When pedagogy is therapy and therapy is religion
What does therapy have to do with pedagogy? That the two share something is the premise of Merve Emre’s essay in last week’s New Yorker, which examines “transference and the contemporary classroom.” A key plank of Freudian theory, transference refers to the projection by the analysand of intense emotions, ultimately drawn from family life, onto the analyst — “love, adulation, desire, idolatry” or, conversely, “anxiety, frailty, jealousy, and anger,” as Emre summarizes. Countertransference is the phenomenon in reverse: Analysts are at risk of developing an image of their patient distorted, without their realizing it, by love or hate. For Freud and his interpreters, transference is a tool to be used by the analyst; its successful management is key to therapeutic success.
“In the past decade or so,” Emre writes, words associated with negative transference have “become a kind of lingua franca for students and teachers attempting to adjudicate contested exchanges.” She has in mind jargon like “exploitative, harmful, toxic, triggering, or traumatic.” Among Emre’s examples is the University of Michigan art professor Phoebe Gloeckner, who was investigated by her administration after students complained that her class on underground comics was “hurtful” and “harming.” (Privately, as Gloeckner describes in our pages, the students used less clinical terminology: Gloeckner, they felt, was a “Punk bitch.”) Gloeckner’s attempt to appease her students only made things worse, which Emre explains in terms of mishandled “transference and countertransference dynamics”: “Students do not in fact want the teacher’s knowledge; they want the teacher to want theirs … The teacher in control … had to create the illusion of student mastery — a convincing simulacrum of the idea that professors learn more from their students than their students learn from them.”
Emre is sympathetic to Gloeckner, as she is also to Vincent Lloyd, a theologian whose widely read essay in Compact, “A Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” describes a catastrophic teaching experience at Telluride. In Lloyd’s view, his classroom was hijacked by an activist teaching assistant (he pseudonymizes her as “Keisha”). But Emre thinks Lloyd, like other critics of contemporary-student activists, fails “to grasp the psychological dynamics at play between teachers and students.” Keisha, conversely, grasps them all too well. Because she “has learned how to manage the transference of the class and her countertransference response more successfully than Lloyd has,” she “is able to teach — to get the students to read and to listen, to speak and to socialize with her.” She is, in this sense, “a better teacher than [Lloyd] is.”
Emre acknowledges that Keisha might seem to be “abusing her hold over the classroom,” and her subtle dissection of the psychodynamic complexities of the pedagogical situation is convincing. But I am not persuaded that Lloyd and Keisha were competing for the same territory. From one point of view, Keisha was not a teacher at all — she was instead a workshop leader, where “workshop” names an amalgam of activist and therapeutic goals. The difference between the workshop and the seminar is the difference between therapy and pedagogy. Her undermining of Lloyd did not begin in the classroom itself but in Telluride’s mandatory antiracism workshops, held each afternoon and run by graduate-student assistants like Keisha. “There were workshops on white supremacy, on privilege, on African independence movements, on the thought and activism of Angela Davis, and more, all of which followed an initial, day-long workshop on ‘transformative justice.’ Students described the workshops as emotionally draining,” Lloyd writes.
If Keisha’s hold over her charges involved the abuse of transference dynamics, perhaps one condition of that abuse was the substitution of workshop dynamics, with their “emotionally draining” potential, for those of the classroom. The workshop is designed to harness participants’ desires in ways very different from those proper to the classroom. Hard thinking is appropriate to a classroom, including hard thinking about topics that might make students uncomfortable. But the “draining” experiences the students associated with the workshops are not the goal of a seminar, even if they are sometimes an inadvertent byproduct.
The workshops at Telluride probably have their roots in the countercultural therapeutic institutions that sprang up in the late ‘60s. By the ‘70s, the historian Todd Gitlin writes, “professionalized countercultures … spawned a virtual transcendence industry whose crucibles were ‘workshops’ in therapeutic and spiritual technique.” Workshop culture in the 1970s — with its interest in drugs, sex, Reichian “bioenergetics,” primal screams and other eccentric paraphernalia of the period — might seem a far cry from the bureaucratized antiracism workshops of today. But despite the New Age trappings, workshops then shared an activist impulse with workshops now. They were, as Gitlin writes, “politics by other means.”
