Tuesday, July 5, 2005

In “One Nation Under Therapy,” Christina Hoff Summers and Sally Satel decry America’s reliance on psychiatry and confront the myth that everyone needs a therapist. The book argues that much of America’s “need” for help is created by hypersensitive parents, educators and psychiatrists. The following are excerpts from an interview with Mrs. Hoff Summers in her office at the District-based American Enterprise Institute.

Q: What inspired you and Sally Satel to write this book?

A: I wrote a book called “The War on Boys,” and as I researched it, I discovered that there was a lot of concern that boys were insufficiently reflective and not in touch with their feelings. There were massive efforts funded by different schools that claimed that they were in crisis, that the average boy and man were in crisis because they were estranged from their deeper selves.



So, we looked for evidence that this was true, and I couldn’t find any. Suddenly, I realized there were a lot of assumptions in the world of pop psychology that needed to be questioned. We’re not against psychology as a branch of medicine. But as a philosophy of life, as an ethic, as a replacement of religion — it’s dangerous.

Q: Do you consider psychology a religion then?

A: Yes. For many Americans — we call it “therapism” — it’s a worldview, a philosophy. You don’t really think of right and wrong; you think of affliction and disorders, and you think of human beings as people who need emotional counselors to take them through the ups and downs of life.

But in reality, people are amazingly resilient, especially Americans. It’s part of our background, our heritage. [Ms. Satel and I] see therapism as an effort to overthrow the traditional creed.

Q: Do you consider “therapism” inextricably linked to the New Age movement?

A: Well, the New Age movement also took to heart the idea that through this kind of process of self-discovery you could find happiness and fulfillment. And, as a philosopher, I am very skeptical that you can find that beyond ethics. I think for kids in the classroom, it’s important to emphasize ethics.

Q: Why did you decide to team up with Ms. Satel for this book?

A: I wrote a book called “Who Stole Feminism?” and a good deal of the research for it was examining feminist data. That was like shooting fish in the barrel, really. The arguments were very weak, and you didn’t have to be a Harvard statistician to deal with the data. I was dealing with statistically challenged feminists.

But for this, the literature was more serious. And I felt, as a philosopher, I wanted someone who was a clinician to weigh in. At the same time, much of the book is philosophical, so it balances out, really.

Q: What, then, is wrong with therapy in America today? What is this “therapism”?

A: For the middle class [who are] raising children, therapism has become the standard approach. Many parents view their child as little hothouse flowers that need to be protected from harm. Many parents think that the flower must be protected from harm, criticism and — heaven forbid — failure. So they run to teachers if the child gets even the smallest bit of criticism. And there are teachers that don’t want to use red pens because they are too harsh and judgmental — lavender is the preferred color.

So we tried to find out if children are so fragile, and the answer is certainly not. They don’t need to be protected from harshly graded papers. It even helps them. We just question this idea that they are little fragile figurines made of spun glass and shattered in a thousand pieces.

Let’s face it: Children enjoy ghoulish stories and Halloween and hurtling down roller coasters. This therapism is ridiculous, and we’re shortchanging a generation of kids. And we warn employers that these kids are about to enter the work force, the self-esteem generation, and that if they get any reproach from anyone, it’s going to be cataclysmic.

There’s no proof that this oversensitivity is better than old-fashioned codes of conduct, rules of civility and high standards. What’s wrong with the old creed?

Q: Where does the creed of “therapism” come from?

A: We trace it to the 1960s with writers and good scholars such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. They are still taught in schools of education as if they were research scientists, and they weren’t.

Maslow taught that of all your needs in this world … above all, you need high self-esteem. But it turns out that it doesn’t work that way. Some of these people who are starving artists may be very creative, and someone who has all his needs met may be narcissistic and shallow.

Self-esteem turns out to be less reliable than any need you choose because sociopaths have high self-esteem, and there are many wonderful, loving people who are humble. Mother Teresa may have had lower self-esteem than Charles Manson.

We don’t know how to teach [self-esteem], we don’t know what it is, and we shouldn’t have classrooms teaching the uniqueness of “me.”

Q: Where is the line between people who actually need therapy and the concept of therapism?

A: Therapy, as a branch of medicine, we very much respect and do not agree with Tom Cruise. Everyone knows someone who is clinically afflicted, and it’s not subtle. The good news is there has never been better treatments. Right now, psychology is advancing as an empirical science.

But still … many psychiatrists would agree that these drugs are overdone. Take something like Ritalin. Are there kids who have attention deficit disorder? Yes, I’ve seen them. I think it would be cruel and insensitive to deny a child that treatment. But how many children are there like that?

Q: Speaking of Tom Cruise, does it surprise you to see this anti-therapy mantra coming out of Hollywood?

A: It’s not really Hollywood; it’s really just a particular group.

Q: Could it catch on as a fad, like Kabbalah did?

A: Maybe, but [Scientology] doesn’t seem to be very persuasive.

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