Did Rogers Have Doubts? Or Was He What Maslow Called a True Believer?

Author: W.R. Coulson Ph.D.


La Jolla Program Newsletter (LJP), April, 1992

On January 27, through the good offices of Eagle Forum of Alabama, we were interviewed on that state's nine-station public television network. Much of our criticism of humanistic education over the last 15 years was adeptly challenged by host Lynn Sampson, including our usual claim that Carl Rogers was plenty serious when he called the results of Rogerianism in the schools a "pattern of failure."

In this issue, which is essentially a transcription of the early part of the video tape of the interview, the issue of Rogers' doubts is addressed only in passing. Next month, in completing the transcript, we begin to offer evidence of the disasters Rogers and his staff, including the publications arm of the La Jolla Program, were forced to confront—disasters that followers of Rogers still want to discount.

For now, please be assured that when we say below that it's false to suggest "Carl Rogers never had any doubts about what did," concrete evidence is available to back up our claim.

For now one brief example, taken from the tape of a session with Rogers at the La Jolla Program in the summer of 1976 (first published, with his permission, two years later). He was talking about the movement first called non-directive counseling, then client-centered therapy and finally the person-centered approach:

Rogers [responding to the question "One of the things that really concerns me a great deal is that I don't know of any movement in history that hasn't contained within it the seeds of its own downfall."] And so I often wonder, what the hell are the, um [pause], you know, the flaws in my own thinking, in my own mode of approach to people, that perhaps will produce in the long run the opposite kind of results from what I want? And I don't know the answer to that, but I think about it a great deal."

Announcer: Alabama's in-depth source for statewide news, this is For the Record.

Host: Good evening. Thank you for joining us. Our topic for tonight's program is a bit far afield from our usual broadcast topics. Psychological and educational theory are extremely difficult to understand, even in a doctoral program of learning. We'll not presume to explain these topics in a mere 30-minute broadcast. But we will discuss and attempt to analyse one specific learning method, that of process education or humanistic education, with tonight's guest.

W. R. Coulson is a licensed psychologist. He holds doctorates from the University of Notre Dame and also from the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1960s, Dr. Coulson worked as a research associate with Drs. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow in the study of process education and self-actualization.

However, in spite of his work in the Sixties in the furthering of these theories, Dr. Coulson now espouses a totally different viewpoint. He's currently on a three-day speaking tour in Alabama, coordinated by Eagle Forum of Alabama. [To Guest:] And we appreciate your being here with us tonight.

Guest: Thank you, Lynn.

Host: Before we begin our discussion of the arguments for and against the educational theories which your name has been linked with and which you question, let's define them. Briefly, how did Drs. Rogers and Maslow define their theories and what were these theories?

Guest: They had in common the idea that we live in times of rapid social change and that the old answers no longer apply; and that, better than authoritative teaching, from a podium to a group of eager student listeners, would be discussion.

Dr. Maslow was never quite as high on the idea as Dr. Rogers and I were. Maslow was working on the East Coast at Brandeis University and very soon saw that his theories were undercutting the basis of his own authority in the classroom. In January 1969, 18 months before he died, he wrote in his journals (which unfortunately didn't come out for another nine years), My students are losing the traditional Jewish respect for learning, for knowledge and for teachers. And he saw it spelling the end of the professions, the end of real, solid learning. Because, as a matter of fact, the way you become a professional is first to learn every good thing that your teacher has to teach.

But teachers were withholding direction in the name of something more "therapeutic." And that's where Dr. Rogers and I came in.

Dr. Rogers was the inventor of a method of psychotherapy called, first, non-directive counseling and then client-centered therapy.

Host: And this was taken into the classroom?

Guest: We took it into the classroom, Rogers and I on the West Coast while Maslow was doing it in the east. There were some 60 of us involved; I was the project coordinator and Rogers was the principal investigator. As it happens, we brought it into Catholic schools. And there is no more school system. It fell apart. The kids and the teachers no longer wanted to be under authority. We finally realized that, in fact, all practical learning is under authority: one listens to one's teacher and then tries to go beyond the teacher, but first you have to listen.

Host: You have said that Dr. Rogers reversed his opinion in later years; and yet you've been criticized for this observation. As you're probably aware, Howard Kirschenbaum wrote two books about Dr. Carl Rogers and his theories, and he basically says your approach is one of "a revisionist historian." He wrote in an article in the Journal of Counseling and Development that you took one singular aspect of Dr. Rogers work out of context. He writes that Dr. Rogers did change his group-oriented approach to a slightly more structured form; but, Kirschenbaum says, Dr. Rogers basically maintained his belief that his theory was valid.

