My Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology Taught me a lot about “Social Justice” but very little about Counseling or Psychology

One month ago I finished my final class at graduate school, completing the academic requirement for a Masters in Counseling Psychology. It took two and half years and roughly $70, 000, borrowed from the government. During the final class, on zoom of course, students were invited to express their feelings as they transitioned to the next stage of their careers. Many cried, expressing feelings of grief. More than one said they had found in our cohort “the family I never knew as a child”. One young lady took the time to thank each peer in turn for “teaching me how to love”. I could see that the experience of the past few years had deeply affected many of my fellow students. I felt no grief. I had awoken that morning, describing the feeling to my partner as being akin to Christmas. I was excited. Classes had become literally painful for me and I was relieved they would be over. But mostly, of the experience overall, I had come to feel embarrassment. For myself and for the education I had received. For my school, and the complete lack of scholastic rigor I had witnessed. And most of all, for my profession, which, I was beyond doubt, had become distracted and tainted beyond recognition. I am understanding as I write this that my feelings may have actually surpassed embarrassment. Perhaps what I feel is shame.

This was all in stark contrast to the hope and sincere enthusiasm I had felt as an incoming first year. I had chosen this particular training institute  because it offers a focus on depth, particularly Jungian, psychology while fulfilling the basic requirements for the degree necessary in America to pursue licensure as a Marriage and Family Therapist. I had imagined myself receiving something resembling a spiritual experience, becoming immersed into the mysteries, arriving a novice and leaving a full-fledged alchemist. But it quickly became apparent that no such initiation was on offer. There was to be little joy, and certainly no humor. Plenty of bitterness and resentment, bigotry masquerading as tolerance, self-loathing disguised as love. But above all, incompetence and mediocrity, and antagonism to anybody that challenged it 

I had not been to college in 20 years and a lot had changed. Many of the women, that made up three quarters of the class, seemed to look at me with hostility as if I was an intruder and my motivation for being there was suspect. The #MeToo movement was in full swing and Trump was in the early stages of his term. A female student of the more friendly variety assured me that there was simply an “anger in the culture at large” and I shouldn’t take the venomous stares too personally. Her reassurances were of some comfort but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to be a mind opening experience. Students weren’t so much interested in learning anything new as they were on just confirming the way they wanted to view the world. An early class on Freud became not so much a study of the unparalleled contributions of the singular genius in the history of psychoanalysis, but rather a student body critique of how he had damaged his women clients and could not be forgiven for his failings to live up to a feminist philosophy that didn’t exist in early 20th century Vienna. I was becoming aware that a historical perspective was going to play second fiddle to self-pity and resentment. This was to be true of all the classes.

Despite all the students and staff clearly enjoying the benefits of the modern, liberal, post-enlightenment tradition, Western values were highly suspect and American culture was consistently viewed as a problem to be overcome, or “dismantled”. History, in the rare instance it should be examined at all, was only discussed from a post-modern oppressor versus oppressed perspective, something to be “deconstructed”. There was absolutely no serious discussion of biology, art history, anthropology or literature, subjects that might help inform a deep therapeutic mastery as had been advertised and promised. Instead, the works of social activists such as Angela Davis, offering the most questionable connection to the world of psychology were required reading. One rather passionate but clearly inexperienced instructor encouraged us “to bring down the entire capitalist system down from the inside”. Disgust for capitalism was consistent among students and teachers alike, although nobody actually bothered to define it, and I doubted many were capable of doing so.

As frustrating as such intellectual laziness was at a masters level, it was only mildly annoying compared to the disturbing ideas around race that were to be introduced. Particularly, the idea clearly forced upon the white folk (I estimate that 90% of the college population was Caucasian), that we had something to be ashamed of purely because of the color of our skin. Equally worrying was the speed with which the impressionable student audience was willing to accept it, without questioning, often accompanied with hand wringing, tears and lamentations of one’s “whiteness”. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By the end of the first year, the concept of having “cultural competency” had been introduced. I had intuitively understood this as being aware that people come from different backgrounds and have had different life experiences. It made total sense that as a therapist, if not a human being, one should be sensitive to this truth. Furthermore, it had always appealed to me, as the good humanistic liberal I thought myself to be, to hold off on judgement as to what these experiences might be until the person in question shared them with me. Apparently, I had been mistaken.

