On Displaced Humanists: Counselor Education and the Meaning-Reduction Pendulum

By Hansen, James T. | Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

On Displaced Humanists: Counselor Education and the Meaning-Reduction Pendulum


Hansen, James T., Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development


Counseling, as have other mental health professions, has undergone regular historical alternations between meaning-based and reductive ideologies of helping. Contemporarily, counseling is participating in a protracted reductionistic phase. This situation has resulted in the marginalization of those in the profession who have humanistic sensibilities. Reasons these displaced humanists should be supported and educational methods to bring about this support are summarized.

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There are many ways to tell the story of the counseling profession. One such way is to organize the history of the profession in terms of movements that highlight human meaning systems and those that emphasize reductive approaches to helping. For instance, an emphasis on human meaning is vital to humanism, postmodernism, and psychoanalytic thought (Hansen, 2005b). Alternatively, behaviorism (Skinner, 1974) and the best practices movement (McGowan, 2003) are characterized by a focus on reduction, categorization, and specialized techniques. One way to conceptualize the history of the counseling profession, and the mental health professions that preceded it, then, is in terms of the regular historical alternations between meaning-based and reductive ideologies of helping.

Because this meaning-reduction alternation has been a persistent feature of the historical evolution of the counseling profession, it is interesting to consider whether this alternation is reflective of the intellectual dispositions of counseling professionals. That is, do certain professionals have a meaning-based, literary intellectual temperament and others have a disposition that is more suited to reduction and categorical descriptions? I think that this is a plausible supposition, which is consistent with my observations as a counselor educator. That is, it is reasonable to presume that the ideological polarities that have guided the evolution of counseling theorizing are also present as fundamental intellectual orientations in the members of the profession. If this is indeed the case, the counseling profession is, on the one hand, constituted by humanists, whose intellectual disposition is well suited to the humanities, such as literature, history, and philosophy, and, on the other hand, by reductionists, whose predilections are more in line with science, engineering, and medicine.

Contemporarily, the counseling profession is in the midst of a protracted reductionistic phase, which is guided by an emphasis on diagnostics, best practices, and other ideological by-products of a medicalized vision of the counseling process (Hansen, 2005a, 2007). When students who have a meaning-based intellectual temperament enroll in counseling programs because they are drawn to the rich, literary character analysis of clients that was present in bygone eras, they are inevitably disillusioned by the relatively technical, reductionistic educational experience they encounter. The ways in which these displaced humanists negotiate the conflict between their intellectual temperament and the academic climate of their counseling programs is an interesting, and highly relevant, issue for counselor educators to consider. The purpose of this article is to thoroughly elaborate this issue, advocate for the displaced humanists of the profession (students and professionals alike), and propose recommendations for reestablishing the meaning-based emphasis in counselor education programs.

HISTORICAL ALTERNATIONS BETWEEN MEANING AND REDUCTION

Alternating emphases on meaning and reduction have been historical leitmotifs of the counseling profession and the helping professions that preceded it. Like archetypes that continually battle for dominance in the professional collective unconscious, rich, literary descriptions of clients and reductive, experience-removed approaches to helping have undergone regular historical shifts. During eras when one of these orientations was predominant, representatives from the other camp were displaced and had to come to terms with their marginalized status. …

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