Insights from the Helping Professions


Carl R. Rogers, 1985

Carl R. Rogers has been identified for nearly half a century as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th Century. His own books and lectures and the research they have generated have led to significant innovations in counseling technique, personality theory, encounter groups, students and their teaching, and increased understandings of personal power and what are the fundamental ingredients in successful relationships between men and women. One commentator referred to Dr. Rogers as a man whose cumulative effect on society has made him one of the social revolutionaries of our time. In the discussion we had today, he turned his attention to the problem of achieving an enduring peace in the world.

Rogers: I think I'd like to tell you about an experience I had last year in doing a demonstration counseling interview in front of a group in West Germany. The woman was simply paralyzed with fear. She told how her home was within dangerous distance of five nuclear plants, so that was a source of concern. There were missile sites nearby, the United States was about to deploy further missiles in that same area, there were fighter bombers going overhead everyday with loads of bombs. She felt that any day she could be vaporized, and she felt absolutely helpless in that situation. And I felt that her situation seemed so much a product of circumstances I wasn't sure I could be of help to her. But I stayed with her as a companion to her in her fear and desperation. I wasn't sure how helpful it had been, but a few weeks ago I got a letter saying that that interview had been so meaningful to her. She had tried to talk to other people and they always found her situation so awful, they couldn't help but butt in with advice or reassurance, or tell her of their own feelings of desperation, and she never got her feelings all out. She felt very appreciative that I had really stayed with her clear to the depth of her feelings, and somehow that had helped her to accept her fear and her situation, and made it possible for her to get over her paralysis.

She now is much more active in the peace movement and is doing other things of a political nature, so that she felt much better about herself in relation to this really dreadful situation. But I think it epitomizes the attitudes of a lot of people in Europe who are much closer to the situation than we are in this country, although actually, we're in almost equal danger.

In her letter to me just a short time ago she closed with this remark which was very touching and somehow quite dreadful. She said 'the new U.S. missiles are almost in my backyard, but somehow, paradoxically, that's helped me.' She said 'I feel sure that if war should start, (and she and many others are sure that the

U.S. is determined to have war) if war should start I'll be dead in the first minutes, and somehow that has helped me to feel more calm about it all.' So it's that kind of a situation that we face as a world, and it is absolutely new in the history of the world. There never has been a time like this.

Whiteley: You've written there's a real paradox about that in the sense that the very time that advances in understanding people, and technology allowing us to lead better and more fulfilling lives, we've also moved to the point where a miscalculation can destroy much of life as we know it.

Rogers: And where it seems as though our government is increasingly set on the course of - I don't know whether you'd even call it diplomacy, but of international relations which rely entirely on force or intimidation, and the threat of force. We seem almost to have forgotten that there are other avenues to peace, that what we need is understanding and communication, not threats and new weapons.

Whiteley: You've commented that there is almost a very simple paradigm that will explain many kinds of confrontations. What is that paradigm?

Rogers: Yes, it's interesting to think about any dispute that you know, actually between individuals, or between groups, or between nations. It gets to the dangerous point when I feel I'm right and you're wrong, I'm good and you're bad. And the dangerous part is that you on your side feel exactly the same, that you are right and I'm wrong, you are good and I'm bad.

Whiteley: And that your motives can't be trusted but mine can.

Rogers: That's right. And that's certainly not hypothetical. Here we have our government saying that the Soviet Union is the empire of evil, the focus of evil on this world, and the Soviets feeling that we're war-mongers and intent on having war. All of those things help to distant the other. In other words, you're not really a person, you're just evil. And so that would justify wiping you out or going to war, and it isn't until the contending parties are in sufficient relationship that they can begin to understand the pattern that I've just described if there's any hope of coming to a reconciliation.

Whiteley: In a way people seem, in their own lives, to be trying to move away from stereotypes, but governments are not able to do that. Why is that? What is it about the governments as they operate that ...

Rogers: I think that institutions always lag behind the popular advance. I think that as a society, as individuals in society, we're moving away from the stereotype of the macho individual who has to fight at the drop of a hat, the John Wayne, the George Patton. We're moving away from that. Jesse Jackson said recently, 'You're not a man because you can kill somebody, but because you can heal somebody.' And that's beginning to be more and more the common feeling, to be an understanding person, to accept the fact that in every individual there's the yin and the yang, the masculine and feminine principle, and the macho ideal is really passé. But within our institutions, and particularly in our government, we're still clinging to the macho symbol, the macho way of doing. We tempt out the Libyan planes and then shoot down two of them. We continue to fire at the Syrians and Lebanon when it's no longer in defense of our marines. We just unnecessarily threaten or use force in ways that seem to be a prelude to destruction unless we're able to stop that pattern in our international relationships.