The sociologist Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s 2001 book Race Experts charts the convergence of these new therapeutic institutions with ideas about race. Lasch-Quinn focuses especially on Re-evaluation Counseling, a New Age organization devoted to introspective and cathartic group rituals with a strongly Protestant cast, although without any theology. Beginning in the ‘70s and continuing into the present, Re-evaluation Counseling and associated therapies “became mixed in with the racial struggle indiscriminately,” Lasch-Quinn writes. The result is a heavily psychologized politics and a heavily politicized psychology in which professional consultants’ “frequent association of personal growth with political transformation prompts them to offer an ideological program along with their therapy.” Some of the most controversial features of the antiracism workshops Lasch-Quinn describes, such as “separating the larger group into small groups by sex, race, age, class, and religion,” remain with us. Just this year, New York University offered an antiracism workshop exclusively for whites, a restriction they explained was meant to avoid exposing “people of color to further undue trauma or pain as we stumble and make mistakes.”
Lloyd’s students deployed a psychologized vocabulary of complaint (they read from a prepared statement describing “how the Black students had been harmed” and accused Lloyd “of countless microaggressions”) reminiscent of the language used by Gloeckner’s students against her. To Lloyd, this combination of hyper-emotive rhetoric with ideological prescription rendered his classroom — or rather Keisha’s — a kind of “cult.”
The construal of workshop culture and the student activism it inflects as basically religious is common among critics of the campus left. The most recent entry in the literature is Ian Buruma’s essay in this month’s Harper’s describing “wokeness” by analogy to 17th-century Puritanism (Buruma is far from the first to reach for this particular comparison). Both emphasize internal personal transformation; both endorse public proclamations of penance or commitment; both divide the world into the unconverted and the elect.
The Washington Post book critic Becca Rothfeld is not convinced. “I simply cannot stand this lazy and tired idea,” she writes, “that, because something is fervently believed by many, it is therefore ‘like a religion.’ Surely the bar for being ‘like a religion’ is higher than ‘many people believe it,’ or ‘many people are passionately invested in it,’ or ‘many people are passionately invested in it to the point of trying to get other people to believe it, too.’” She points out that the criteria Buruma uses to link “wokeness” and Puritanism — public apologies, ongoing self-improvement, dogmatism, and the designation of an elite — are not unique to either. The comparison, Rothfeld suggests, is over-broad and uninformative. “You don’t have to compare something to a religion to criticize it.”
Rothfeld’s warning against vague gestures of analogy is important, but just because introspection, work, public penance, and the conception of an elect have come together elsewhere doesn’t mean that there isn’t something importantly Protestant about much of the moralism of our moment. A focus on workshop culture can help specify the mechanisms whereby an ambient American Christianity gets channeled into specific activist and therapeutic institutions. The “encounter groups” of the 1960s, for instance, were designed to promote personal epiphany via ritualized communication within a group, a process which, as Lasch-Quinn observes, “undoubtedly owed some of its resonance to the long-term American revivalist tradition of the individual conversion experience.” This is not a matter, merely, of ambiguous resemblances. In her contribution to the 2015 edited volume Rethinking Therapeutic Culture, edited by Timothy Aubry and Trysh Travis, the historian of religion Kathryn Lofton sketches “the conjoined histories of therapeutic and religious cultures” in the United States from the 19th century into the 20th. Those histories are indispensable background for any account of today’s therapeutic activism.
But Rothfeld is surely right that, to think well about contemporary activism, precise genealogies are more informative than broad assertions of similarity. And the ferment of New Age spirituality out of which workshop culture first emerged contains far more exotic fauna than Protestantism. Where, for instance, did that mainstay of workshop activism, the “privilege walk,” come from? In a remarkable piece of investigative journalism, Christian Parenti discovered that the ritual was not, as had long been believed, an application developed out of the sociologist Peggy McIntosh’s theory of the “invisible knapsack” of “white privilege,” but rather the invention of Erica Sherover-Marcuse, Herbert Marcuse’s third wife and an enthusiastic adherent of Re-evaluation Counseling. And, although Lasch-Quinn doesn’t mention it, there’s more to Re-evaluation Counseling than just secularized Protestantism and pop psychology — the group’s fundamental dogma is derived from Scientology, of which its founder was an early adherent. All clear?
Read Merve Emre’s “Are You My Mother?” Ian Buruma’s “Doing the Work,” Becca Rothfeld’s “Stop Calling Things ‘Religions,’” and Christian Parenti’s “The First Privilege Walk.” And for more on Re-evaluation Counseling and Scientology, check out Beryl Satter’s contribution to Rethinking Therapeutic Culture.