Cruel Compassion: How Politically Correct Psychology Weakens Americans

By Bowman, Karlyn | The American Enterprise, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Cruel Compassion: How Politically Correct Psychology Weakens Americans


Bowman, Karlyn, The American Enterprise


TAE contributing editor Karlyn Bowman recently sat down with Dr: Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, M.D., resident scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, to discuss their new book One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance.

TAE: You criticize what you call "therapism." What is that?

CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS: Therapism celebrates emotional self-absorption and the sharing of feelings. Its proponents believe that vulnerability, not strength, characterizes the American psyche. They see us as an anguished, emotionally apprehensive population that requires a vast array of counseling to cope with the trials of everyday life.

TAE: Let's start with the myth of the fragile child.

SOMMERS: There is a great deal of anxiety about the mental health of the nation's children because some very widely read psychologists claim to have found a crisis. In her bestselling book Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher describes girls as "crashing and burning." She says adults fail to appreciate how universal and extreme their suffering is. William Pollack, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, wrote another book claiming that it was boys who suffer egregiously, with millions drowning in isolation. Neither of these assumptions about young people's fragility turns out to be true. Responsible research by psychologists and epidemiologists paints a different picture: A small percentage of kids are in trouble psychologically, but the vast majority are healthy and happy.

TAE: Many young people even have an over-abundance of self-esteem, you suggest.

SOMMERS: Our schools of education promote the idea that high self-esteem is essential to academic achievement. But the concept is too poorly understood to be an appropriate class room objective. High-school dropouts, burglars, car thieves, shoplifters, even murderers, are just as likely to have high self-esteem as the winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor or Rhodes Scholars.

In May 2003, four prominent academic psychologists published the first comprehensive review of the supposed benefits of self-esteem. They concluded that there was no significant connection between feelings of self worth and achievement, success in personal relationships, or healthy lifestyles.

The self-esteem movement has turned many classrooms into therapy centers rather than places of learning. Learning history, for instance, especially American history, has been radically transformed by the requirement that schools provide students with textbooks that enhance their self image. California subjects prospective textbooks to a social content review with the goal of determining whether the books "promote individual development and self-esteem." California is the largest textbook market in the country, so publishers selling their books in other states still tailor them to California's specifications. What happens is that students are sedated by what one critic called "textbook happy talk," and shortchanged academically.

TAE: Let's move from self-esteem to self-expression.

SALLY SATEL: There's a notion that it is important to mental health to express one's feelings. But that is not necessarily in a person's best interest. If it is someone's natural style to be talkative and revealing, that's fine. But we marshalled evidence showing that group therapy or talking about one's illness or feelings does not extend patients' lives, as often claimed.

We also look at grieving. Contrary to the advice of the helping professionals, it is not necessary to pour out one's feelings; people who don't become deeply depressed after the death of a loved one don't suffer further down the road, nor is it necessary for them to focus on memories of the deceased in order to cope. People should not be misled by pop psychological prescriptions of how to react.

We also examine the idea that one can resolve one's problems by thinking obsessively about oneself. …

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