particular with the ''emotionally correct''
treatment of students after 9/11. In fact, the authors excoriate the
National Education Association for seeing the attack ''mainly in terms
of the threat it posed to children's mental health.'' And they reserve
a Dickensian harshness for educators' attempts to build their
students' self-esteem: ''Those who encourage children to 'feel good
about themselves' may be cheating them, unwittingly, out of becoming
the kind of conscientious, humane and enlightened people Mill had in
mind'' -- referring to the rigorously educated John Stuart Mill, a
scholar at 8. Sentences like these make one glad that neither author
After their toughen-up-the-children crusade, Sommers and Satel move on
to people with cancer. They praise only sufferers who refrain from
exploring their emotions, like the columnist Molly Ivins, extolled for
her ''spirited refusal to open up'' after she learned she had breast
cancer. Then it's survivors of war crimes; only those who refuse to
see themselves as traumatized earn the authors' approval. They also
present accounts of Ugandans and Cambodians who have suffered
atrocities but nevertheless ''functioned well'' despite their
post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
There's a lot of information in here, typically newspaper anecdotes
dolled up with quotations from Mill. But information doesn't add up to
cogent analysis. It also doesn't add up to a solution for the problem
of national self-absorption. The main remedy Sommers and Satel put
forward is that people should take responsibility for themselves. The
book imagines self-reliance to be an antidote to self-obsession, a bit
of a problem since self-absorption and self-reliance are both forms of
selfishness. Let's say, for instance, you quit therapy and at the same
time stop ruminating and writing memoirs (self-absorption) to become a
careerist professional or perhaps a world traveler. You may achieve
equanimity but lose contact with others (self-reliance). But is one of
two self-oriented life strategies really superior to the other?
To be sure, not all of the book's arguments are so gratuitously
grouchy. And to their credit, Sommers and Satel summon copious
examples of the excesses of therapy and its related industries, from
the tale of a research professor of psychology who had grief
counseling foisted upon him by a funeral home to a school exercise
that encourages children to share their fears about playing tag. They
are also particularly astute when drawing the line between the idea of
the self held by moral philosophers who ''attribute unacceptable
conduct to flawed character, weakness of will, failure of conscience
or bad faith'' and the therapeutic idea of self, where personal
shortcomings are maladies, syndromes and disorders. This distinction
is useful. We tend to forget that psychology is just another system of
knowledge, like moral philosophy (or reality television). Like any
other discipline or genre, it has limits, and it is worth remembering
that there are other ways for us to think of what we are and what a
Indeed, therapy is so popular, in part because of its intimacy, that
the therapeutic way of thinking can easily be be exploited and
degraded. Occasionally, debunking therapeutic culture is both good and
necessary, which is why ''One Nation Under Therapy'' seems refreshing
at first, perhaps even up to the task of shrinking therapy-induced
panics and diagnostic trends down to size, in the tradition of books
like Elaine Showalter's ''Hystories'' and Joan Acocella's ''Creating
Hysteria.'' But soon it becomes all too clear that Sommers and Satel
are interested not in exploring how psychoanalysis has degenerated
into vulgar self-help but in starting an emotional temperance
They are also waging a dated war against an imagined army of
censorious liberals, attacking ''sensitivity and bias committees'' in
publishing houses, state governments, test-writing companies and in
groups like the American Psychological Association. According to the
authors, this Axis of Snivel is responsible for a therapized
''powerful censorship regime.'' This is a notion that seems to spring
from the Bush I era, as does one of the book's section headings: ''How
Therapism and Multiculturalism Circumvent Morality.'' ''One Nation
Under Therapy'' is not just anti-alarmist alarmist nonfiction. It is
Quaint cultural conservatism aside, what would happen if we took the
advice of ''One Nation Under Therapy'' to heart? We might get more
work done, although we'd think less. We'd show our children tough love
and, presumably, foster a new generation of tough-love advocates. But
we might also create a society of diminished passions and
sensitivities. Even for Sommers and Satel, this might not be a welcome
development. After all, once we were all self-reliant and free of
anxiety, we would no longer need the reassurance of books like theirs.
