Janice Fiamengo teaches at the University of Ottawa. Yesterday, she posted a superb column about the ravages inflicted by a therapy culture.
When institutions renounce ethics in favor of therapy, people cease to follow the rules. They refuse to be judged on the basis of their merit. They no longer wonder about the right thing to do. And they devalue achievement in favor of what Fiamengo calls a good life story.
People who live in a therapy culture no longer care to compete in the arena, to play the game of life. They refuse the judgment of the market and spend their time trying to figure out how to game the system.
One is reminded of Elizabeth Warren. Not only did she game the affirmative action system, to the point where she was awarded a job that she did not merit, but now she might even become a United States senator.
Fiamengo describes what has happened to universities now that the therapy culture has taken over:
In the field that I know best — the academic — the therapeutic orientation has assumed a dominance amongst both students and professors that would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago. It is almost inconceivable, in fact, that an institution once shaped by the merit principle — the conviction that intellectual achievement alone should determine an individual’s success, regardless of family name, affluence, or status — should now so widely discriminate according to life story. Students have always been keen, of course, to make excuses for poor work or missed deadlines, and most professors used to regard their hard-luck stories with the irreverence they deserved. But never before have students shown such unassailable confidence that their stories would, like an academic Open Sesame, guarantee the lifting of penalties. And never before has their confidence been so well-placed.
What used to be understood as the normal stress and drama of student life — difficulty concentrating, jittery distractedness during in-class tests, anguish following a breakup — have all now become bona fide life crises or even disabilities that exempt the sufferer from regular course requirements. I receive letters regularly from the Student Academic Success Service at my university demanding special accommodations for so-called disabilities that include depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and phobias. The accommodations range from copies of the lecture notes to extra time for exams and assignments and even a deferral of course requirements for up to one year. I am surprised now not that so many students have had themselves classified as disabled but that many more do not, so wide is the array of symptoms and conditions (weak memories, exam anxiety) for which accommodation can now be secured with a simple referral from a doctor or psychologist. The result is that an entire generation has grown up in a world where rules are changed, or abolished, so long as one has a compelling story. It is impossible to imagine that such a regime does not fundamentally alter one’s understanding of rules — weaken their regulatory power, dilute their meaning — whether one has ever personally flouted them or not.
No one deserves praise or blame for success or failure. Everyone must be showered with empathy for the hardships he has endured.
In Fiamengo’s words:
Although I can think of cases in which it seems reasonable to bend a rule because of personal circumstances, I believe that such cases must be exceptional. The effects of our era’s insistence on elective leniency — leniency determined by a sad story as much as by any weighing of evidence, such evidence being almost impossible to calculate — are manifold and deleterious. It need hardly be said that personal responsibility is weakened in a culture in which exceptions are routinely granted for the unfortunate. Who would hold herself responsible for bad behavior or poor choices when the blame can be laid elsewhere (at the feet of the powerful, for example, or society in general)? Perhaps a kind of envy of disadvantage (or at least of faux-disadvantage) will result from the conclusion that hard luck stories are their own useful currency. Such envy may lead — has already led, in some circles — to overt competition amongst the dispossessed just as there used to be competition amongst high-achievers….
Those who are not compelled to take responsibility for their failures are ultimately prevented from taking responsibility for their achievements as well. And a society that encourages its members to define themselves according to helplessness in the face of adversity — whether large-scale injustice or personal bad luck — is one that no longer believes in greatness.
… or exceptionalism.