Whiteley: For over nearly half a century you've been very consistent in indicating that people have an inner wisdom, an ability to guide their conduct wisely, that they can trust their basic instincts. You've also applied that thinking to a number of institutions to encourage them to return power to the person, the sense of control back to those people who will guide things well. How do you square that with the circumstances that you've just described of moving closer and closer to the brink?

Rogers: Well, for one thing, we really have developed ways of being, and attitudes and skills which show great promise in dealing with feuding parties, with hostile groups, and so on. But that has not been bought by our culture as a whole, they're really not aware of that, they haven't put it to use. It's interesting that if I should develop a new technical aspect for computers, it would be used immediately, and probably spread over the country like wildfire. We develop new social skills and society really is not aware that those are available. It's in my estimation, somewhat like the situation when the Wright brothers first showed that powered planes could take off. That attracted a little attention, but it didn't make any dent on society until suddenly, when Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, then society realized, oh, this could have application, this might apply to me, this might have meaning for my life. And immediately it all sprang into the great aviation industry that we have now. And I feel we're waiting for that moment of realization in regard to the social procedures that we have that might hold promise for dealing with international relationships.

Whiteley: So, your basic positive view of human nature you feel is valid. That it's the fact that as an organized society, as a culture, that we've gone part of the way toward where we need to be, and that part is that we really are open as a society to new technologies, that we can interrelate those technologies with unusual finesse and promptness, but it's in that part of our culture, its social organization that we're breaking down.

Rogers: That's true, or lagging behind. Yes, we are both breaking down and lagging behind in our appreciation of what's possible. For example, in my own experience I've dealt with feuding groups from Belfast, I've dealt with Black-White groups. The most fascinating one recently was holding a Black-White encounter group on stage in South Africa in front of an audience of 600 people, where it started out with a lot of bitterness, and even in a relatively short time, you could begin to see the development of more understanding. We weren't able to continue that beyond an initial phase.

Whiteley: This is part of indicating that we do know as a society some ways to proceed to reduce tensions that we haven't. Before analyzing each of those in detail the crux seems to be, in your view, translating the inner wisdom of people, what's known about how to deal with conflicts and problems between people to getting that applied to the society at large, to the larger culture. I wonder if we could take several of the major institutions of society and ask you to indicate how you see them either facilitating or currently blocking the adoption of a better social system for working out differences. Let's start with religion. What role do you see religion currently playing?

Rogers: Well, I think that religion is a polarity. I think some aspects of religion, like - I would call it so-called religion - the moral majority, and the fundamentalist groups and so on. Probably their impact is more to divide people than to bring people together. On the other hand, at the other pole are people with perhaps broader views, and I think they have had a more positive influence in helping to create understanding of other groups and to help somewhat toward peace. Religion has a bad name historically in this regard because it has more often been responsible for war than for peace, I feel. But there certainly are many people in the religious field today who are working intelligently for peace.

Whiteley: How about business as an institution in our society? It's a major focus for the transmission of technology and in effect a way to improve people's lives.

Rogers: That's a field in which I'm really not close. But I am interested in the recent publications which point out that war is bad for business, and that business can exercise real influence over governments and over diplomats in insisting on more communication, and in avoiding the catastrophe that seems to hang over us.

Whiteley: What is the role you view of government today?

Rogers: Let me answer that personally. I have a dream of trying to get together a group of individuals of international influence, including, I would hope, diplomats, members of multinational corporations, people of that sort, and having them experience the reconciliation of differences within that group, so that then they might - I and my colleagues might create a facilitative climate there which would help them to move toward better understanding of each other, better communication, and where, with that experience behind them, they might be able to apply it in other situations in which they're currently living and dealing.

Whiteley: So government is not, right now, doing some things that you think it could adopt that would dramatically improve the situation?

Rogers: Very definitely. I feel that at the present time it's hard to say 'government,' because there's lots of governments in the world - I'll restrict it to our own government. I feel that our own government is often doing things that divide rather than bring together, that create misunderstanding rather than understanding. It's so easy to make an object out of the other, and then anything goes. And it seems to me that characterizes the attitude of our government today.

Whiteley: What about the role of education? You've written throughout your career about the significance of education, particularly if it approaches its task differently. Your book "Freedom to Learn" has been very influential in America in terms of how school is organized, and in thinking about the nature of the learning process. What role does education have today?

Rogers: Again, I feel - I'll say what I think of its actual role and what is the role it might have. I feel that our educational institutions are disappointing in that (disappointing to me) they are probably the most authoritarian structures in our culture. They talk about democracy. They are the schools of a supposed democracy, and yet it is a strictly pyramidal structure with power at the top and distributed down through the levels, with the students having little or no power of choice or decision. So that they are trained, they are educated actually to be a part of a conformist society controlled by others, and yet our ideals and what we say we want is for them to be independent individuals capable of making choices.

