Education Reform; Therapeutic or Prophetic?

In religious circles there is distinction made between therapeutic approaches to religion, and prophetic approaches. This same distinction can be made in regards to approaches to education reform, and, as we shall see, it’s an important distinction to make. (Because this is a blog about education, this is not the place to go into how this plays out in religion. If you are interested, see here for more.)

A therapeutic approach is one that focuses on helping an individual operate more effectively within a given system, or that looks for ways for that given system to operate more effectively. It helps the individual develop skills or attitudes that will help them to become more successful, happier, or ‘better’ at the job. It looks for ways to support the system itself in running more productively. It has an important role to play and shouldn’t be discounted. When questions are asked that focus on the individual, or on making a given system more effective, the questions are coming from a therapeutic frame: What skills do people need in the 21st century? How do we help teachers to become more effective? How can we tweak “this” to do it better? These are questions that are therapeutic in their orientation. That is, they are looking for ways to help individuals adjust to the parameters of the system, or looking to make the system as effective and efficient as possible.

The problem with this is when it only focuses on individuals within the system, or on improving the system, while never questioning the basis of the system itself. Too often this approach takes the system as an unquestionable given. The implication is that the only alternative is to accept the system and adjust accordingly. It implies a political quietism that doesn’t allow the individual to see connections between his/her health and welfare, and the health and welfare of everybody else. It doesn’t in itself allow for seeing the necessary interdependence of all. And an approach that focuses on individual improvement, or system improvement. without questioning the hidden assumptions of the broader system allows for nefarious forces to work unimpeded. As the philosopher/therapist James Hillman poignantly wrote in We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy- And the World’s Getting Worse, limiting ourselves to the therapeutic allows the rest of the world to move without us. As citizens with a role to play in a functioning democracy, this is not an option.

James hillman

A prophetic approach, on the other hand, calls into question the system itself. It asks questions of justice and power: Why are some groups “successful” and others are not? Who benefits from the system, and who is marginalized? It questions the functional morality of the system. It looks at the health of the whole, not only individuals within the whole. It recognizes that as educators we are necessarily public in the service of the common good, that we are also necessarily political, and that we have to contend in this arena.

In attempt to make this more concrete, allow me to address one specific example; the way in which the common core controversy is being played out. Some argue, from a therapeutic perspective, that the common core standards in and of themselves are positive and, given that we are seemingly stuck with standards, these certainly represent a step forward. Note that the system that the common core is offered within is not questioned- the argument sticks to the effectiveness of the common core standards themselves within the given system.

However, when we take a prophetic approach that looks holistically at the standards and how they connect to other systems of power, the effectiveness of the common core standards themselves is not as important as analyzing how they will function as a part of the broader, contended arena of what it means to have a system of public education. We recognize that standardization has a pattern of being linked to high stakes tests as a means of holding teachers “accountable” to teaching them. Resulting test scores have a pattern of being used to criticize public schools, and, alternatively, when schools do score well, the standards are raised in the name of the “rigor.” An impossible cycle of useless and harmful competition is reinforced, and, in our culture of market fundamentalism, students and teachers are hurt. “Why not punish them?” the logic goes, “teachers aren’t effective within this ‘given’ system according to the measures that are in place.” The prophetic approach may or may not accept the contained argument of those proponents of the common core who argue from a therapeutic perspective, but it sees that the common core simply sets up another cycle of unfair criticism of public education and the disinvestment that follows.

So now what? How can we take the best of the therapeutic approach while keeping it connected to the prophetic? What’s an educator to do?

Start by connecting your personal frustrations to all of the things that are happening around you. Start thinking deeply from the concrete context you work in daily and connect your experience to the experiences of your colleagues, of your students, of parents in the district. Look at issues of power- who has power in your context? Who has power in the broader fight for control over public education? Who doesn’t have power? How did this come to be? Read Paul Thomas, Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanian, Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody, Chris Thinnes and Ken Bernstein. (There are more. I’m sure I’m missing some great ones, but this is a good start.) Be active on Twitter. (Be sure to follow @symphily.) Join the Bad Ass Teacher Organization. (And say that aloud, it’s really empowering.)

Above all, share your voice, don’t allow it to be silenced. It matters. Without all of our voices, we all lose.

(Image from


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