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About Carl R. Rogers

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Introduction from The Carl Rogers Reader

by Howard Kirschenbaum and Valerie Henderson

Edited by Howard Kirschenbaum and Valerie Henderson, 1989, Houghton Mifflin, NY

  • Carl Ransom Rogers (1902-1987) was the most influential psychotherapist in American history
  • He pioneered a major new approach to psychotherapy, known successively as the "nondirective," "client-centered," and "person-centered" approach.
  • He was the first person in history to record and publish complete cases of psychotherapy.
  • He carried out and encouraged more scientific research on counseling and psychotherapy than had ever been undertaken anywhere.
  • More than any individual, he was responsible for the spread of professional counseling and psychotherapy beyond psychiatry and psychoanalysis to all the helping professions - psychology, social work, education, ministry, lay therapy, and others.
  • He was a leader in the development and dissemination of the intensive therapeutic group experience sometimes called the "encounter group."
  • He was a leader in the humanistic psychology movement of the 1960s through the 1980s which continues to exert a profound influence on society and the professions.
  • He was a pioneer in applying the principles of effective interpersonal communications to resolving intergroup and international conflict.
  • He was one of the helping professions' most prolific writers, authoring sixteen books and more than two hundred professional articles and research studies. Millions of copies of his books have been printed, including more than sixty foreign-language editions of his works.

In this volume we present the scope of that life's work - its breadth across so many areas of professional and human interest and its depth in exploring a few central themes basic to all human relationships. Whatever the section - on therapy, personal growth education, science, philosophy, social issues, or Rogers's own life - the personal, the professional, and the political are always present. Whatever the time of publication - with selections from 1942 to 1987, as well as previously unpublished writings - Rogers's unique, personal style of communication is evident.

Carl Rogers's influence, however, was due to much more than his writings. He also pioneered in using innovative nonprint media to popularize his ideas. The American Academy of Psychotherapists' tape library distributed thousands of copies of his therapeutic interviews to professionals around the world. He was often filmed conducting therapy or intensive group sessions. In the famous Gloria film series (Rogers et al., 1962), a single client was interviewed successively by Rogers, by gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, and by rational-emotive therapist Albert Ellis. The film Journey into Self (Farson, 1970), showing Rogers leading an encounter group, won an Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary and received major national distribution.

Rogers's long career as an educator brought him into contact with thousands of students who were deeply affected by his courses and went on to spread his ideas and methods. Many of his classes at the University of Chicago (1945-1957), for example, regularly attracted hundreds of students who came from across the world to study with him. An active speaker at educational conventions, conferences, and meetings, he addressed and conducted demonstration therapy and encounter-group sessions before hundreds of thousands of participants throughout his career.

Beyond his personal impact as author, educator, and model, Rogers also was active in the politics of the helping professions. Among many offices and editorships held, he was New York State chairman and national Executive Committee member of the American Association of Social Workers, vice-president of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, the first president of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, and president of the American Psychology Association, which he helped reorganize in 1945. In 1963 he helped found the Association for Humanistic Psychology, while declining the offer to serve as its first president.

Recognition of his contributions in turn helped spread Rogers's work and testified to its importance. He received the American Psychology Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award the first year it was given and in 1972 became the only person ever to receive both that award and the association's Distinguished Professional Contribution Award. His honorary degrees from universities around the world, guest professorships, and other awards are far too numerous to cite here.

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Beyond the scope of his activities, equally important in contributing to Rogers's influence were his longevity and stamina. For fifty-nine years, from the time he began practicing psychology in 1928 to his death in 1987, he was an active professional. His first article (Rogers and Carson) appeared in 1930. Mentally and physically alert even in his eighties, he kept up an impressive schedule of lectures, workshops, writing, and travel.

Nevertheless, while a vast number of professionals in the fields of psychology, psychotherapy, education, counseling, social work, ministry, medicine, and other professions credit Carl Rogers as one of the most influential teachers and models in their careers and in many cases their lives, an equally impressive number would minimize or even criticize Rogers's contribution. Although his work is not held in high esteem in most academic settings, it continues to have a significant impact in the real world. This is evident in separate articles reported in theJournal of Counseling Psychology (Heesacker et al., 1982) and the American Psychologist (Smith, 1982). In the former journal, an investigation of "authors and specific articles and books . . . that have stood the test of time and are still influencing the field" ranked Rogers first in a group of major contributors. In the latter periodical, a questionnaire was sent to a random sample selected from Division 1 (Clinical Psychology) and Division 17 (Counseling Psychology) of the American Psychology Association. The survey results list the "Ten Most Influential Psychotherapists," and again Rogers is ranked first.

Ironically, although Rogers influenced and continues to influence the lives of millions of individuals treated in professional settings around the world, the public, by and large, would not even recognize his name. Rogers never sought wide publicity or fame. As much as he enjoyed his growing impact, he never consciously wrote for the "pop psychology" market. When one of his books, On Encounter Groups, did exhibit mass-market potential, he was invited to discuss it on a major television interview show. He declined. His publisher responded incredulously, "But one show will lead to another!" "That's what I'm afraid of," the shy and skeptical Rogers replied. (Nevertheless, the book sold a quarter of a million copies.)

