The ignorant therapist: Psychotherapist as teacher
by Alex Delogu
Pedagogy and psychotherapy have some similar aims, to facilitate the growth and development of minds. Carl Rogers was quite interested in how his humanistic therapy could be applied to teaching, or even how one could develop a more therapeutic form of teaching (1961). His views were controversial at the time, although they were not entirely new. This article would like to introduce the story of a teacher, Jacotot, who developed a ‘therapeutic’ way of teaching. Though his goal was not therapeutic it will become clear how his work relates to therapy now. The conclusions of his work are startlingly similar to those of Rogers. There were also some marked differences which will also be discussed, all with the aim of bringing about some new perspectives through this meeting across time.
The idea that a ‘psychotherapist is a teacher’ is one that is justifiably disregarded as something that runs contrary to the core of therapeutic work. This disregard is based on the idea that ‘to educate’ is to transfer knowledge from the ‘knower’ to the one who does not know, thereby setting up an imbalance of power. The therapist certainly does not know more about the client than the client, so what could the therapist possibly have to teach them? Some therapists may want to teach their clients about matters relating to emotional development and the physiology of emotion. There are of course therapies that lean more on this type of psycho-education than others and moments of clarification tend to come up quite naturally throughout the course of therapy. However, the most significant parts of the therapeutic process are not happening in this way in relational based therapies, they are happening through the development of an equal relationship. From this perspective it is understandable that the traditional view of teaching is at odds with the therapeutic process. This work will introduce an alternative to this view of teaching and show how this alternative can have a more amicable relationship with psychotherapy.
In On Becoming a Person (1961: 273-275) Carl Rogers describes a rather amusing yet serious situation that arose at an event at which he was invited to speak. The conference was about education, and Rogers had been invited to talk about his views on teaching as influenced by his therapeutic work. He was unsure about what exactly he was going to present on. The content of what he finally decided on was not meant to be shocking, but based simply on his therapeutic observations, in the hope that they might arouse some discussion and curiosity regarding the process of teaching. His talk exploded. He had not expected such outrage over his observations, though it can clearly be seen that his observations certainly do not flatter the teaching profession.
Some of the key points of relevance are that Rogers viewed teaching as an inconsequential process and even harmful in some sense. He thought that when teaching had succeeded that this was in fact damaging. Real learning for Rogers needed to be self-directed, not imposed from without. It was important that this self-directed learning was based on continued experiential processes, ones that were of a kind that could hardly be communicated, if at all. Based on these observations Rogers had become altogether weary of teaching, preferring to simply continue on as a learner (1961: 276-277). It is easy to see why these conclusions might be seen as inflammatory to people who had no doubt invested much of their life to this profession, and curious to think how Rogers did not foresee this.
Rogers wrote more about teaching than there is space to include here, suffice to say this serves simply as an introduction to what will follow. Some startlingly similar conclusions had been reached before Rogers commented, although on that occasion from within the teaching profession itself, and though they were equally explosive at the time, it should be apparent that these conclusions also have therapeutic import. It is fascinating in itself how these sorts of approaches keep getting rediscovered in different generations. For a modern version of this discovery the work of Mary Roche (2015) is relevant. She pioneered the use of picturebooks as a grounding device that allow for open-ended reflection, facilitating critical thinking and showing long-term positive experiences for students.
The ignorant schoolmaster
In 1991 an English translation of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster was released. This book recounts a chance discovery by professor Joseph Jacotot in the early 1800s. Jacotot was a professor of French literature, with a background in the military, and taught topics as varied as transcendental mathematics and ancient languages. The context of his discovery was that following political unrest in France, he was in exile in Belgium where he acquired a teaching position. Though he spoke no Flemish, and his students had little French, he attempted to teach them in some way. His first step was to find some common ground, so he prescribed a soon to be published bilingual edition of Télémaque, a well- known French novel of the time.
Jacotot instructed his students to learn the French with the help of the Flemish translation. When they had done this, he asked them to present their thoughts on what they had read. This was the moment of discovery, for Jacotot expected barely coherent attempts at explanations in the new language. What he found however was that their attempts far exceeded his expectations. They had managed to learn French using their own intelligence and determination. The discovery was this: one did not need to know in order to teach (Rancière, 1991: 14). He had taught them French, but not because he had transmitted his knowledge to them. They had done it themselves, with their own intelligence, by simply following his suggestion. Any information, so long as it is available, is free to be understood by anyone who wants to learn.
