Counseling Today, Member Insights, Opinion

Extending the humanistic vision

James T. Hansen October 2, 2010

One of the long-standing debates in the counseling profession is whether the counseling process should be conceptualized scientifically or according to the assumptions of the humanities. At this point in history, most counselors would probably agree that both scientific and humanistic ideologies should inform the practice of counseling.

These scientific and humanities polarities can also be used to conceptualize the entire counseling profession, not just the counseling process. In this regard, I argue that contemporary counseling culture is largely structured by scientific assumptions that have had a detrimental impact on the profession. The purpose of this article, then, is twofold: to explore the consequences of grounding the counseling profession in the humanities such as literature, history and philosophy rather than science; and to demonstrate that this humanities vision is a better fit for the profession than the scientific one.

Arguably, the historical relationship between scientific and humanities influences in the counseling profession can be characterized as a complex dialectical interplay, with each force offsetting and progressively defining the other. A reasonable way to conceptualize the humanities vision, then, is to identify key scientific ideological polarities and their humanities counterparts.

Human complexity vs. human simplicity

It is a remarkable irony that contemporary counselor education tends to simplify, rather than complicate, human beings. Students often enter graduate school in awe of the sheer complexity of the human condition. Sadly, by the time they order their caps and gowns, these new professionals have been educationally indoctrinated to think of people in relatively simple terms: as technique-responsive clusters of symptoms. Of course, I am intentionally exaggerating the state of current counselor education to make my point. Remnants of human complexity certainly remain in graduate curricula. Nevertheless, I do not believe I am that far off the mark. Within counselor training programs, there exists a strong, creeping trend toward simplifying the human condition.

I contend this simplification is a direct result of the influence of scientific ideology. To illustrate this point, consider the scholarly goals of a humanist, such as a literary scholar, in contrast to the goals of a biologist, who is a dedicated scientist. The literary scholar might spend the better part of an academic career devoted to a particular author, novel or even a single character. The goal of this humanities professional is to complicate, dimensionalize and enrich the subject matter, not simplify it. The biologist, on the other hand, seeks to whittle down the subject of study to its barest elements by progressively eliminating extraneous perspectives that do not meet the instrumental needs of scientific advancement. Given their respective professional goals, the biologist and the literary scholar have selected the proper ideological tools to advance their disciplines.

Why should the counseling profession adopt a humanities ideology that complicates people rather than a scientific ideology that aims to simplify them? The brief answer (so plainly obvious it is remarkable that it is largely missed in contemporary counseling culture) is that people are, indeed, complex! To thoroughly adopt an ideology aimed at simplifying people is completely counter to everything that is known about the human condition. Specifically, the locus of human complexity resides in the subjective meaning systems that people construct. The undeniable truth that every human being has unique inner subjective experiences makes people extraordinarily complex.

Science, however, is the sworn ideological enemy of subjectivity. Scientists use double-blind procedures and other methodological strategies in an attempt to eliminate the influence of subjective bias within their studies. For scientists, subjectivity is something to be rooted out so that the conclusions of their studies will be objective. This ideological stance is perfectly appropriate for chemists and physicists of course. Indeed, scientific investigation can also be an important tool in the humanities, as when chemical analysis is used to determine the age of historical documents. It is likewise vital for the counseling profession to use science as a tool, particularly in investigating the effectiveness of counseling interventions.

Although the counseling profession absolutely should retain science as a tool, the simplifying, anti-subjectivist ideology that gave rise to this tool should not be allowed to overtake the profession. Reductive diagnostics, symptom-focused treatment planning and defining counselor education goals in terms of lists of competencies, techniques training and manualized counseling models are just a few of the many signs that an emphasis on subjective meaning systems is gradually being lost in the profession. The creeping spread of scientific ideology, and concomitant loss of a humanities perspective, is arguably responsible for this shift. Indeed, it is extraordinarily ironic that professionals who seek to understand the unique experiences of their clients would adopt an ideology aimed at eliminating the variable of subjectivity. How, though, should a humanities vision, which encourages notions of human complexity, be revived within the counseling profession?

First, discussions of clients, in case conferences, classrooms and other forums, should emphasize subjective client meanings, not symptoms, family history of mental illness, reductive treatment plans or other supposed objective case data. In discussing a client, counselors should bear a closer resemblance to English professors talking about a literary character than to chemists describing the properties of a particular compound. Of course, clients are not fictional characters; they are real people in a state of psychological distress. Alleviating that distress involves a humanities-style immersion into the realm of human complexity, not a simplifying, scientific objectification of the case material.

Second, counselor education programs should regularly teach and adopt qualitative research methodologies. Unlike quantitative research, which is aimed at finding singular, objective truths uncontaminated by subjectivity, qualitative methods are designed to illuminate the multiple strata of meaning that underlie human behavior. Quantitative research will always be a useful tool for counselors. However, a humanities vision for the profession is best served by investigative methods that explore subjectivity, not ones that eschew it.

Third, counselors should take a critical stance toward the medical model of counseling rather than uncritically participating in it. The complexities of human relating, which are integral to the counseling process, have been ideologically marginalized by the medical model of people as collections of symptoms to be eradicated. Despite its gross inconsistencies with the type of help that counselors provide, medical model training has increasingly been integrated into counselor education programs, and counselors have actively sought reimbursement from third parties that require the use of a medical model. Whether a counselor decides to participate in the medical model is a personal, ethical decision. However, counselor education programs should prepare students to think critically about this model so that it is not accepted without question once students become practitioners.

