Number Fourteen in a series describing how American education went over the edge of the cliff. When the history of American education is completed, other issues such as pedagogy, subject matter, who should be responsible for education, etc. will be up up for discussion.
Note: Although I acquired quite a bit of information about Freud during my medical training at an institution where many faculty members of the psychiatry department favored him, back in 1993 I found a book entitled "Freudian Fraud" by E. Fuller Torrey M.D., who had been a research psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia, and a special assistant to the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington, D.C. The book was so chock full of information about Freud not taught in medical school that I referred to it a good deal for this post, and wanted to be sure that I credited Dr.Torrey (who has authored many books and papers) properly.
"Most of the damage we have seen in child rearing is the fault of the Freudian and neo- Freudians who have dominated the field… In child care I would say that Freudianism has been the crime of the century." - Dr. Louise Ames, Co-director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development.
The influence of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) in the United States has been extraordinarily widespread, heavily influencing our politics, generating social reform, introducing general principles of psychotherapy (the principles that underlie virtually every named therapeutic approach, as contrasted with the method of delivering the therapy itself), and, particularly pertinent to this post, child rearing practices and education.
In fact, Freud's influence has been greater in the United States than in any other industrialized nation despite the fact that he truly loathed America, calling it "a gigantic mistake." When asked why he hated it so much, he responded, "Hate America? I don't hate America, I regret it! I regret that Columbus ever discovered it... America is a bad experiment conducted by Providence!"
Freud loved his cigars, though, and said that the discovery of tobacco was "the only excuse I know for Columbus's misdeed." That wasn't completely true; on another occasion, he added something else that he liked about America: "America is useful for nothing else but to supply money."
Freud could never come to peace with the fact that it was the American (and British) patients that he treated in his practice that brought him half his income, and that most of the income from his publications came from the U.S. "Is it not sad that we are materially dependent on these savages who are not better-class human beings?" On another occasion, he asked "What is the use of Americans if they bring no money? They are not good for anything else."
The reasons Freud hated America so much were primarily political; all three of his sons had fought against the Allies in WWI, as had several of his closest associates. In addition, a favorite nephew was killed in the war.
As WWII approached, Freud admired Benito Mussolini for bringing "order" to a dysfunctional Italy. On one occasion, he even autographed a book for him. The inscription read, "Benito Mussolini with the respectful greeting of an old man who recognized in the ruler the cultural hero." Freud did oppose Hitler, however, recognizing the looming danger of his anti-Semitism.
Freud was well known for his elitism, an attitude that was not widespread in America, and once wrote in a letter about his contempt of people such as cabdrivers and maids, saying "…I can't help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with a few exceptions, are worthless." He rejected the American ideal of equality (he apparently didn't distinguish between equality of opportunity and status under the law, and literal egalitarianism). He referred to America's government as a "petticoat government," and particularly disliked the increasing equality of the sexes, saying "American women are an anti-cultural phenomenon." He had to say about the increasing acceptance between the equality the races that America "is already threatened by the black race."
It was his elitism that was much of the reason he did not favor Communism.
All this being the case, why was Freud so well received in America, and how did his particular brand of psychotherapy, "psychoanalysis," come to so deeply influence America to this day? And what was its effect on America, especially politically and culturally?
Here is Freud's basic theory in a very small nutshell; it has two fundamental components.
The first component dealt with the source of neuroses. Neuroses are the kind of thinking that interferes with one's ability to assess reality accurately; it is like a "bad thinking habit," a way of thinking that has been incorrectly learned, much like the spelling of a word that has been incorrectly learned. Like incorrect spelling, it is generally possible to correct the bad thinking habit using an educational approach.
Neuroses are unlike the more serious condition, psychosis, in that the patient's brain itself is normal. The psychoses, on the other hand, are severe disorders of thinking and emotion by a brain unable to function properly because of such things as metabolic, toxic, infectious, genetic, etc. problems; they require a greater level of intervention than just cognitive retraining. Freud, a medical doctor who trained and initially practiced as a neurologist, rarely dealt with psychoses, recognizing that they required a greater level of intervention than he could offer with psychoanalysis.
