“Teaching is Impossible,” According to Revolutionary Psychotherapist


“Teaching is Impossible,” According to Revolutionary Psychotherapist

“It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior.”

Carl’s voice rang out from the Harvard stage in 1952. Before him stretched an audience filled with teachers and educators of every sort. He’d been asked to share his thoughts on “student-centered learning.”

Carl was a revolutionary psychotherapist who valued a client-centered approach to personal development. Since he practiced these client-centered techniques not just in the office, but in the classroom too, the event organizers thought Carl’s unique viewpoint would prove a valuable asset to the hundreds of teachers attending their conference.

The participants disagreed. Tempers rose as Carl continued his short speech.

“I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.”

In 1952, this idea threatened the very foundation of the educational and work systems which held society together. At that time, school was a place of facts and figures. Jobs were a place those facts and figures were put to use. Such was the way of the world.

As long as a child did well in school, as long as a young adult pursued a solid education, as long as a person did not stray from the “proper path,” things would work out well. They would be happy, wealthy, and generally live the American Dream.

However, the sudden popularity and sharp rise of psychotherapy in the late twentieth century seemed to argue against this long-held, industrialized perspective.

The Value of Thinking

When Carl spoke at Harvard about student-centered learning, he wasn’t concerned with facts and figures. He wasn’t concerned with the specifics of what a student learned or the various study methods which could help or hinder retention.

“When I try to teach, as I do sometimes, I am appalled by the results, which seem a little more than inconsequential, because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience, and to stifle significant learning. Hence I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful.”

When it came to education, Carl wasn’t concerned with test scores. He was most concerned with a student’s ability to become a free-thinking, free-acting agent. Someone who is able to think critically and creatively, and—most importantly—who is able to trust their own conclusions. He wanted his students to become adults.

Through his practice with patients and his experience as an educator, Rogers learned first-hand the damage that could be done when a person refused to think for himself. He saw the damage done to underdeveloped students who were taught to put away their brains and listen blindly to their teachers.

He wasn’t arguing that education was wrong. He wasn’t arguing that there is no place for a teacher. He was proposing what, at the time, was a radical idea: teaching—to impart knowledge and change onto another person—is impossible.

In Carl’s opinion, learning was the goal of education. And this is a process a teacher has little control over.

Only One Person Can Control your Education

Believe it or not, Carl’s intention wasn’t to up-end the education system. He wasn’t interested in firing teachers, and—despite what those teachers thought as they fumed in their seats—he wasn’t trying to make their jobs obsolete.

His message was simple.

“Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be communicated to another. As soon as an individual tries to communicate such experience directly, often with a quite natural enthusiasm, it becomes teaching, and its results are inconsequential. ”

In other words, the only person truly in control of a student’s education is the student.

Of course, learning facts is important. Exposing oneself to new ideas, history, literature, science, and all manner of education is an amazing opportunity. And we need educated, passionate individuals to dedicate their lives to learning, gathering, and bringing this information to light. We need knowledgeable facilitators to offer what they have learned to the next generation. We need teachers.

However, the learning process itself—assimilating information, testing your limits, growing as a person, thinking and reasoning, trusting oneself and one’s conclusions, being unafraid in unknown situations—all of this can only be gained by the efforts of one person. You.

So if you think your future is in the hands of your teacher, if you think the quality of your education depends on the school you’re attending, the textbook you pick up, or the people feeding you information, you are wrong.

The only person who can ensure you become truly, usefully, meaningfully educated is yourself.

Are you up for the challenge?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy High School Valedictorian Gives Shocking Speech.


A former student counselor and Accelerated Pathways student, Abigail is now a writer and Accelerated Pathways Content Manger who's passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not hard at work, you can find her reading, baking cupcakes, or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.