Multiplicity of perspectives vs. singular truth

Consider philosophers as representatives of a humanities profession. Critical inquiry, active debates in the literature and the consideration of multiple perspectives all contribute to enriching the philosophical body of knowledge. Philosophers do not expect that their debates will somehow march them forward to singular truth, with all philosophers one day arriving at unified agreement concerning philosophical topics. Instead, an ever-increasing multiplicity of perspectives is itself the end product, not a means to some greater end.

Alternatively, consider a medical researcher as an example of a professional who operates within a scientific ideology. Differences of opinion about the cause of a particular disease may exist among medical researchers. This multiplicity of perspectives is considered an unfortunate means to the greater end of finding the singular truth about what actually causes the disease.

I maintain the current intellectual climate within the counseling profession bears a much closer resemblance to scientific ideological assumptions, which regard multiple perspectives as a problem to be resolved, than it does to the intellectual stance of the humanities, which embraces multiple perspectives as an end in itself. Witness the general lack of public debate over ideological positions among academic counselors (both in the counseling literature and within academic settings). This is in stark contrast to the humanities, wherein active debate, both in literature and academic settings, is prized as a vital part of professional culture. Indeed, counselor educators have accepted oversight from an organization (the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) that dictates the proper topics to teach and suitable perspectives to adopt. Widespread acceptance of this ideological police force is compelling evidence that counseling culture has become increasingly intolerant of multiple perspectives. This intolerance is not limited to academia, though.

Practicing counselors increasingly use standardized treatments for particular constellations of symptoms. One disturbing sign of this trend is the proliferation over of the past decade of treatment planning guides, which detail precise, concrete treatments and goals for particular categories of clients. This unfortunate development, which has been fortified at the academic level by the “empirically supported treatment” and “best practices” movements, is as stifling to counselors as the demand to use only paint-by-numbers kits would be to artists. Furthermore, counselors are being told not only how to practice but who to be. Those who promote a unified identity for the counseling profession have attempted to outline the proper identity for professional counselors to adopt. Counselors who wish to expand their horizons can make use of continuing education, but only if an accrediting body has approved the content of the continuing education experience. To become a counselor nowadays, one must agree to don an ideological straitjacket. How, then, can the culture of counseling be changed so that multiple perspectives will be encouraged?

First, active debate should be promoted in academia and in the counseling literature. One of the best ways to foster an appreciation for multiple perspectives is for professionals who advocate different points of view to engage in civil public debates (both in presentations and in the literature). A public airing of differences clarifies ideas, elucidates the nuances of systems of thought, challenges professionals to think in novel ways, generates new perspectives and, perhaps most important, demonstrates that there are multiple legitimate ways to understand the subject matter of counseling.

Second, and related to the first point, theoretical dogmatism should be discouraged at all levels of the counseling profession. Students should be taught that counseling consists of a variety of useful perspectives. No one perspective should be idealized or used for all purposes. Similarly, practicing counselors should view counseling orientations as problem-solving tools, not representations of ultimate truths about human nature.

Third, continuing education should not be professionally mandated. As an analogy, imagine if authors of fiction were required to read a list of approved works before they were allowed to write. If a humanities atmosphere is to be created in counseling culture, practicing counselors, not bureaucrats, should determine the types of postgraduate educational experiences that best suit their needs. It is a shocking assault on intellectual freedom and growth, for example, when only one article in an issue of a particular journal is officially sanctioned as being eligible for continuing education credit. This implies that all other readings are somehow less intellectually worthy of professional attention. The need for continuing education should be an internalized ethic instilled in counseling students during graduate school, not an external mandate that limits and controls the types of educational experiences that counselors pursue.

Fourth, professional limitations should not be placed on counselor identity. Any proposal for a unified professional identity is, by definition, also a proposal that negates certain types of identity possibilities. Counselors should be encouraged to determine their own professional identities, which may be based on their personal temperament, local demands, orientation to their work or any other considerations they deem relevant to their professional life.

Discussion and conclusions

Science is a vital tool that will always be a necessary component of counseling inquiry. However, the counseling profession should be ideologically grounded in the humanities, not science. The scientific ideals of parsimony, singular truth and objectivity cannot possibly facilitate the evolution of a profession that historically has made its greatest advances by embracing complexity, multiple meaning systems and creative visions of human nature.

I have made the following recommendations for shifting professional counseling culture from a position of simplicity and singular truth to one of complexity and multiple perspectives:

  • Discussions of clients should emphasize subjective client meanings, not objective data.
  • Qualitative research should become a standard method of inquiry.
  • The medical model should be subjected to more intense critical scrutiny.
  • Active debate over perspectives should be professionally encouraged.
  • Theoretical dogmatism should be discouraged.
  • Continuing education requirements should be abolished or radically revised.
  • Professional identity should be self-determined, not professionally mandated.

Of course, there are other ways to encourage the spread of a humanities vision in the counseling profession (abolishing the infantilizing and draconian practice of mandated supervision, for instance). The seven recommendations listed above seem like a reasonable place to start, however. In keeping with a humanities vision, I sincerely hope these recommendations will engender controversy and debate.

James T. Hansen is a professor and coordinator of the Mental Health Specialization in the Oakland University Department of Counseling. Contact him at jthansen@oakland.edu.

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