Rogers's contribution was more subtle and profound than that of best-selling authors whose works briefly capture the national attention and are soon forgotten. He has been described as "a quiet revolutionary." His message was deceptively simple, yet profound in its implications: All individuals have within themselves the ability to guide their own lives in a manner that is both personally satisfying and socially constructive. In a particular type of helping relationship, we free the individuals to find their inner wisdom and confidence, and they will make increasingly healthier and more constructive choices.

Rogers taught, tested, and lived this "hypothesis," as he called it, for fifty-seven years. Over decades, he painstakingly clarified the characteristics of this helping relationship, and he and his colleagues and students applied it to every helping profession and to many areas of daily living. He demonstrated that the principles of human relationships that work in the therapist's office, the school, or the hospital also work for parents and youth leaders and friends. And as the years have passed, this hypothesis and the various approaches for implementing it have steadily changed the helping professions beyond recognition.

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Not all professionals have been pleased with Rogers's influence. Many find his theory and methods oversimplified. Others argue that trusting the individual's resources for self-help will not work and might even do harm. Still others have minimized the significance of his contribution, saying there is little new in it or "We're already doing that." Sometimes critics have said all these things, expressing considerable ambivalence about the person-centered approach to helping relationships.

In effect, many critics have said "We, too, trust the individual. We, too, use methods that help the patient, client, or student work out his or her own solutions. That's what helping is all about - not solving problems for people, but helping them solve their own problems; not directing others' lives, but facilitating their growth. However, that is not sufficient. We must also use our own experience and expertise to wisely question, interpret, inform, reinforce, or otherwise help lead our charges in positive, growthful directions.

The half century of controversy around Carl Rogers's work simply highlights a basic philosophical and methodological question that is still plaguing the helping professions: To what extent do we rely on the individual's ability to guide his own growth and development, and to what extent do we introduce outside motivation, strategies, guidance, direction, or even coercion?

That is why Rogers's work has been so controversial, maligned, and misunderstood as well as accepted and embraced. By taking an extreme position on the person-centered end of the helping continuum, and by exerting a half century's effectiveness as writer, teacher, and scientist in support of his position, Rogers became one of the pivotal figures in the much larger debate - the debate over the prediction and control of human behavior.

As teachers, parents, and therapists the world over know, we often have mixed feelings about giving freedom to our students, children, and clients. Beyond our own ambivalence, it is one thing to sincerely want to support an individual's growth and independence and quite another thing to know how to do it effectively. Many studies have shown that even those who believe they are mostly being facilitative in their behavior are often more directive than they realize. For example, therapists and teachers who assert that their clients and students speak for the majority of time in the counseling session or class often discover, when observed, that they themselves are doing most of the talking. Similarly, on a larger scale, as the example of totalitarian and even democratic states often demonstrates it is one thing to say we believe in freedom and individual self-determination and quite another to practice it consistently.

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Rogers spent his whole life not only asserting the importance of the democratic and libertarian ideal in all human relation6hips, but seeking ways to accomplish that ideal. He innovated, he described, he tested, he modified, he modeled, he even proselytized. For that he won hundreds of thousands of appreciative students whose work touches millions of lives each year. At the same time, however, he also won thousands of influential critics who have prevented Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach from becoming the mainstay of professional training in the academic institutions of the United States.

It is not only academia that has resisted Rogers's work. In a sense, the concern for creative human development competes for attention with an extremely strong current in modern society. For our technological age is increasingly impressed by new wonders of telecommunication, new drugs and cures, new hardware and software, new gadgets for work and leisure - the latest advances modern science and capitalism have to offer. Rogers's message points us in a different direction, at first glance much less exciting and more difficult: The answer to most of our problems lies not in technology but in relationships. What really matters is trust in ourselves and others, in communication, in how we handle our feelings and conflicts, in how we find meaning in our lives. In the twentieth century we have learned an enormous amount about how to get along with ourselves and with others. Put that knowledge to work and we may yet save the planet. Disregard it, as we focus our lives and fortunes on the next technological quick fix, and we may not survive.

That Carl Rogers has dramatically and permanently influenced the major helping professionals of our society is beyond question. That his work has influenced millions in how they perceive the quality of life is also clear. For years to come, that work will undoubtedly continue to spread, as Rogers's colleagues and students and others working in similar directions continue to develop and promote the person-centered philosophy through out the world.

Whether the person-centered approach to human relationships ultimately has a profound and lasting influence on American society and the world is much less certain. At this point, how the world decides to handle its human problems - crime, drugs, intergroup and international conflict, to name a few - will determine whether there will be societies or even a world in which person-centered approaches can survive. How large a part the work of Carl Rogers will play in influencing those decisions remains to be seen.

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