Freud believed that the cause of neuroses was the psychic trauma experienced during infant and childhood psychosexual development, and that it was during this period of life where adult personality was shaped. The early (prior to puberty) sexual development was divided into three parts – oral, anal, and genital. The last stage, the genital, focused primarily on the so-called "Oedipal conflict," where the little boy wanted to possess his mother sexually. This brought him into competition with his father, so according to Freud, he wanted to kill him. This – the "Oedipal stage" - was the most important of the three stages of psychosexual development in Freudian theory, and it was where much psychoanalytic therapeutic attention is directed.
The supposed existence of these feelings was thought to be the source of psychic trauma to the child, so he hid them from himself by repressing them. The hiding place was the so-called "unconscious" mind. The "unconscious" is now considered a misnomer; the unconscious state exists in all of us during sleep, and differs from the unconscious state due to brain injury, in that the uninjured brain can be aroused; it is more accurate to call the mental storage space in the uninjured brain the subconscious, not the "unconscious."
The second major part of Freud's theory dealt with how to treat the neuroses. Since awareness of the traumatic events thought to produce neuroses was hidden away, Freud had to devise a way to access it. His chief means was through dreams, which were thought in his day to be remnants of the hidden frightening feelings and thoughts. By "analyzing" them, the hidden thoughts could be brought into conscious awareness and dealt with. Today, there is a whole new medical specialty called "sleep medicine," and research shows that dreams are not nearly as involved with one's mental status as Freud thought they were.
Since the cause for neurosis was very often considered by Freud to be sexual repression, the prevention and treatment for neurosis was thought to be sexual freedom.
Sexual freedom as a remedy for the ills caused by sexual repression - neurasthenia, frigidity, depression, and the intellectual inferiority of women - was a very appealing one to a young American woman named Emma Goldman, who was already active in the American anarchist movement when she went to Vienna in 1895 to learn to become a midwife. While there, she attended a lecture by Freud, and felt that it had the effect on her of "being led out of a dark cellar into broad daylight." When she returned home, she continued both her violent behavior (bombings, assassinations, etc.) with the anarchists, as well as extolling the personal and societal benefits of sexual freedom. Eventually, she was deported to Russia.
Freud came to America In 1909, when he was invited to speak at Clark University in Massachusetts by its president, G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924). Because Hall's reason for inviting Freud to speak was to promote public discussion about sex and sex education, it was the subject of Freud's theory, not his therapeutic techniques, that was the subject of the lecture. The lecture maintaining that sexual freedom was how to prevent and cure neuroses, along with many social ills resulting from sexual repression was very popular. Emma Goldman, who had not yet been deported, was in attendance.
The lecture was extremely popular and well covered by the media, which had a wonderful time covering it. Freud was called "the Viennese Libertine," and Emma Goldman, well known for her advocacy of free love and her participation in anarchist activities, was called "Satan."
That was Freud's one and only trip to the United States, but between the popularity of his lecture and publications, Freudian theory eventually overtook the then favored method of child rearing in America, behaviorism. When that happened, it had a profound influence on social issues, politics, and education. However, it wasn't until the post WWII period that Freud's ideas, including child rearing practices and education, had any significant influence in America.
Behaviorism had its beginnings with the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), and regarded people, especially children, as little "black boxes" who were little more than "stimulus-response" machines. The particular brand of behaviorism that was prevalent until Freudian theory found favor with Americans was developed by John B. Watson. Both Watson and Freud, like John Locke long before them, believed that children were born tabula rasa, with empty minds, waiting to be shaped. However, Freud's and Watson's notions differed from each other's and from Locke's.
Locke believed that the "blankness" of the "slate" referred only to knowledge and morality, and that these were learned with the assistance of the teacher and under the independent direction of the child's own mind.
Watson agreed that the child's mind was a blank slate, but that once "written on," there was no turning back. Children responded "as they must," in the manner of little machines. He said that he could take a dozen healthy infants, and "guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant chief and yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations [or] race of his ancestors."