Guest: Dr. Kirschenbaum is describing a man, frankly, that I don't recognize, a man who could not have been a scientist. Dr. Kirschenbaum says in his article that Carl Rogers never had any doubts about what did. Yet the results were so destructive that it makes him into a kind of monster to say that he never saw anything to change his mind about.

Dr. Rogers wrote in 1983 about the whole experiment, as being "a pattern of failure." Kirschenbaum says he was only talking about one episode in the early 1970s. That really was not true. If anybody wants to read Rogers' book, it's called Freedom to Learn for the 80's, and Dr. Rogers describes a series of six tragic failures of his theory to prove itself. Kirschenbaum ignores that completely

One thing I have to note here, Lynn, is that Kirschenbaum works for the publisher of the most widely distributed program of process education. I don't fault him for what he's doing: it's just the job he's been paid to do. But you don't do science by hiring somebody to misrepresent a person such as Carl Rogers.

Host: Well, doesn't the fact that you've changed your mind—that you are exploring and looking at other options and considering other approaches and alternatives—sort of reinforce or lend credence to the very theory that you're opposed to?

Guest: Dr. Rogers and I kept our eyes open. We had a scientific hypothesis, and we put it to a test—we put it to a series of tests. The tests failed, one after another, and finally we had to say that something we had proposed was wrong. There's no purpose in continuing to do the experiment when it's little children that are paying the price.

A year ago this date, the Centers for Disease Control came out with a notice that almost twice as many young women were losing their virginity before the age of 19 these days as in the year 1970. In 1970 it was the case that 28.6 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds had sacrificed their virginity to sexual experimentation. By 1988 it was 51.5 percent.

Host: Does that have something to do with process education?

Guest: Sure it does. Process education says that a thing becomes right if you decide that it's right: it's not important for you to do what someone else says is right but for you to search within yourself, locate your feelings and your own values, and then decide what's right according to your own values.

Host: Are there other factors and variables involved other than process education? I mean, surely all school systems don't espouse process education. There are other factors that can contribute to the rise in teenage pregnancy.

Guest: That's true, and that's why we do controlled scientific experiments. In an experiment you want to hold the other factors constant. So you create a design in which some children are assigned to the treatment condition and some are kept out of the treatment in control groups. Afterward you assess the differences between them, and you are permitted to assume that the differences that emerge are the result of the treatment.

Process education has consistently been found to produce more of what none of us want more of: more sexual activity by children and more drug experimentation.

Host: Are there studies that prove this?

Guest: Oh, sure. In the Journal of Preventive Medicine, for example, 1988, Volume 17, an article by William Hansen and his colleagues indicates that programs that focus on discussion groups, self-esteem inductions, decision making—these lead children to think that they can experiment with drugs.

In the realm of sex education Planned Parenthood didn't want to believe that. So they commissioned a study by Louis Harris and Associates in 1986; Harris found that youngsters who went through what is called comprehensive sex education were 50 percent more likely afterward to become sexually active than kids who had not been through it.

So there's really no reason, given our desire to keep our kids healthy, to continue to do an experiment that has proven a failure again and again and again.

Host: In an article you wrote, called "Sex, Drugs, and School Children: What Went Wrong," published in the September edition of Adolescent Counselor, you said, "Process education is badly out of date. It reflects the premise of the 1960s and '70s that everyone has a right to his or her own opinion." Is part of the basis for your disagreement with process education that people do not—young people, children—do not have a right to their own opinion?

Guest: They certainly don't have a right to their own opinion when it happens to be wrong—take their opinion about cigarettes.

Host: Well, who says it's wrong, though?

Guest: Who says it's wrong? The surgeon general of the United States and every expert in public health say that smoking is wrong for anybody.

Host: What about parents, though?

Guest: There are no parents who want their children to smoke. But now the Tobacco Institute has gotten in on it. [Holds up Helping Youth Decide] This looks like it comes from an educational agency, the National Association of State Boards of Education. Actually it comes from the Tobacco Institute, as we understand from the second edition. The Tobacco Institute in Washington has become the biggest sponsor of process education, Lynn, because they don't want children to feel that they shouldn't experiment with cigarettes.

Adults won't start to smoke. But children will start to smoke—but only if the rest of us pretend that we don't know there's one right answer.

There's one right answer about cigarettes: Never, ever even think about trying cigarettes. But process education persuades youngsters that there's some profit for them in thinking the unthinkable—thinking that they could somehow get by with having sex before marriage or with experimenting with drugs.

Host: At what point in a person's life is he or she going to learn to make decisions?

