Sunday, January 18, 2009

Carl Rogers

A brief background summary by A. Doerr

[Sources used: On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers (Preface, Introduction, and Chapter 1); Wikipedia Entry on Carl Rogers; and "WE OVERCAME THEIR TRADITIONS, WE OVERCAME THEIR FAITH" by Dr. William Coulson.]

Carl Rogers was the fourth of six children from a relatively well-to-do and affectionate family. His parents were very protective and created a very rigid religious environment to raise their children in to keep them uncorrupted by worldly things. To this extent, the family moved to a farm when he was twelve. There his father, a prosperous business man, farmed as a hobby and the children were encouraged to do the same. On the upside, this installed Rogers with a strong conscience and gave him a strong animal science background. On the downside, this upbringing convinced Rogers that people were inherently good and that strict religious systems were harmful to an individual's personal development.

This last belief was further strengthened after he changed from a degree in agriculture to history and joining the ministry. He felt that he was being indoctrinated more than taught. In 1922, Rogers went with a Christian student group to France and Germany after World War I. It was then that he was exposed to the concept that very honest and good people can believe very different things. After further religious study, he became convinced that it was "a horrible thing to have to profess a set of beliefs, in order to remain in one's profession." (Rogers, 1961, p 8) This eventually lead him to becoming a children's counselor and then a very successful psychologist when it came to dealing with neurotic patients.

If we to inject the generation cycle theory put forth in the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, we can easily place Rogers in the G.I. Generation due to his birth. The quote from Wikipedia that states: "[a]ll of them entering midlife were aggressive advocates of technological progress, economic prosperity, social harmony, and public optimism" does fit Rogers a great deal. He was very optimist about human nature and social harmony. However, perhaps due to his very protective upbringing, Rogers also shares many traits of those in the Silent Generation, advocating "fairness and the politics of inclusion, irrepressible in the wake of failure."

I've included this sociological information to help explain Rogers' fame and infamy. Peter Kramer's posthumous introduction to Roger's book On Becoming a Person mentions that in some ways, Rogers was what Isaiah Berlin would call a "hedgehog"--he knew one thing, but he knew it so well that it became his world. Most of Rogers ideas were good and are still in use today, especially his push to get the field of psychology to rely more on scientific methods and studies, but his own work was mostly for neurotics. His success there was worthy of the fame he received. It was when he tried to apply his theories to people who weren't neurotic that things fell apart.

To quote Neils Bohr: "An expert is a person who avoids small error as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy." Rogers' grand fallacy was the IHM Nuns controversy. Dr. William Coulson, an assistant of Carl Rogers who was personally involved in this experiement, has spoken on the subject with much honesty and clarity. Though, like Rogers, the "all or nothing" thought distortion sometimes raises its head. Though I'm not really sure if it is them actually, or the people who are presenting their work to prove their own agenda. It is my impression that the cause of this disaster in the field of psychology was based on the following factors:

1) Rogers did not stop to consider how his own issues were being triggered. After all, the Catholic school acted much in the way his own mother did towards him and his siblings. Of course, the feedback from the progressive faction of the IHM only helped to feed his biases by suggesting that things did need to be changed. However, even though a lot of something can be bad, that doesn't mean that any bit of it of all is also bad. In fact, some of it may actually be necessary.

2) Rogers believed that all people were good. As Maslow said, there was great danger in his assumption that there weren't paranoids, psychopaths or other destructive people that would mess things up for him.

3) Rogers' own belief that people should ultimately be their own authority backfired on him. In his assumption that all people were inherently good, it had never occurred to him that not everyone had a conscience as well-defined as his, even though Abraham Maslow warned him of the evil that can exist and the failure of his methods when Maslow tried to use it with his own students. So, while the encounter groups ran by Rogers and those who were afraid of Rogers no one wandered into sexual misconduct, other facilitators were not as restrained. In fact, Rogers and Coulson were unaware that of "the reports of seductions in psychotherapy, which became virtually routine in California."

Coulson summarizes this backfiring better than I could: Rogers didn't get people involved in sex games, but he couldn't prevent his followers from doing it, because all he could say was, "Well, I don't do that." Then his followers would say, "Well, of course you don't do that, because you grew up in an earlier era; but we do, and it's marvelous: you have set us free to be ourselves and not carbon copies of you."

4) There was several older nuns and priests looking into feminism and other social reforms who neglected to provide any real guidance to their students, who were lead to believe that they would receive sound guidance. So instead of being liberated, the students were actually abandoned. Granted the studies about the human brain not being fully developed until age 26 probably weren't available at that time and the leaders didn't quite comprehend that their charges were still developing judgment skills.

5) The popularity of humanism was at its height and coupled with drug use in many cases. While Rogers had troubles with even putting soda pop in his body as a young adult, I wouldn't be at all surprised if some of his followers considered drug use as a means to overcome obstacles to being one's self.

6) California is not really a place to find "normal people" in large numbers. (I was borned there and live only a few years there and even I can't claim to be a "normal" person.) Rogers probably should have been suspicious when he couldn't get the same study to work in Wisconsin because the participants kept dropping out when they realized what was going on. Instead, he found a group willing to invite him in to do this. That in itself should have been a red flag. However, I will not judge him on that matter, considering the fact that humans have a wonderful tendency to ignore red flags and I have done it a time or time myself.

Even though this became a total failure as an attempt to improve the lives of the nun, it did eventually improve and support the ethical guidelines for psychologists. Counselling students are now taught that it is unethical to try to change a client's religious beliefs, to have sexual interactions with the client, and to be aware of one's own issues enough to know when they should refer a client to a professional without the same issues. Rogers did realize his own folly. So, while he did fall into Bohr's definition as an "expert", he and the field of psychology did learn from his mistakes.

From now on, I will be focusing more on what Rogers got right. Having accepting his human fraility, I will start on his brilliance.

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