Freud's view was that the child's adult personality was so completely shaped by the impact of childrearing factors on infantile and childhood psychosexual development, and that because these factors were hidden from the individual, that people could not be held "responsible" for their behavior as adults. The only way to prevent psychological problems (primarily neuroses) was to be absolutely certain that the child was raised correctly, without psychic trauma.
The means by which Watson and Freud thought that nurture (rather than nature) inscribed itself on the child's mind were also very different from each other.
In Watson's 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which was extremely popular among American parents, it was recommended that parents follow strict schedules, including unvarying four-hour feeding schedules, that toilet training begin at six months, and that physical punishment begin at just a few months of age. He also recommended that parents not share too much emotional closeness with their children. Holding them in their laps or kissing them more than once a day was considered excessive. He preferred a handshake to a kiss. He also recommended leaving the child alone (although observed from a distance for the sake of safety) for most of the day. "Let it learn to overcome difficulties almost from the moment of birth."
Freud's primary focus was on infantile and childhood "psychosexual trauma," how to avoid it, and what to do about it if it happened (as it usually did).
The "nature-nurture" (environment vs. heredity) debate had been going on for decades, but it wasn't until the paradigm-shifting event of Adolf Hitler's "final solution" of WWII that "nurture" (environment) won the cultural battle over "nature" (heredity). The impact of environmental factors, not one's genes, were then considered to wholly determined one's course in life. This "fact" was quickly adopted in the Soviet Union under the influence of a scientist named Lysenko, who believed that environmental influences (like schools) could change the heretibility of characteristics in a single generation. The Soviets loved it, because if true, then all of the citizens of the Soviet Union could become good comrades in a matter of a few years. This belief was greatly embarrassing to many Soviet biologists, but they dared not express their embarrassment.
Around the turn of the century, between 1906 and 1913, just as Freud was beginning to win fame, Hitler (1889-1945) was also becoming politically active. He was already very anti-Semitic, and convinced that Germany's post WWI problems (which were considerable, primarily because of the extremely punitive economic conditions imposed by the Allies as a condition of peace) were due not to politics, but to the Jews.
German anti-Semitism was widespread as early as 1895, when in a book by Alfred Ploetz called The Excellence of Our Race and the Protection of the Weak, it was posited that Germany was becoming weak because it permitted genetically inferior people to survive. In Germany Ploetz belonged to a group called the "Mittgartbund," which was a secret Nordic club committed both to anti-Semitism and eugenics.
Ploetz visited a utopian community in Iowa in 1905, where he helped found the "Society for Racial Hygiene," an organization devoted to eugenics, and by 1922, a law was passed in the United States that called for the sterilization of genetic defectives; it had been written by a man named Charles Davenport, in the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor.
In 1927, well after Freud had given many lectures on his theory, Jews in Germany were proclaimed to be "especially interested" in sex, and the cause of "sexual degeneration, a breakdown of the family, and all that is decent" by Fritz Lenz, the first professor of "racial hygiene" in Germany. In 1928, Hitler proposed a racial "cleansing process" as a means of correcting the "corruption" by Jews.
In 1932, Davenport publically defended the Nazi goal of eliminating the Jews, and by the time Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the Society for Racial Hygiene in the U.S. had grown to twenty branches and over 1300 members. By then, over 22,000 sterilizations had been carried out in the U.S., many of them involuntary, and in Germany, "racial hygiene" was being taught as a course in most German medical schools.
Six months after becoming Chancellor, Hitler convinced the lower chamber of the German parliament (the Reichstag) to pass a "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring," with mandatory sterilization for such conditions; the law was closely modeled after the American one. Families in America who had members afflicted with these conditions often fled to remote areas in the mountains, where they were often pursued by law enforcement. In Germany, any doctor failing to report patients who might fit the criteria for genetic diseases could be fined.
In the early 1930s, many of Germany's Jews saw the handwriting on the wall and fled their homeland, going especially to Western Europe, Palestine, and the United States. This massive emigration included Freud himself, who settled in England. Many of the most prominent Freudian-influenced psychiatrists and psychoanalysts went to the United States, where they contributed heavily to the growing influence of Freudian thought in the U.S. By the end of WWII, the United States had more psychoanalysts than all the rest of the world combined.
