Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.

Emphasis on emotions is creating ‘can’t do’ students
by Alexandra Frean, Education Editor.

Schools and universities are producing a generation of “can’t do” students, who are encouraged to talk about their emotions at the expense of exploring ideas or acquiring knowledge, academics claimed yesterday.

The strong focus on emotional expression and building up self-esteem in schools and colleges was “infantilising” students, leaving them unable to cope with life on their own, according to the authors of a new book, The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone, of Oxford Brookes University, argue that this “therapeutic” approach to education is at odds with the acquisition of knowledge because it views the emotional skills associated with learning as more important than subject content or criticism.

“Turning teaching into therapy is destroying the minds of children, young people and adults,” Dr Hayes told Times Higher Education. “Therapeutic education promotes the idea that we are emotional, vulnerable and hapless individuals. It is an attack on human potential.”

They pointed to the increased presence of parents on campus, and substitute parents, such as counsellors and support officers. “Everyone looks for a difficulty to declare, like the hundreds of students who register themselves as dyslexic. Being dyslexic used to be something that people hid. Now students wear their difficulties as a badge of honour,” Dr Hayes said.

Therapeutic education pervaded all levels of education. Dr Hayes cited the case of a primary school boy who was asked by an emotional learning assistant why he was so happy. When he said he was looking forward to a treat at McDonald’s, she asked: “Are you sure there is nothing worrying you?”

The book follows the recent introduction into state schools of lessons in happiness and wellbeing under a programme known as Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning).

Ministers are convinced that teaching children to express their emotions boosts concentration and motivation. But there is growing disquiet that this attitude could undermine teaching and learning.

Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, said: “It inflates the importance of feelings to the point where they eclipse what is supposed to be going on in the classroom.” It also made teachers and lecturers overcautious. “They will give a piece of work 55 per cent and then write on it ‘this essay is superb’ because they daren’t say it’s crap.”

John Foreman, dean of students at University College London, agreed that students were not as “self-sustaining and robust” as they once were. He partly blamed overprotective parents. “If young people don’t start learning to solve their own problems, when will they ever?” he said.

Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, a pioneer of wellbeing classes, defended the approach. “Since we started wellbeing lessons [in 2005] our A-level results have gone up from 64 to 86 per cent of students getting As and Bs.”

The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education is published on July 14.

First published by The Times (London), 12 June 2008