Counseling Today, From the President

Who are we?

Brian S. Canfield February 1, 2008

In recent decades, the American Counseling Association has given voice to a variety of issues that have helped to shape our profession. However, two areas continue to challenge our efforts to represent all counseling professionals.

One question with which we continue to grapple: Who is or should be part of the counseling profession? Historically, a “counselor” was anyone who claimed the title. More recently, licensure and certification have become the hallmark of counselor identity. However, these criteria are not yet universal. The identity issue remains problematic. How do we maintain the autonomy of specialization areas — such as school counselor, mental health counselor, marriage and family counselor and so forth — and concurrently integrate these identified groups into a unified counseling profession? “Autonomy” and “common identity” are not mutually exclusive concepts, but we have yet to find the balance in terms of counselor identity.

One manifestation of this debate is the move toward requiring future counselor educators to possess doctoral degrees specifically in counselor education rather than in related fields such as counseling psychology. By and large, opinions on this issue divide into two major camps. I have found that counselor educators and doctoral students holding or pursuing a degree in counseling or counselor education typically support this initiative, voicing the need for a more homogeneous professional identity. Conversely, counselor educators possessing doctoral degrees in related fields such as counseling psychology speak of the importance of professional diversity and inclusiveness and avoiding the restrictive identity policies of sister professions, such as psychology.

Lacking the Wisdom of Solomon, no one has yet come up with a course of action to satisfy everyone. However, drawing from the work of Gregory Bateson, it is possible to appreciate both sides of the argument — the need for “inclusiveness” with “exclusiveness.” Bateson, a biologist by training, wrote extensively about the necessary qualities for maintaining the health of biological and social systems. (I highly recommend his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind.) He observed that a viable system (a cell, an ecosystem, a community or a profession) must maintain a clear boundary between itself and the outside environment. Without such a boundary, the system would lack integrity and eventually dissipate into the larger environment, ceasing to exist as a separate entity.

However, Bateson also noted the importance of a boundary being “permeable” to allow for the exchange of new and essential material (nutrients or information, as the case may be). An overly rigid boundary characterized a “closed” and finite system — one that would eventually “atrophy and die” due to a lack of resources.

While professional identity presents a major challenge, “diversity of opinion” is perhaps an even greater challenge for our profession. In recent decades, ACA has been at the forefront of examining important issues that impact our clients. In many respects, however, we have not expanded the conversation, but merely championed a particular set of beliefs and priorities.

Truth be told, much of what enters into the collective “body of knowledge” in the behavioral sciences in general, and the counseling field in particular, reflects opinion rather than fact. There is certainly nothing wrong with stating opinion, but it should be clearly stated as such. Unfortunately, proponents of particular views often have little incentive in making such a distinction. Those who hold a differing opinion are often reluctant to express that view, lest they be held in disfavor, or even ostracized, by colleagues invested in a particular opposing view. The solution to this quandary is that, as scholars, we demand a greater level of accountability and accuracy in the dissemination of scholarly information. We need to do a better job of ensuring that debate includes all perspectives.

Evidence of our shortfall in this area is the paucity of conservative voices and perspectives within ACA and the counseling profession. While labels such as “conservative” or “evangelical Christian” may, or may not, reflect the personal beliefs of a particular counselor, a very large segment of American society — and, consequently, many of our clients and potential clients — identify with these labels. This is no doubt an “inconvenient truth” for some, but it reflects the world in which we live and practice as counselors.

If we are to become a truly diverse and inclusive profession, we must welcome all counseling colleagues “to the table” regardless of philosophical view, religious or political affiliation, or social priority, to the extent that expressed views do not advocate policies and actions that are illegal. To accomplish this, current ACA leadership will work to ensure that association policies remain inclusive. However, as an ACA member, you can play an important role by recruiting colleagues and encouraging them to become active members of ACA. Only through participation can we influence the future direction of the counseling profession.