A Dialogue on Education for Autonomy: An Interview (with Thomas Szasz)

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Thomas Szasz is interviewed by Ronald M. Swartz
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  Interchange, Vol. 20. No. 4 (Winter. 1989), 32-47   A Dialogue on Education for Autonomy: An Interview Thomas S. Szasz   State University of New York    Ronald M. Swartz   Oakland University. Michigan   (This interview was conducted at the State University of New York Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse on October 20. 1984. This project has been funded by a grant from Oakland University's Research Committee.)   The school... serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those qualities and capabilities which are of value for-the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal srcinality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals.  — Albert Einstein   No man is fit to educate unless he feels each pupil an end in himself, with his own rights and his own  personality, not merely a piece in a jig-saw puzzle, or a soldier in a regiment, or a citizen in a State. Reverence for human personality is the beginning of wisdom, in every social question, but above all in education. — Bertrand Russell   Swartz: We have been talking about many different educational issues since we met at the airport over six hours ago. And I find it interesting that we have said so little about the education of doctors, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts; surely you have some thoughts about the education of the vast number of students who have attended your classes over the last three decades.   Szasz: Years ago 1 wrote some articles about the education of psychoanalysts. Have you seen them? They are titled Psycho-Analytic Training: A Socio-Psychological Analysis of its History and Present Status (1958) and Three Problems in Contemporary Psychoanalytic Training (1960).   Swartz: I have read your papers on psychoanalytic training and 1 think they contain a number of significant insights. Specifically, there is much merit in your suggestion mat psychoanalytic educational programs should incorporate Albert Einstein's idea that the spirit of free inquiry needs freedom above everything else. Moreover, I found it quite interesting that your recommendations for improving the education of psychoanalysts emphasize the importance of Bertrand Russell's views related to reducing the power that teachers have over their students.   Szasz: You know that the papers we are talking about were written years ago. During 1958 or '59, I think.    Swartz: Was that much after you had finished your own psychoanalytic training?   Szasz: I finished my training in 1950 at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. The articles were written in the mid-1950s, but they were kicking around for a few years before they were published.   Swartz: Your papers on psychoanalytic training contain some arguments that are perhaps no longer relevant for training institutes in the 1980s. In particular, your criticisms associated with the pledge that students took in the 1950s are now somewhat dated because many training centres no longer require that new recruits take a pledge.   And I think you are wrong to assume that the educational ideas of Einstein and Russell do not apply to the education of children (1958). In a number of my essays I have tried to explain that some young people could greatly benefit from schools based upon the liberal ideals suggested in the educational writings of Einstein, Russell, and others such as Karl Popper, A. S. Neil!, and Homer Lane.   Szasz: Before we begin to discuss issues such as the education of psychoanalysts, I think it would be helpful if you would summarize some of the points we covered earlier today.   Swartz: One issue that needs to be made clearer is the power relationship between children and adults. I think your view is that children do not need more power to influence their lives, but what is needed is that less power should be given to the adults who help children learn. Have I stated your position correctly?   Szasz: Yes, you have. But that goes not only for adults, it goes for anyone who interacts with children: the institutions that influence a child's life and the representatives of institutions, such as psychiatrists.   Swartz: So, as you see matters, it is important that we develop Institutional policies that check or diminish the power that adults have over children.   Szasz: Diminish the institutional power that parents, teachers, psychiatrists, etc. have over children.   Swartz: But you're not willing to endorse the educational views of someone such as Neill. And if I understand you correctly, your disagreement with people like Neill and Russell is that you think they gave too much power to the children who attended their experimental schools.   Szasz: Not quite. They gave them the illusion of power or independence. I do not think it is possible for children to be as powerful — or as self-determining — as Neill and Russell thought they could be.   Swartz: From your point of view it is inappropriate to give children the kind of power that Neill said he gave to the children at Summerhill because (1) it is too overwhelming — too much of a  burden — for children to exercise the kind of power Neill wanted them to have, and (2) the power given to the students at Summerhill docs not help to prepare them for society — that is. for doing something that others will value and pay for.    Szasz: Exactly. What Neill was doing was phony; he did nothing to really compensate for the actual power of adults. He did not protect children from the power of adults. It was like giving someone a sword when his adversary has a machine gun.   Swartz: And to some extent adult power is natural as you see it.   