Stephen Joseph Ph.D.

What Doesn't Kill Us

Why I Decided to Strike

My reflections as a person-centered therapist

Posted Mar 15, 2018

Staff at many Universities in the UK have been taking industrial action over the last four weeks. The University and College Union (UCU) carried out a ballot of its members and the strike was voted for in protest at changes to pensions. Over the last four weeks I have been on the picket line each morning, in the snow and in the rain, holding placards and handing out leaflets. Today I am not able to be on the picket line so instead I want to share some thoughts on how for me being a person-centered psychologist is consistent with taking strike action.

Before the strike began I did some reading about the pension debate from those critical of the proposed changes and I attended a lecture which set out the benefits of the proposed changes. On balance, I was left thinking that the proposed changes should be opposed.

When you are on strike you forgo salary for those days so it is not an easy choice. But as more information became available about the proposed changes to the pension, the need for protest seemed even clearer. Questions were being raised about the fundamental assumptions behind the calculations and the agenda of shifting risk from employers to the employee. It began to look murky and that the people we as employees trust to be looking after our best interests were not actually doing so.

And while it started out as being about pensions, as the momentum of the strike grew it galvanized protest about, for example, student fees, excessive salaries for the senior management, and zero hours contracts for teaching staff. These are not new issues. They have concerned many of us over the years, but the marketization of UK Universities has felt like an unstoppable force.

The majority of those who are on strike do not think that increasing marketization is a good thing for Higher Education. My experience is that these are the people who care about Universities, their students, social mobility, creating a good society, and they are protesting to make things better for all who work and study there. Universities should be about educating a society that is thoughtful, generous, knowledgeable, and able to critically evaluate and determine its direction of development.

Striking is about standing up for ourselves and others against powerful forces that are shaping our lives in ways that we do not want. To me this seems all very important and worth fighting for.

I feel it is also important to explain that to me the decision to take strike action is consistent with what I teach. I am a tutor on a person-centered counseling and psychotherapy course. This is an approach to therapy developed originally by the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. In essence it is based on the idea that when social power is used to control people it undermines their ability to think for themselves and lead lives that are authentic. Therapy is a way of helping clients learn to take back their autonomy. Rogers originally developed his approach as a form of therapy but later expanded his thinking about how the person-centered approach could be applied in other ways, from personal relationships, education, peace building and political change. 

In his book On Personal Power: Inner Strength and its Revolutionary Impact, Rogers talked of the quiet revolution to describe the political agenda of how personal transformation leads to social change. As people change towards becoming more authentic, and they become more aware of their choices in life and choose to pursue a life dictated by their own values, they will, according to Rogers, move towards becoming more socially constructive in their behavior, thus more active politically, more open to the suffering of others and more willing to engage at the social and political level. Maybe the protests over these last few weeks in the UK Universities are an expression of this quiet revolution as questions are again raised about the marketization of education.

Training as a person-centered therapist involves learning about theory, developing listening skills, but most of all it involves personal development and learning to be reflective, emotionally literate, open to experience, and becoming more authentic as a person – someone who lives their life in a way consistent with their values and beliefs.  It is about a new way of being, one that you take into all domains of your life, not just the therapy room. Authentic people strive to have power over their own lives and so will always ask those who assume power over them to justify it. The more authentic we are, the more we, as individuals, will demand authenticity in our institutions and leaders.

Training in person-centered therapy is based on the principle of experiential learning. People learn best through experience. In the last class before the strike I joked that if we could design a strike into the curriculum we would. Actually, I wasn’t completely joking, it really is a great opportunity. Not as good an opportunity of course than if we did actually design it into the curriculum as that would give us more time to organize seminars and teaching around the topics, but it is still an opportunity for students to reflect on social and political issues in relation to what it means to be a therapist and how to apply the person-centered approach in their lives.

Therapy is not removed from the social world. The person-centered approach is not politically neutral. Therapists need to reflect on their understanding of human nature, the role of power in society, and the tensions between individual freedom and social responsibility. Going on strike is a difficult choice to make, but when a strike is called everyone makes a choice by their actions. There are no bystanders in a strike. Maybe others would see it differently, but for me, not to have gone on strike would seem to say I don’t care about these issues really, it’s just talk in the classroom. 

Fortunately, many students seem to get this and they have been generous with their time coming out to join us on the picket line, even making posters, bringing cakes and biscuits, and helping the protest. I look forward to when we are all back in the classroom and can use our experiences of the last few weeks to deepen our understanding even more of what it means to be person-centered.

References

Rogers, C.R. (1978), Carl Rogers on Personal Power: Inner Strength and its Revolutionary Impact, London: Constable