Jacotot’s method was quite simple. He would ask his students questions like “what do you think about it?” (Rancière, 1991: 36). He would allow them to improvise and speak freely about the topics under discussion or write about them. It was important to create a situation in which the intelligence of each person was deemed to be equal, precisely by letting them show their thoughts and exercise that intelligence. This was not an ‘anything goes’ situation. Every step could be verified along the way. The book was there, Télémaque for example, so that it could be shown where the reasonings had come from. The use of the book, as something with which to compare and contrast thoughts, acted as a grounding device to the student’s explorations. The book was there for everyone to see. Thoughts could be verified through its presence.
This turned the traditional view of teaching, as the transmission of knowledge, on its head. The process of transmission was now seen under a new light, that it fostered inequality rather than bringing people closer together. It set up a divide between those people who know and those who do not. Those who know have gone through the ‘necessary’ difficult educational steps toward understanding, forgetting each step along the way. By making this assumption that some people understand, its correlate arises, that there are people who have not understood or cannot understand. “To explain something to someone is first of all to show him he cannot understand it by himself”, as Rancière succinctly puts it (1991:6). He termed this “stultification” (1991:7), where someone’s intelligence is deemed to be lesser than that of others. This stultifying relationship is then internalised as beliefs about an inability to learn.
The fundamental assumption of this new teaching method is that everyone has equal intelligence. Intelligence is not measured by the breadth of one’s knowledge, which is undoubtedly varied for everyone, but by the inherent capacity to think and learn. Just as every child learns their native tongue without instruction, they can also learn anything else. This process whereby one is brought into contact with their own intelligence he named “emancipation” (1991: 13). This is the realisation and acceptance that one is intelligent and the task of the teacher is to awaken this awareness within everyone with a little direction. The technique was politically poignant in that it meant people of all socio-economic backgrounds could learn.
The ignorant therapist
Ignorance is a necessity for a psychotherapist. To be clear, ignorance is simply a lack of knowledge about a certain thing. It is not the wilful and deliberate avoidance of facts, though the term ignorant is often used with this meaning. Some prefer to use the term “not knowing” rather than “ignorance” (Casement, 1985: 4) though this seems to be more a matter of personal choice.
As mentioned, a therapist does not know more about any client’s life. Accepting this state of ignorance can be difficult, as it brings its own discomfort, but this discomfort can be necessary to allow new things to spring forth. Pretending to understand prematurely can inhibit further growth and often acts to bolster the ego if one wants to be seen as the one who has the answers. Even when correct, answers and understanding are best kept open-ended.
The emancipatory method of teaching outlined above allows for a much closer alliance between psychotherapy and teaching. Both involve open-ended questions, and improvisatory responses, there are no right or wrong answers, though some come closer to reality than others. Both are aiming to foster a meeting between equals and both are trying to avoid the binary trap of professional and amateur, master and slave. And both are trying to learn and grow from experience. Both teacher and therapist are themselves continuous learners.
So, while Rogers chose to jettison teaching, he was only getting rid of one type of teaching, one that truly did run counter to the therapeutic process. The damage he thinks teaching does is, in my opinion, the same as the process of stultification that Rancière mentions. It is damaging to the experience of one’s human capacity to learn. By constantly having to answer in a specific way, a way that is correct, any incorrect thought is regarded as wrong. These thoughts are then rejected and so one can begin to reject parts of one’s own thinking and even come to think that intelligence is lacking. There are countless typical anecdotal examples of this misattunement between teacher and pupil that leave the pupil thinking they are no good at a specific subject. Also, the experience of being valued for something one does not care about can be confusing. That is, often people are rewarded for doing things that they do not really care for.
Another issue this raises is the method of Socratic questioning, where the ‘correct’ answer is known and the questions are intended to direct towards it. This style of questioning runs counter to learning in a way that honours the intelligence of the responder. It dismisses intelligent responses because they are not the correct responses. This is no doubt a stultifying experience. As a therapist it is challenging to maintain the stance of not knowing when asking a question. To ask a question and to not have an opinion about what one is asking about, at least not a rigid one, is a challenge in itself. Asking questions about things one has no clue about, is to acknowledge one’s ignorance and be open to learning.
