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Education Reporter

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One Nation under Therapy: How the Helping Culture Is Eroding Self-Reliance, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel, St. Martin's Press, 2005, 310 pp., $23.95

This book chronicles the rise and current prominence of what the authors call "therapism": the assumption that people are inherently weak, fragile, and in need of professional help to deal with common setbacks and negative life events. Therapism sees awareness and expression of feelings as crucial to well-being, and tends to make self-esteem, self-discovery and self-actualization the ultimate aims of human life.

Satel and Sommers believe that all this self-focus can make people - well, selfish, or even self-obsessed. "Bullies and sociopaths often score very high on self-esteem tests and claim that they are very happy. Happiness, without a foundation in ethics, can characterize a smug, unfeeling person, and such people are often exploitive and dangerous."

The authors examine scientific studies and historical accounts in the areas of education and parenting, crime and punishment, and human response to stress and trauma. They show that people are more resilient, more dignified and more able to take care of themselves than the mindset of therapism assumes.

Therapism also acts as if focusing on one's own internal emotional state, in order to understand it better, is the secret to attaining emotional wholeness and happiness. But numerous studies have shown that "preoccupation with one's mood can intensify and extend the period of depressed mood." It is also now well-known among psychiatrists that expressing anger can be enraging rather than cathartic. Giving vent to anger usually makes people more angry, not less.

The therapeutic mindset that focuses morbidly on emotions and their expression has already filtered into schools and elsewhere. In those settings, it leads to much bad advice and many misguided efforts. These efforts can be invasive, too: teachers often make assignments that ask students to bare their souls and become very vulnerable with their classmates or teachers. "Why should young people who are in school to learn skills and become knowledgeable be asked to 'put themselves on the line'?"

Satel and Sommers recommend that parents "demand knowledge-based instead of feelings-centered classrooms," and teach their children the virtues of action, courage and strength, not only those of sensitivity and empathy. They make a convincing case that therapism is enfeebling to naturally resilient people, and that the American people should reject it.

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