Guest: It all depends on the subject matter. At what point are you going to learn to make a decision about what side of the interstate highway to drive on? Never. You're not going to make that decision. You're going to recognize that you must only drive on the right side of the road. It's what we call the developmental question, Lynn, and it doesn't apply to certain subject matters.

Now, there are certain things that nature is indifferent to. Flavors of ice cream would be one of those things, and colours of clothing. You can encourage your children to make their own choices about such things.

Host: I guess it gets down to who decides, though.

Guest: Who decides? It's already been decided. I have put this question to audiences across the country: "Is there anybody here tonight who wants your children to have sex with one another?" Nobody will raise their hand. And when I ask them why, it's because the sexual revolution is over. It's been called off by Nature herself. There are 43 million Americans with incurable forms of sexually transmitted disease.

Host: Exactly: that was my point. I mean, it could be more than just an outdated mode of education but the fear of AIDS and other serious diseases.

Guest: Sure. But now that we know that nobody should be having sex outside of marriage, why do we withhold this from the children? Why do we imply to them that they have some decision to make? We don't tell them, for example, that they have some decision to make about attending school. We require them to attend. We do not propose to them that they have to think about it and decide for themselves.

Our children compare what we insist upon—such school attendance and driving on the right side of the interstate highway—they compare what we insist upon with what we allow them to decide, and they falsely conclude that what we allow them to decide must not be all that important—or we would insist upon it.

We have to begin to insist to our children that the drug and sexual revolutions were wrongheaded right from the beginning; and we have to spare them further experimentation when the experiment is over.

Host: But aren't children different? Don't they have different views?

Guest: Sure. But the question is: Do their views conform to reality or not? It is not a matter of subjective opinion whether drugs are dangerous or not. It is a matter of scientific fact. It is not a matter of subjective opinion whether sex outside of marriage is dangerous or not. We know, scientifically, that it is dangerous. Dr. Koop, surgeon general in the Reagan administration, says the whole problem of STDs, most especially HIV, can be solved in six words: "Abstinence before marriage; fidelity within it." We have to teach that to our children: authoritatively, repetitively until they get it. There's no call for discussion.

Dr. Maslow, again, saw that. He said discussion was destroying the mind of his students.

Host: Well, you've written, "It doesn't really matter what school children feel about drugs, any more than it matters what they feel about the alphabet." And I assume that a large group of parents watching tonight would argue that what their child feels about learning might be a really crucial part of the successful learning process.

Guest: Let's put it this way, Lynn. We would like it if our children did their chores with a smile: we'd like it if they chose to do their chores. But whether they can be happy about it or not, they have to do their chores. With a smile or not, there are certain things they have to do: they have to turn off the television and get their homework done; they have to take out the garbage when Mom and Dad ask them to do that. And they have to behave themselves when they start dating. Let's hope they'll do these things because they feel good about doing them. But whether they feel good about doing them or not, they have to do them.

They cannot choose to cross against the light. They have to obey the light at the corner.

Host: But aren't feelings a very effective way of persuading children of what is right or wrong? Let me give you an example. When I was in high school, some agency came to my school and showed a film about homemade whiskey and how a 'possum would fall over into the sour mash and die; and that the people who manufactured this homemade whiskey would sell it to you anyway. I would not touch moonshine if my life depended on it, because I can still see this dead 'possum. Now I don't remember who the people were who came to our school. And I don't remember anything [else], but that message got through to me because I was revulsed by the idea of a dead 'possum. And that was a feeling; it wasn't a thought.

Guest: Okay, it's a feeling. But it happens to be a feeling that's correct. A problem with feelings, in one sense, is that they are incorrigible. We feel what we feel and are said to have every right to do so. Quest, the largest purveyor of these kinds of programs, gives high school kids a list of 269 feeling words they might not be familiar with. And the kids sit in class and talk about these feelings while, overseas, they're studying geography.

For every hour that we put into so-called process education, that's one less hour available for academics. We cannot afford the luxury. We're sending our kids into a competitive world increasingly disabled: they are competing with kids from countries that are not wasting their time doing amateur group therapy in the classroom. There are plenty of kids who need plenty of help; but let them get real, professional help; not clumsy, amateur, non-directive group psychotherapy in the classroom.

Host: When do children become decision makers? And should they be, in your opinion?

Guest: Again, it all depends on the subject matter. About cigarettes we can say that after about the age of 25 they can make a decision, because they won't decide to start to smoke. Nobody starts to smoke after the age of 25. That's because they have an adult intelligence. However, today 3,000 Americans will start to smoke.

Host: Don't different people develop adult intelligence at different stages of their growth?