And there is ample evidence in practice and in research, and I brought it out in the revision of my book Freedom to Learn for the 80s, how much experience there is now and how much research showing that when students are given more freedom to learn, and a facilitative learning climate is created, they accomplish more, they learn more of the basic subjects, they are more creative, they are more spontaneous. They are the kind of individuals who would be capable of understanding another rather than shutting them out. And I feel that even in some of the elementary schools interesting experiments are going on in teaching very young youngsters, very young children, how to resolve conflicts between them peacefully without fighting. And I think that could go a long ways in raising a generation of individuals who have had the experience of dealing with conflicts constructively.

Whiteley: But there are two institutions of our organized culture that allow some hope for intervening on a larger scale. I'm talking here obviously about education and the family. How would you want the families of the current generation to act to prepare people to be more receptive to the types of social insights that you've talked about?

Rogers: I've been very interested in watching families in which the parents have learned, partly due to their experience (in psycho-intensive groups, or in therapy, something like that), have learned how to create a growthful climate for their children. And the children develop in ways that are astonishing and exciting. They're better able to communicate, they're more respectful of others, they're more social in a deep sense; not more polite, necessarily, but more social, and more interested in others and interested in people. And I think that they're also learning from their parents and from a fragment of society how to deal with conflict in relationships. In that sense they're preparing themselves to be a part of this social advance that we so desperately need.

Whiteley: In order that the next generation be more attuned to the importance of the kinds of social changes and awareness of the importance of conflict resolution, would you recommend some changes in our educational structure as we prepare the leaders of the 21st Century?

Rogers: Yes, I suppose that what I would recommend are fairly revolutionary changes. When I was working recently on the revision that I've done of my book Freedom to Learn, I was astonished to find how many places there are in this country, how many teachers, how many schools are really turning education upside-down in their own situation. They're giving students a chance to choose what they're most interested in learning. They're helping students to evaluate themselves, rather than always being evaluated by others. They're creating the kind of climate in the classroom where differences can be worked out rather than settled by an authoritarian teacher. So that it's very definitely evident and demonstrated that our educational institutions can become places where citizens are prepared to, in their own experience, to accept and adopt these social technologies which would help to reduce conflict in the world.

Whiteley: Well, your position is there's a whole technology that education could use to help people learn to resolve issues more peacefully in their lives that's not being employed.

Rogers: That's true, if by technology you understand that it is the technology based on a philosophy and a whole approach. It's not simply gimmicks or tricks, but it is a philosophical way of being which has been amply demonstrated, and where we'd know how it can be done. In my experience, I've found the human organism to be, at its core, a constructive organism. I know that in some ways that runs counter to millions of Christians who believe that man was conceived in sin and born evil, and can only be redeemed by the grace of God. I know it also runs counter to the view held by most Freudians that if the inner core of man is reached, it's a wild destructive core that must be tamed and controlled. My experience does not bear out either of those views.

One way of putting it is that when I'm dealing with an individual who is having difficulty, or who is a criminal, or who is engaged in antisocial behavior, I can count on the fact that if I can get through the surface defenses, there is a positive core which wants to be more social, more constructive in its behavior. On the other hand, I can't count on the fact that there will be an equally strong destructive influence. That seems to me to be the product of circumstances, of environment. We do many things to shape the individual to become destructive and engage in behavior we call evil, but I don't believe that's inherent or genetically present in the human being.

Whiteley: You've written that it's really the social tensions that endanger us at this point. What do you mean?

Rogers: Well, I mean that, for example, a missile in itself is dangerous, but that's not our real source of danger. The real source of danger is the attitude we have toward potential enemies. It's the hatreds and the feuds and the animosities that stir people to violence and to war. So that's my meaning there.

Whiteley: Okay. And you've further written that the primary method of dealing with tensions at the national and international level is through either intimidation or the actual use of force. Why is it? Is that rooted in human nature, or is that some cultural aberration?

Rogers: I think it's partly because of our cultural history and partly because of our technology. Our cultural history has stressed the fact that it is the role of the leader to be a fighter, an aggressive person, and that still is an important part of our culture, that belief. Then another thing that is not always recognized enough is that disputes which would be minor, become major when both individuals or both parties have machine-guns and rocket launchers and anti-aircraft guns and so on. So the disputes which might be just minor struggles between two parties become small vicious wars, and our technology has a great deal to answer for in being responsible for that. We've created the weapons of war without developing the educated people who would know how to use such weapons with restraint, or not use them at all.

Whiteley: Dr. Rogers, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more enduring peace.