Lifelong learning: education or therapy?

A lecturer assesses the demoralisation of post-16 education in the UK.

Kathryn Ecclestone

Topics Politics
  • There is a growing preoccupation in post-16 education with raising people’s self-esteem. This is related to a shift from traditions of radical pedagogy in further adult and community education to therapeutic interventions.
  • These trends reflect a broader cultural demoralisation and low expectations among professionals about people’s ability to act autonomously and to deal with challenge and risk-taking.
  • Unless challenged, declining faith in humanist purposes for education could turn education into a safe, comforting and therapeutic experience.

At a recent conference, the principal of a further education college argued that lifelong learning should enable us to ‘search for the hero inside ourselves’, quoting the song by M People.

But her version of heroism in post-16 education was not about challenge, risk-taking and empowering others (or even about aspiring to own a certain brand of French car). Instead, teachers and students were heroic if they could admit their mutual vulnerability in the face of a scary, uncertain future where ‘there are no experts’.

At an education conference in 2002, Ivan Lewis, the minister for adult learning, argued passionately that educational achievement plays a pivotal role in countering all forms of social and individual deprivation, as well as promoting confidence, citizenship, cultural regeneration and economic prosperity. He singled out community education as a way of rebuilding the self-esteem of whole communities as well as individuals.

And only the other week, a secondary school teacher on a university masters’ course on which I teach wrote to thank me for making the module she had taken so worthwhile and challenging. She wrote: ‘At first I found the work difficult and because I suffer from low self-esteem and lack of confidence, I was scared and thought everyone was more clever than me.’ My first reaction was to be concerned that she found the experience more threatening than it might have been.

It is now commonplace to read about low self-esteem in lifestyle magazines or to hear high-achieving, famous people discuss problems with their self-esteem on chat shows and in newspaper articles. But the above anecdotes illustrate the extent to which concerns about people’s psychological wellbeing and their self-esteem are seeping slowly into educational debates among policymakers and professional educators.

A new feature of these concerns is how much professionals who might characterise themselves as liberal or left-wing agree with them. New Labour has successfully managed to weld together a diverse range of educational values in its attempts to convince us all that participating and achieving in lifelong learning is essential for achieving many social and individual benefits.

The rise of self-esteem in education

A crucial motif in creating this consensus is the increasing use of ideas about ‘equal worth’ and ‘recognition’ for people deemed to be disadvantaged, marginalised and excluded. Images of a growing range of groups and ‘types’ of individuals at risk of marginalisation and exclusion are now accompanied by references to the idea that formal education can raise people’s self-esteem.

New images of ‘hard to reach’, ‘hard to help’ people locked in cycles of personal and social deprivation are now commonplace in professional and political concerns in post-16 education. They are also linked increasingly to welfare initiatives like SureStart for deprived mothers and young children, and guidance initiatives like the Connexions post-16 guidance and careers service. These schemes offer images of damaged people, excluded and excluding themselves from education and work, lacking in confidence and skills, and suffering from other health problems and forms of emotional damage.

The concern with people’s psychological wellbeing has been given new credibility by a political demand that education must show measurable benefits. This leads to the idea that confidence, self-esteem and a positive self-image are tangible outcomes of education and can be depicted as ‘identity capital’.

The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) is funding a research centre to explore the effects of educational achievement and participation on building human, social and identity capital (1). It seems that academics and professional educators are latching on to identity and social capital as a humane counter to the more instrumental idea of investing in people as ‘human capital’ for employers. Their interest is also likely to be fuelled by the fact that many people who take part in post-16 education report improved confidence and other personal benefits, making these easily tangible outcomes.

This new tone in policy encourages education and welfare professionals to accept and promote increased state intervention in community education, and other areas of post-16 learning that were once outside the strictures and structures of targets, inspection and regulation that now characterise post-16 education.

One reason why it has been easy to institutionalise areas of adult and community education – once seen as radical, progressive alternatives to mainstream education – is that appeals to self-esteem resonate with older calls for education to promote personal and social change.

Merging radical pedagogy and humanist psychology

Adult and community education is therefore adopting an increasingly therapeutic character. In this process, a professional shift from demands for education to promote equality and useful forms of cultural capital, to a preoccupation with self-esteem and conferring recognition on marginalised groups and individuals, is emerging.

In part, this arises because any left-wing or liberal criticism of current policy tends to be concerned with the ways in which policymakers tend to moralise about an ‘underclass’ through negative stereotypes about deprivation and dysfunction. Other critics point out that focusing on individuals’ problems overlooks structural causes of deprivation and inequality.

Yet such responses miss the way in which a pseudo-psychological twist is now evident in debates about inclusion and exclusion. This depicts deep-seated problems as an emotional or psychological dysfunction that people ‘suffer from’, and which need professional intervention in the form of guidance, counselling, mentoring and teaching. Such interventions are not seen as a problem. Instead, a radical and progressive strand in post-16 education over the past 25 years has successfully created professional expertise and credibility in inclusive pedagogy, which legitimises an interest in people’s emotional wellbeing.

Inclusive pedagogy draws on two heritages. One is a set of ideas and goals associated with social movements, radical community and working-class education for social change, individual emancipation and the subversion of existing systems. The other is liberal humanist psychology, promoted in post-16 education by psychologists such as Carl Rogers.

Although these influences emerge from very different ideologies about prospects for social change, ideas about creating ‘safe spaces’, ‘privileging the learner’s voice’, and offering people recognition and ‘positive unconditional regard’, generate new interest in the psychological and emotional minutiae of people’s ‘fragile learning identities’, learning biographies and narratives. These themes are now prominent in post-16 educational research and pedagogy.