Germany was now marching inexorably towards "the final solution." In 1939, on the day Hitler invaded Poland, he ordered the murder of all terminally ill patients in German hospitals. Their lives were proclaimed "devoid of value," and they were described as "useless eaters." An efficient system was established to carry out the goal, and the rest is history. After the war, it was because of the American sterilization laws that the victorious Allies did not include forced sterilization on the list of "war crimes," and anything having to do with genetics was considered contaminated by Hitler and the Nazis. Politics thus significantly delayed legitimate research into the role of "nature" (heredity) in human health.
It was Hitler's "resolution" of the nature-nurture debate in favor of the "nature" side that finally tipped the scale in the U.S. in favor of the "nurture" side – and Freud. The Eugenics Office in Cold Harbor was closed, and Charles Davenport remained silent on the issue until his death in 1944.
Because of Hitler's treatment of the Jews, many of the immigrants favored Marx, the German philosopher whose views were adopted by the Soviets, Germany's enemy, over Hitler's views. Many of them actively worked to fuse their Freudian thinking with that of Marx. The influx of psychoanalysts thus served to strengthen the ties between liberal politics and social reform. City College in New York was a favorite gathering place for New York's Marxists, both the "intellectual Marxists," whose members included such luminaries as Irving Kristol, and the "political Marxists," whose members included Julius Rosenberg.
Overt Marxism lost favor after Stalin's extermination of more than twenty million Russians became known, and as the Western conflict with the Soviets grew. The attempt to connect Marx with Freud began to weaken. The Communists weren't gone, though – they merely morphed into Leftists, Socialists, and the far left wing of the Democrat Party, and Freud became the substitute for the leadership of Marx and Stalin.
Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) was referred to as "America's Pediatrician," and he successfully introduced American mothers to Freudian child rearing practices in his book, Baby and Child Care, and in many articles in popular women's magazines.
Spock grew up in a strict New England household, and called his mother a "tyrant" who was too controlling, strict, and moralistic, and who often warned him against masturbation and "naughty thoughts." His father received a more favorable review.
Spock's acquaintance with Freud occurred after his marriage to his wealthy and politically active wife, Jane Cheney. She had become a Socialist while at Bryn Mawr, and was active in the American Labor Party. After their marriage, she subscribed to the Marxist publication "New Masses." She began psychoanalysis shortly after her marriage to Spock, where he soon followed her. In 1933 he had the first of his own three analyses.
Spock deviated slightly from Freud by maintaining that children had constitutional differences in temperament, but held firmly to the idea that their personalities were primarily due to the impact of childrearing experiences and the effect of these experiences on their psychosexual development.
Because children had no control over the nature of these experiences (the painful ones of which were securely hidden from their conscious awareness), and because these experiences permanently impacted their adult personalities, people could not be considered "responsible" for their actions as adults. As early as 1922, Clarence Darrow wrote in "Crime: Its Causes and Treatment" that "Man is in no sense the maker of himself, and has no more power than any other machine to escape the law of cause and effect. He does as he must. Therefore, there is no such thing as moral responsibility…"
The "lack of moral responsibility" soon became a popular legal defense, and it also became the source of "cultural victimhood." The "I couldn't help it" excuse infested the nursery and the classroom from the elementary years through the universities. No one could be held responsible for his actions, so, for example, prisons were no longer places where people who had made bad behavioral choices, and who had violated the rights of others, were sent to protect law-abiding citizens. Rather, they became places where the poor unfortunates could be sent to be rehabilitated.
The nursery and the school became therapeutic institutions, where if children were properly treated, crime and social injustice could be prevented. The goals echoed those of Horace Mann, who also wanted to cure societal ills through intervention in the schools.
Spock was the not the only vector of Freud in the nursery, but he was the most famous one. He wrote voluminously; his books sold by the millions in 39 languages, and his articles were regularly featured in many women's magazines. He wrote that castration fears in boys and penis envy in girls were the source of serious psychological problems. Much of Freud's thinking was presented to parents in terms they could accept more easily than if they were spelled out directly. For example, in discussing the "Oedipal conflict," Spock didn't tell mom and dad that their little boy wanted to have sex with mom and kill dad. Instead, he told them "We realize now that there is an early stirring of sexual feeling at this period which is an essential part of normal development," and that if the child's feelings weren't handled correctly, he could acquire all sorts of problems, including "excitability, overactivity, sleeplessness, frequent masturbation, school failure, difficulties in parental management and sexual behavior of which the parents disapprove."