Guest: That's true. So the question is: what is the aggregate likelihood of them misbehaving? The problem, Lynn, is that we've refused to use words like "misbehaviour." We've overdosed on toleration if you will. And the Tobacco Institute, which sponsors books like this [Helping Youth Decide] applauds it and says that's a wonderful program. R. J. Reynolds, for example, gave more than a quarter of the million dollars to Howard Kirschenbaum's employer, Quest International, to put its program into Spanish so that they could get it into the middle schools of Puerto Rico. It's doing its job for R. J. Reynolds.

You know R. J. Reynolds: they're the ones that have Joe Camel. As many kids now recognize Joe Camel, that cartoon character, as recognize Mickey Mouse. Quest is in 20,000 schools, and Howard Kirschenbaum is trying to help them get in more—and it's beloved of the tobacco industry. That's the problem.

Host: You say in your article that informal surveys indicate that no small number of adults got in trouble in the '60s and '70s by yielding to the type of process or affective education being taught today. This seems sort of nebulous to me. You talk about "a number of subjects" got into "undefined trouble."

Guest: You want specifics?

Host: Yeah, I want some specifics.

Guest: Good. In the last year of Carl Rogers' life—he died in February of 1987—14 of his California colleagues lost their licenses to practice psychology in California because they were having sex with their clients. And when challenged about this, they said, Well, it's what we've chosen to do; we're doing what we've decided to do. And the state of California said, You can't do that. It is against the law. That broke Carl Rogers heart, because it came to his attention.

Host: But they did suffer the consequences. I mean, they lost their licenses; they made a bad decision and paid for it.

Guest: That's right. But I don't think that we ought to continue to encourage youngsters to think that they can make such decisions that are going to lead to disaster. When Carl Rogers was asked about it several years before the law intervened, he said, Well, I don't like what they're doing. I wouldn't do it myself.

But he refused to say that it's wrong. California lost its moral vocabulary in the Seventies in California. We're trying to recover it now. We've got what we call "the California Absolute" now: everybody who gets their license in psychology gets a booklet from the state titled "Professional Therapy Never Includes Sex." What the word Never means is, "You can't choose to do this. You might think that you can choose to do this, but you cannot." The law is always a reflection of the morality of the community.

Host: Is that who you mean when you talk about "we"—the community? The local community? Americans? I mean, who is "we"?

Guest: Here in Alabama it's the citizens of the state. The citizens of the state have persuaded the legislature to pass certain laws which reflect common public morality. Unfortunately, those laws are sometimes not taught in the school. I don't know the situation in Alabama as well as in Virginia. In Virginia there are laws against sodomy, against homosexual activity. Well, kids take courses in sex education and they're never told that homosexual activity is against the law. That's a miseducation of youngsters—to withhold from them information that could keep them out of trouble with the law and maybe even save their lives.

Host: But just as there is a group of citizens that would be for talking about certain things, there are those who are against talking about certain things. So how do you define which citizens you're talking about?

Guest: I think we have to decide, "Is the sexual revolution over?" I'm talking about two areas where, fortunately, there isn't that kind of disagreement, sex and drugs. For example, nobody thinks that children should ever have been induced to think they could experiment with drugs.

Host: But the people who are making a lot of noise about this, who are lobbying legislators, are people such as the group that sponsors you, Eagle Forum.

Guest: You know, the whole state of Alabama ought to be grateful the Eagle Forum because they happen to be right. Now, I know you're being a Devil's advocate, Lynn, but it seems like it might be a little hard for you to grasp that there is an objective realm of right and wrong. We do know that certain things are right. Twenty years ago, society didn't know that. It was thought that there was such a thing as recreational drug use, and we thought there was such a thing as recreational sex. And that was wrong.

I think that one of the things that offends my opponents, who are still supporting process education, is that I want to have them acknowledge that we were wrong. When you're wrong, you acknowledge it and you change your direction. That's what I've done, and it's not in spite of what I learned, as you suggested in your introduction, but because of what I learned.

Host: We have just a minute left in our discussion. It's going really quickly. On this morning's Today Show, they talked about a recent study of high school seniors that indicates that drug use is on the decline: it's decreased. What does this indicate to you?

Guest: That indicates to me that the messages you see in the media—for example, anti-smoking commercials on television in California—are getting across. Unfortunately, the research on programs like the ones that Howard Kirschenbaum is promoting doesn't indicate a similar effect. Quest international has yet, after 15 years, to come up with a study that shows that its programs prevent drug experimentation. Yet, it bills itself as "the most widely used prevention program in the world." So we've got to give ourselves a better chance of getting those statistics you mention more widely distributed: by eliminating these programs that have never been shown to work. It's time to call off the experiment.

Host: Thank you, Dr. W. R. Coulson, for being our guest tonight on For the Record.