This alignment between old radical education and liberal humanist psychology, together with pressures from policymakers to show measurable benefits from learning, moves educational debate further from genuine moral questions about its purpose and ethos. There seem to be very few heartfelt calls now among professional educators for education to promote equality, redistribution of wealth, social progression or genuinely useful forms of cultural capital.

But why is this happening? As I go on to argue, this process relates to a broader cultural demoralisation and low expectations among professionals, about people’s ability to act autonomously and to deal with challenge.

The rise of a therapeutic ethos

The focus on individuals’ psychological dysfunction is not confined to education. Preoccupation with people’s psychological wellbeing resonates with a broader therapeutic ethos in cultural, media and personal life.

It is evident that the differences between welfare and education are blurring. There are wider signs that a therapeutic ethos which uses the language and mindset of disorder, addictions, vulnerability and dysfunction is prevalent in American culture and is seeping into media, popular culture and politics in the UK too.

New tendencies to see people as ‘victims’ of everything from genetics, to childhood experience and negative life experiences generally, as being ‘at risk’ or having ‘fragile identities’, all resonate with a broader cultural demoralisation. This both reflects and creates deep pessimism in Western societies about social progress and human agency , and makes people nervous about moral debate. Moral questions about education are reduced to questions of ethics, rights and recognition and, eventually, to simple questions about value and emotional preferences.

Preoccupation with self-esteem and psychological wellbeing is leading to the notion of ‘intervention’ in areas such as parenting classes, anger management for children, the use of professional counsellors after crises and self-help initiatives set up by teaching unions to help teachers deal with stress. Using the language of radical pedagogy, humanist psychology and self-help, these interventions shift professional expertise to mutual problem-solving, where professionals must claim direct experience of the same uncertainties, vulnerabilities and frailties as their ‘clients’.

More subtly, the alignment of welfare, punishment and education has other effects. For example, compulsory parenting classes are increasingly part of judicial parenting orders. There are also proposals to make basic skills classes a condition of welfare benefits for adults with numeracy and literacy problems. Remedial education and punishment draw on the same apparently benign therapeutic interventions as the ‘safe spaces’ of radical pedagogy and the comfort zones of liberal humanist education.

Low educational expectations

There are other educational effects of these trends. It is difficult to see how low expectations of human abilities, or pity and concern for people ‘at risk’, can form the basis for the building of respect, for challenge and risk-taking in education.

Of course, there are always students who do not want too much hard work in the form of challenge. Yet, if adults and young people who know they are singled out as ‘marginalised’ or ‘disadvantaged’ learners present their educational goals as combating vulnerability or low self-esteem, it becomes difficult to offer challenging experiences that may threaten them further.

And once psychological deficiency becomes embedded in beliefs about people, educators may collude increasingly with the limiting effects of being ‘at risk’, either to offer interventions that are comforting and unchallenging or to probe into people’s life histories and identities.

A shift towards a therapeutic ethos is tempting for state agencies and institutions, because it appears to give them a legitimate basis for their activities in the form of ‘interventions’. It also resonates with broader themes of pessimism and demoralisation. But this shift carries significant problems.

Therapeutic government makes it legitimate for people’s emotional states to be a matter of public concern, and part of the responsibilities of citizenship. And the pessimistic view of human agency upon which this is based undermines the idea that people have a moral capacity and that they can act on it or develop it.

From negative to positive liberty

One consequence of the therapeutic ethos taking hold in education is that, instead of the belief that education should promote what Isiah Berlin called negative liberty – namely, the resources for people to take responsibility for their own freedoms – there is a shift to ‘positive liberty’, where education takes on the political and professional power to confer freedom and protection on the vulnerable and powerless.

In a pessimistic, target-driven and utilitarian educational culture, radical goals for safe spaces as genuine springboards for critical autonomy end up as fearful, low-risk comfort zones. Formulaic affirmations of esteem offer recognition through institutional processes, and place people in the role of supplicants for professional and bureaucratic recognition. One side-effect of this is to marginalise informal networks and to formalise them. In this scenario, autonomy becomes little more than having the technical skills to navigate institutional procedures.

So what is to be done? From discussions with colleagues in the field, it seems that, while there is some interest in the analysis of the demoralisation of lifelong learning presented here, it is extraordinarily difficult to create a deep engagement with its implications.

Some criticise the attack on therapy and radical pedagogy, and instead attribute a negative therapeutic ethos to policy makers’ cynicism in making hard-edged goals for education more humane, rather than to professionals’ concerns. Others say my analysis overstates a problem and that it is pessimistic. Others ask why I want to focus on a therapeutic ethos when ‘right-wing’ moralising about vulnerable individuals and political oversight of the structural causes of deprivation are much more pressing concerns for ‘left-wing’ educators committed to social justice.

In other words, gaining an inroad into liberal and left-wing educators’ own comfort zones seems quite difficult. Nevertheless, the problems apparent in the rise of a therapeutic education indicate the need for a critical appraisal of this trend. The concept of demoralisation is crucial for exploring the rise of self-esteem as an educational goal, because it counters an impoverished understanding of social action and the deep pessimism evident in debates about the future.

But this analysis also suggests that once-prosaic humanist goals for education to challenge, to take us into new worlds, ideas and cultures and to permit criticism, hopes, fears and aspirations have never been more necessary. Instead, though, a demoralised humanism is emerging as one of the most pressing problems facing educators committed to social justice and to the transforming power of education.

Kathryn Ecclestone is senior lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle. Her recent book, Learning Autonomy in Post-16 Education is published by RoutledgeFalmer (buy this from Amazon UK). The ideas in this article are expanded in a longer academic paper. For a copy of the paper, or to give feedback on the ideas presented here, email

(1) See The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today