Physical punishment, especially spanking, was also discouraged, because the child's hindside was considered an erogenous zone, and Freud had warned that spanking would lead to "sexual perversions." Masturbation was also considered a serious problem, and Spock recommended that it be handled with the greatest delicacy because an improper approach could lead to traumatic consequences such as maladjustment, fear, and even the inability to marry or have children.
Although Spock had been raised by a strict mother, and was personally opposed to early dating, premarital sex, adultery, and pornography, he supported Freud's ideas about childrearing, and this inevitably led to support for permissiveness, up to and including "sexual freedom" as both preventative and curative for personal and social ills. He told parents not to risk doing psychological damage to their children by disciplining them, and that serious damage could be done to their vulnerable psyches with even small emotional inconsistencies. He issued so many warnings that many parents became afraid to say "no" to their children, or to make demands on them for fear of alienating them - this, in spite of the fact that he had once studied 21 mothers himself, and found that those who were the most educated – the ones who were most likely to read about the "proper" way to raise their children – were precisely those who had the most trouble with tasks such as toilet training, and who had bratty, obnoxious, spoiled children. One psychologist of the era even advised parents against disciplining their children at all. By disciplining them, "…instead stamping out the meanness… It becomes more fixed in our child's personality and character," and a psychiatric social worker wrote an article entitled "Spoil That Baby." This kind of advice to parents to be permissive with their children was common, and was the same as the advice being given to leaders of progressive education in the schools.
As Spock grew older, he became heavily involved with activist politics, and was even arrested in 1967 at age 65 while demonstrating against the Vietnam War; he ran for president in 1972, stating that a "new political movement must be built to the left of the Democratic Party."
While Spock laid the foundation for Freud in the nursery, the pathway into the schools was laid by Dr. Carolyn Zachry. She had received her Ph.D. in "educational psychology" from Columbia Teachers College, trained at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, and in 1938, she partnered with the Progressive Education Association to set up the New York Institute on Human Development. Benjamin Spock was a member of the faculty.
One of the most important results of the influence of Freudian thought in the schools was their change from places where the acquisition of knowledge was the focus into places where children received therapy. Teachers were taught that emotional support was more important than knowledge; guidance counselors, who had once advised students on careers and colleges, now began to focus on their personal problems; school psychologists, who had once tested students about academic problems and remediation, now became therapists who, like the guidance counselors, were mostly Freudian in their orientation.
The idea of the school as therapeutic center was not new; as early as 1910, a year after Freud's visit to Clark University, the use of his theory in the schools was proposed. Thirty years later, it was actually happening. The "child guidance movement" had succeeded in getting the schools to function as a kind of "mental hygiene laboratory" rather than focusing primarily on the transmission of knowledge. This approach became known as the "child-centered" approach, with admonitions like "teach the child, not the subject" etc.
Freudian influence was seen most vividly with the rise of the "alternative" or "free" schools of the sixties, based on the progressive principles taught at Zachary's institute in New York. Summerhill, A.S. Neill's school in England, was one of the early examples of the application of Freudian-Progressive ideas to education. Neill had undergone analysis himself, and even tried to analyze the students at his school, where the acquisition of knowledge was an option, not a requirement. Schools in the U.S. such as the Waldorf schools and Sudbury Academy followed similar paths.
The use of sexual freedom to prevent neuroses and their resulting social ills has continued to grow; just a few days before I wrote this post, the news was full of reports about school health centers in several states (not just Maine) giving birth control pills to little girls as young as 11, without parental knowledge or consent. It appears that even the proponents of sexual freedom don't wish eleven-year-olds to risk becoming mothers.
Where do we go from here? What is the proper function of schools? Who should be in charge of what and how our children are taught?
I'll be sharing my thoughts about these and related issues with you soon.