Alissa Quart is the author of ''Branded: The Buying and Selling of
First Chapter: 'One Nation Under Therapy'
By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS and SALLY SATEL
The Myth of the Fragile Child
In 2001, the Girl Scouts of America introduced a "Stress Less Badge"
for girls aged eight to eleven. It featured an embroidered hammock
suspended from two green trees. According to the Junior Girl Scout
Badge Book, girls earn the award by practicing "focused breathing,"
creating a personal "stress less kit," or keeping a "feelings diary."
Burning ocean-scented candles, listening to "Sounds of the Rain
Forest," even exchanging foot massages are also ways to garner points.
Explaining the need for the Stress Less Badge to the New York Times, a
psychologist from the Girl Scout Research Institute said that studies
show "how stressed girls are today." Earning an antistress badge,
however, can itself be stressful. The Times reported that tension
increased in Brownie Troop 459 in Sunnyvale, California, when the
girls attempted to make "anti-anxiety squeeze balls out of balloons
and Play-Doh." According to Lindsay, one of the Brownies, "The
Play-Doh was too oily and disintegrated the balloon. It was very
The psychologist who worried about Lindsay and her fellow Girls Scouts
is not alone. Anxiety over the mental equanimity of American children
is at an all-time high. In May of 2002, the principal of Franklin
Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, sent a newsletter to
parents informing them that children could no longer play tag during
the lunch recess. As she explained, "The running part of this activity
is healthy and encouraged; however, in this game, there is a 'victim'
or 'It,' which creates a sell-esteem issue."
School districts in Texas, Maryland, New York, and Virginia "have
banned, limited, or discouraged" dodgeball. "Anytime you throw an
object at somebody," said an elementary school coach in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, "it creates an environment of retaliation and
resentment." Coaches who permit children to play dodgeball "should be
fired immediately," according to the physical education chairman at
Central High School in Naperville, Illinois.
In response to this attack on dodgeball, Rick Reilly, the Sports
Illustrated columnist, chided parents who want "their Ambers and their
Alexanders to grow up in a cozy womb of non-competition." Reillv
responds to educators like the Naperville chairman of physical
education by saying, "You mean there's weak in the world? There's
strong? Of course there is, and dodgeball is one of the first
opportunities in life to figure out which one you are and how you're
going to deal with it."
Reilly's words may resonate comfortably with many of his readers, and
with most children as well; but progressive educators tend to dismiss
his reaction as just another expression of a benighted opposition to
the changes needed if education is to become truly caring and
sensitive. This movement against stressful games gained momentum after
the publication of an article by Neil Williams, professor of physical
education at Eastern Connecticut State College, in a journal sponsored
by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education, which
represents nearly eighteen thousand gym teachers and physical
education professors. In the article, Williams consigned games such as
Red Rover, relay races, and musical chairs to "the Hall of Shame."
Why? Because the games are based on removing the weakest links.
Presumably, this undercuts children's emotional development and erodes
In a follow-up article, Williams also pointed to a sinister aspect of
Simon Says. "The major problem," he wrote, "is that the teacher is
doing his or her best to deceive and entrap students." He added that
psychologically this game is the equivalent of teachers demonstrating
the perils of electricity to students "by jolting them with an
electric current if they touch the wrong button." The new therapeutic
sensibility rejects almost all forms of competition in favor of a
gentle and nurturing climate of cooperation.
Which games, then, are safe and affirming? Some professionals in
physical education advocate activities in which children compete only
with themselves such as juggling, unicycling, pogo sticking, and even
"learning to ... manipulate wheelchairs with ease." In a game like
juggling there is no threat of elimination. But experts warn teachers
to be judicious in their choice of juggling objects. A former member
of The President's Council on Youth Fitness and Sports suggests using
silken scarves rather than, say, uncooperative tennis balls that lead
to frustration and anxiety. "Scarves," he told the Los Angeles Times,
"are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly." As the head of a
middle school physical education program in Van Nuys, California,
points out, juggling scarves "lessens performance anxiety and boosts
self-esteem." Writer John Leo, like Reilly, satirized the
gentle-juggling culture by proposing a stress-free version of musical
Why not make sure each child has a guaranteed seat for musical
chairs? With proper seating, the source of tension is removed.