Szasz: It's inherent in human nature. Adults are bigger, stronger, and usually know more than children. It's as simple as that. It's absurd to overlook or deny that. We must recognize it and try to protect children from the misuse of the power of adults. As I see it, this is really the core, the paradigm, of the classic political problem of who shall guard the guardians.   Swartz: It seems to me that your idea of trying to diminish the power that adults have over children is consistent with your recommendation that it is desirable to eliminate child psychiatry. However, under present circumstances parents, teachers, and other adult authorities can use their power to send kids to a child psychiatrist.   Szasz: Let me interrupt before we go further with this. Given the way child psychiatry is now, given what it is — how it is practised — now, yes, I would want it abolished. ,   Swartz: Can you describe conditions which would make child psychiatry acceptable to you?   Szasz: I might find child psychiatry acceptable if children were effectively protected from any kind of psychiatric intrusion. Specifically, physical coercion, confinement, drugs, electric shock, and so forth should not be viewed as legitimate ways to treat children who exhibit behaviours that do not conform to the social expectations of adults. I am suggesting that we view psychiatry like religion: going to a psychiatrist should be viewed like going to a priest or a rabbi. If psychiatry were like this, then I would not want to take it away from parents; I would still want to take it away from the school and from the state, however.   Swartz: Of course, the conditions in which you would approve of child psychiatry do not exist now. Do you know for a fact that some psychiatrists presently use electroconvulsive therapy with children?   Szasz: I doubt that they do any more in this country, but they used to. In Japan, electric shock was widely used to treat children. And don't forget child psychiatrists regularly prescribe psychiatric drugs such as Ritalin, Thorazine, and Haldol.   Swartz: In your writings you often equate drug treatment with such things as electric shock. And with certain drugs the potential harmful and irreversible side effects may even be greater than electric shock.   Szasz: I do not want to get involved in the technicalities. Anything that is ingested or injected into the body should be forbidden and any physical confinement in a space should be forbidden. In short, a child psychiatrist should have the same opportunities to influence  behaviour that Sunday school teachers presently have. No more, no less.   Swartz: I like the idea of viewing psychiatrists as Sunday school teachers, but I doubt very much if this lowering of the status of psychiatrists will come about in the near future. Also, it is  presently the case that teachers who work under compulsory educational laws are given {he unreasonable charge to educate every student in their classes. And some of the students whom teachers come in contact with are impossible to educate in the sense in which the school expects. Thus, we now have a large population of what is euphemistically called . special education. And there are groups of people called special educators who rely on psychiatrists to use whatever means are available to get children under control. Do you have any recommendations for parents and teachers who must deal with children who are uncontrollable?   Szasz: Let's back-track. I believe that to make an impact, to make an improvement so to speak, in any of these things, we have to be crystal clear about some elementary issues and our particular stance toward them. Specifically, we need to ask the question: On whose turf are we operating? We are always operating on somebody's turf, on somebody's territory, where that person has the authority to do something. So let's look at the public schools in this light. What do we see? We see that the public schools are social institutions that are clearly not the child's turf; they are not even the parents' turf or the teachers' turf. The public schools are the turf on which the state holds children, teachers, and parents as hostages or prisoners.   Swartz: It's important to emphasize here that you view teachers as part of the group of people who are prisoners in the public schools.   Szasz: Teachers as much as children, yes. Teachers have very little control over the way public schools are operated. And children have, or are usually given, very little choice over where or what kind of schooling they should get.   Swartz: Would you go so for as to say that children should be free to leave school if they wished?   Szasz: Children should be free to leave as much as possible, but I would not go so far as to say that a child should be able to choose not to be educated in some way that has been dictated by adults. As I told you earlier, 1 view childhood as a kind of slavery. It is important to let children know that at some specified age they will be free and, in general, they should be set free fairly early. Compulsory school attendance past the age of 16 or even earlier is undesirable, from this point of view. Moreover, the customers of schooling must have some power to reject the service  being offered; I think of parents as the customers. And the seller of the service must be free to refuse the service. The initial condition for a decent, dignified, workable human interaction is that all parties involved consent to do something together.   Swartz: So, as you see matters, the education of children who are placed in special education schools and classrooms can only be successful if we somehow gain the child's consent or co-operation. Even if we have the consent of parents, children will not learn unless they agree to co-operate with something that we can call the game of education.   Szasz: Isn't that too abstract, too idealistic? My impression is that the so-called schools that special education students go to are nothing more than daytime prisons which free parents from the burden of taking care of their children.  
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