An important difference between the two ways of working revolves around a central theme. In teaching as in therapy, there is a thing to be learnt about. In teaching, it is a book or a language, and in the case presented above the information in the book is visible to all who care to look. That might be called a perfect information system, where all the information is available to everyone. In therapy, it is the client and their situation in life which is to be learnt about. But this is not open to view. People will present a version of their life and have a narrative of their life that will possess varying degrees of correspondence to their current life situation. That is, some might have wild ideas about their world that correspond quite poorly to the events they describe, while others might have a fairly accurate take on their own world. And others still might be actively trying to deceive the therapist.
This essay has identified a particular tension between teaching and psychotherapy. Traditionally psychotherapy has distanced itself from teaching, as we see from Rogers above. So, what does it mean for psychotherapy to embrace the style of teaching outlined here? I don’t want to give the impression that the work of Rancière provides us with some new method of doing therapy. A lot of what has been described has been talked about in depth within the therapeutic world itself, especially around the political dynamics of the expert and the amateur. However, I think it offers a fresh perspective on how those dynamics operate. Instead of getting into more theory on how that is, I would like to tell of two examples that will bring some life to the topic.
My first example is a personal one and will serve as a cautionary remark on the emancipatory method. This method relies largely on questioning and the goal is largely intellectual. As a therapist it is important to be aware of this, but equally important is how questions are being asked. I was having a heated discussion with someone close to me and I had asked a question in an attempt to prompt some thinking. It was very much a Socratic question because I had responses to my question already formulated in my head. The response I received was, to paraphrase, ‘it sounds like you already have an answer to that question’. What an astute observation. This response really made me reflect on how I am when I am asking something. Am I really open to hear what someone has to say, or am I asking to prompt something I want to hear? Someone I was not so close to might not have responded in such a candid way, so I think it is especially important to be aware of one’s intention with clients. It is so easy for ideas and suggestions to slip into definitive statements and quite a challenge to keep ideas simply suggestive and open-ended.
My second example has to do with the imbalance of power around expertise. This was exemplified to me by a client I worked with who I shall call Steven. Steven was the primary carer for his daughter who had a rare mental disability. The rarity of the disability meant that there was no one in the country who could give reliable, optimistic advice. No one knew his daughter better than he did and yet the care team his daughter frequented would not seriously listen to much of the advice Steven had. Steven knew what would help his daughter develop and improve in her life. This example shows two failures of expertise. First, the painful absence of anyone who knew what the best course of care was, barring Steven himself. Second, in this absence, the denial of this man’s helpful insight and intuition by the care team he was relying on. Now I don’t mean to say that we should not listen to people who have expertise, it is about how the mechanics of expertise can affect relationships. This example is about how the intelligence of this man and his heroic compassion were missed by professionals.
There is a shift away from this top-down planning with Collaborative Care Planning in the field of psychiatry. This is a type of care planning that consults with the person receiving care and other people in that person’s life. The idea is to shift the top-down approach as seen in Steven’s case above to a more holistic approach where treatment is not imposed on someone, but created and participated in. It embodies the assumption of universal intelligence outlined earlier by Rancière.
Relational psychotherapy is often thought to not have much in common with teaching. It is clear that this depends heavily on what style of teaching one is referring to. The more open-ended version of teaching presented here, i.e. the emancipatory method, shares a lot in common with psychotherapeutic practice and offers a fresh perspective on how psychotherapy and teaching can co-exist. The psychotherapist can teach someone about themselves not because they know more about them but because they are themselves willing to learn about the other and themselves Rogers also suggested that a teaching more in tune with people should take this direction and I gather he would be quite in agreement with this method since there are so many points of agreement. The assumption of people’s intelligence is very similar to universal positive regard, among other things. There is much more that could be said about the similarity between the two but in line with the approach heretofore described, that everyone has the capacity to think deeply about this, I leave it up to the reader if they wish to explore it further.
Alex Delogu is a practising therapist in South Dublin, qualified through DBS and interested in issues around philosophy and psychotherapy.
Casement, P. (1985). On learning from the patient. New York: Routledge.
Rancière, J. (1991). The ignorant schoolmaster: Five lessons in intellectual emancipation. (K. Ross Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Roche, M. (2015). Developing children’s critical thinking through picturebooks. New York: Routledge.
Rogers, C. (1961). On becoming a person. New York: Mariner Books.