Children can just relax, enjoy the music and talk about the
positive feelings that come from being included.
Leo was kidding. But the authors of a popular 1998 government-financed
antibullying curriculum guide called Quit It! were not. One exercise
intended for kindergarten through third grade instructs teachers on
how to introduce children to a new way to play tag:
Before going outside to play, talk about how students feel when
playing a game of tag. Do they like to be chased? Do they like to
do the chasing? How does it feel to be tagged out? Get their ideas
about other ways the game might be played.
After students share their fears and apprehensions about tag, teachers
may introduce them to a nonthreatening alternative called "Circle of
Friends" where "nobody is ever 'out.'" If students become overexcited
or angry while playing Circle of Friends, the guide recommends using
stress-reducing exercises to "help the transition from active play to
focused work." Reading through Quit It!, you have to remind yourself
that it is not satire, nor is it intended for emotionally disturbed
children. It is intended for normal five- to seven-year-olds in our
Our Sensitive and Vulnerable Youth
But is overprotectiveness really such a bad thing? Sooner or later
children will face stressful situations, disappointments, and threats
to their self-esteem. Why not shield them from the inevitable as long
as possible? The answer is that overprotected kids do not flourish. To
treat them as combustible bundles of frayed nerves does them no
favors. Instead it deprives them of what they need.
Children must have independent, competitive rough-and-tumble play. Not
only do they enjoy it, it is part of their normal development. Anthony
Pellegrini, a professor of early childhood education at the University
of Minnesota, defines rough-and-tumble play as behavior that includes
"laughing, running, smiling, jumping ... wrestling, play fighting,
chasing, and fleeing." Such play, he says, brings children together,
it makes them happy and it promotes healthy socialization. Children
who are adept at rough play also "tend to be liked and to be good
social problem solvers." Commenting on the recent moves to ban
competitive zero-sum playground games like tag, Pelligrini told us,
"It is ridiculous ... even squirrels play chase." The zealous
protectiveness is not confined to the playground. In her eye-opening
book The Language Police, Diane Ravitch shows how a once-commendable
program aimed at making classroom materials less sexist and racist has
morphed into a powerful censorship regime. "Sensitivity and bias"
committees, residing in publishing houses, state governments,
test-writing companies, and in groups like the American Psychological
Association, now police textbooks and other classroom materials,
scouring them for any reference or assertion that could possibly make
some young reader feel upset, insecure, or shortchanged in life.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Ravitch to an honorary
education committee charged with developing national achievement
tests. The Department of Education had awarded a multimillion-dollar
contract to Riverside Publishing, a major testing company and a
subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin, to compose the exam. Ravitch and her
committee were there to provide oversight.
As part of the process, the Riverside test developers sent Ravitch and
her fellow committee members, mostly veteran teachers, several sample
reading selections. The committee reviewed them carefully and selected
the ones they considered the most lucid, engaging, and appropriate for
fourth-grade test takers. Congress eventually abandoned the idea of
national tests. However, Ravitch learned that several of the passages
she and her colleagues had selected had not survived the scrutiny of
the Riverside censors.
For example, two of the selections that got high marks from Ravitch
and her colleagues were about peanuts. Readers learned that they were
a healthy snack and had first been cultivated by South American
Indians and then, after the Spanish conquest, were imported into
Europe. The passage explained how peanuts became important in the
United States, where they were planted and cultivated by African
slaves. It told of George Washington Carver, the black inventor and
scientist, who found many new uses for peanuts.
The Riverside sensitivity monitors had a field day. First of all, they
said, peanuts are not a healthy snack for all children. Some are
allergic. According to Ravitch, "The reviewers apparently assumed that
a fourth-grade student who was allergic to peanuts might get
distracted if he or she encountered a test question that did not
acknowledge the dangers of peanuts."
