[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.]


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
    as well.)

    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
    teaches kindergarten.

    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
    self is.

    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
    culture-wars kitsch.

    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'


    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
    their self-esteem.

    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
    nation's schools.

    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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