As Derald Wing Sue and David Sue’s magnum opus “Counseling The Culturally Diverse” was introduced as sacred text, I was henceforth taught that “cultural competency” meant something quite different. We weren’t to delay judgement but were instead encouraged to make presumptions of other people based on skin tone, gender and sexual preference. It didn’t just extend to others, we were also to judge ourselves. It was also in this text that we were informed of such psychologically spurious concepts such as “recognizing and understanding resistance to multicultural training”, “the dynamics and dilemmas of microaggressions” and, my personal favorite, “developing a nonracist and antiracist white identity”. In this class, concepts such as “white privilege” and “white fragility” were introduced and sold as objective truth. Videos of beat poetry (along with obligatory audience finger snapping) were shown alongside photographs depicting atrocities against Congalese men and women by Belgian King Leopold II over a hundred years ago. A bizarre juxtaposition but harrowing stuff. So what was the point? Or the agenda? I wish I had the courage to ask at this time. This was my first taste of the complete digression from an educational perspective that prioritized the practice of psychotherapy to one that prioritized the practice of what is generally referred to as “social justice”. For the rest of my time at the school , almost two years, this focus would never return back.

Increasingly, teachers used their time in lectures to discuss their political beliefs. Some apologized for “getting on my soapbox”, but rarely stepped off it. All of the opinions expressed were hostile to the sitting president, Republicans, conservatives…anyone that didn’t think “progressively”. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why instructors, who were being paid to teach me psychology, seemed to think it appropriate to try to influence the way I voted, or at least advertise how they did. One teacher said that “my Republican friends make me physically sick”. I wondered how such a man, expressing such vitriol for those who merely voted differently from him, in a two party system no less, could legitimately practice psychotherapy, let alone teach it. But it was becoming increasingly clear that I wasn’t being trained to think as  a psychotherapist, or even to think critically. I was being trained what to think, and what to believe, and how to act on the basis of an ideology. I wasn’t benefiting from a classical education so much as I was being subjected to propaganda.

It was in a class entitled “Community Mental Health” that this strategy of propaganda became most apparent. The teacher would fudge crime and incarceration statistics in America and then show images of African Americans being assaulted by law enforcement to convince students that they were living in a “white supremacist state”. The effect on students was palpable, often eliciting gasps at the images of violence. Understanding his technique, I left the class early in frustration. When the teacher reached out to me by email, inquiring why I had left, I replied to him that his crime figures were inaccurate and that I found his teaching to be irresponsible (along with Wikipedia links citing correct numbers). A week passed and he hadn’t returned the email. Concerned that I would be marked down and punished for non-conformity (conformity and groupthink had by this time become completely status quo), I sent another email apologizing. The teacher then replied immediately that there was no need to be sorry, that “your voice is very welcome” and he had simply been thinking about how to best reply. But he never did address his inaccuracies, and my corrections to his claims went ignored.

Although such teachers promoted an “anti-racist” philosophy and continually reported supposed sensitivity to their own unconscious bias, many seemed blissfully unaware of their own quite obvious racism. One instructor, clearly somewhat inebriated from his quest to obtain equality prophet status, insisted with great conviction that “hard work and being on time were Western values and people of color could not be expected to do either”. Such blatant bigotry and hypocrisy were fairly common but by this point I had stopped bothering to protest. My disagreements and queries were consistently labelled as “countertransference” and I was expected to believe that my disapproval of any questionable “woke” idea was simply a sinister manifestation of my “unexamined white, male privilege” (cue metaphors about my being a fish and not recognizing the water I was swimming in, or something to that effect).  Certainly my confusion couldn’t have anything do with wasting thousands of dollars, and months of my time, to be taught material with only the flimsiest connection, at best, to the actual practice of psychotherapy.

Fortunately, the intellectual and spiritual poverty I encountered during my so-called education has not hampered my career. Perhaps it has even helped it flourish. Being forced to fend for myself, to find my own way, to question authority at every turn, to speak up though afraid, and to have to dig for truth, all In hopes of acquiring real skill, these lessons have served me in ways that were not immediately apparent to me as I struggled through another tedious class. But I have also come to understand that the shortcomings and biases of the institution I attended are far from unique, and there is undoubtedly a new generation of therapists coming up in America that are unschooled in the theories of Bowlby, Bowen, Jung and Freud, and literate only in the ramblings of DiAngelo, Butler and Kendi. About this we should be deeply concerned.

By ‘Alexander Adams’


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