The panel was also unhappy that the reading spoke of the Spaniards
having "defeated" the South American tribes. Its members did not
question the accuracy of the claim, but Ravitch surmises, "They must
have concluded that these facts would hurt someone's feelings."
Perhaps they thought that some child of South American Indian descent
who came upon this information would feel slighted, and so suffer a
disadvantage in taking the test.
Ravitch's group had especially liked a story about a decaying tree
stump on the forest floor and how it becomes home to an immense
variety of plants, insects, birds, and animals. The passage compared
the stump to a bustling apartment complex. Ravitch and the other
committee members enjoyed its charm and verve. It also taught children
about a fascinating ecology. But the twenty sensitivity panelists at
Riverside voted unanimously against it: "Youngsters who have grown up
in a housing project may be distracted by similarities to their own
living conditions. An emotional response may be triggered."
Ravitch presents clear evidence that our schools are in the grip of
powerful sensitivity censors who appear to be completely lacking in
good judgment and are accountable to no one but themselves. She could
find no evidence that sensitivity censorship of school materials helps
children. On the contrary, the abridged texts are enervating. "How
boring," she says, "for students to be restricted only to stories that
flatter their self-esteem or that purge complexity and unpleasant
reality from history and current events."
The idea that kids can cope with only the blandest of stories is
preposterous. Staples like "Little Red Riding Hood," "Jack and the
Beanstalk," and "Hansel and Gretel" delight children despite (or
because of) their ghoulish aspects. Kids love to hear ghost stories on
Halloween and to ride roller coasters, screaming as they hurtle down
the inclines. Therapeutic protectiveness is like putting blinders on
children before taking them for a walk through a vibrant countryside.
Excessive concern over imagined harms can hinder children's natural
development. Moreover, in seeking to solve nonexistent problems, it
distracts teachers from focusing on their true mission-to educate
children and to prepare them to be effective adults. Commenting on
Ravitch's findings, Jonathan Yardley, columnist and book critic at the
Washington Post, wrote, "A child with a rare disease may have to be
put in a bubble, but putting the entire American system of elementary
and secondary education into one borders on insanity."
Many American teachers seem to believe children must be spared even
the mildest criticism. Kevin Miller, a professor of psychology at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has studied differences
between Chinese and American pedagogy. In one of his videotapes, a
group of children in a math class in China are learning about place
values. The teacher asks a boy to make the number 14 using one bundle
of ten sticks along with some single sticks, and the child uses only
the bundle. The teacher then asks the class, in a calm, noncensorious
tone, "Who can tell me what is wrong with this?" When Miller shows the
video to American teachers, they are taken aback. They find it
surprising to see an instructor being so openly critical of a
student's performance. "Most of the teachers in training we've shown
this to express the worry that this could be damaging to children's
self-esteem," Miller reports. Even the minority of American student
teachers who don't disapprove of the practice agree that the practice
of giving students explicit feedback in public "contravenes what we do
in the U.S."
Rossella Santagata, a research psychologist at LessonLab in Santa
Monica, California, has studied how American and Italian teachers
differ in their reactions to students' mistakes. Italian teachers are
very direct: they have no qualms about telling students their answer
is wrong. In so doing, they violate all of the sensitivity standards
that prevail in the United States. Santagata has a videotape of a
typical exchange between an American math teacher and a student. An
eighth grader named Steve is supposed to give the prime factors of the
number 34; instead he lists all the factors. It is not easy for the
teacher to be affirmative about Steve's answer. But she finds a way,
"Okay. Now Steve you're exactly right that those are all factors.
Prime factorization means that you only list the numbers that are
prime. So can you modify your answer to make it all only prime
numbers?" (Emphasis in original.)
Santagata told us that when she shows this exchange to audiences of
Italian researchers, they find the teachers strained response
("exactly right") hysterically funny. By contrast, American
researchers see nothing unusual or amusing-because, as Santagata says,
"Such reactions are normal."
Even college students are not exempt from this new solicitude. . . .
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