Carl Rogers was probably the most important psychologist and psychotherapist of the 20th Century apart from Sigmund Freud, and his humanistic, person-centered approach has been applied to many fields outside of psychology, such as education, business, nursing, medicine and social work. Many of the basic textbooks in all of these fields reflect his influence, including the concept of learner-centered education and the use of the term 'clients' instead of 'patients'. He wrote over 100 academic books and articles, the most famous one being On Becoming a Person (1961) which clearly describes his main ideas and is summarized below. Originally trained for the ministry and then in Freudian psychoanalysis, Rogers gradually broke with this school of psychology as a result of his work with abused children and his study of phenomenology and existentialist psychology. Central to his theory was the development of a healthy self-concept that was open, expressive and spontaneous rather than rigid and defensives, and that the goal of therapy or education was to assist the client to become a fully-functioning and self-actualized adult. Teachers and therapists were not supposed to be authoritarian figures that had all the answers, but mentors and guides who encouraged growth and openness to new experience.
Biography and Background
Rogers was born in Chicago in 1902 and from an early age was known for being precociously intelligent, learning to read and right before he went to school. His parents were deeply religious, and he was raised with strict moral and ethical views. At the University of Wisconsin, he first studied agriculture, then religion, and considered becoming a missionary to China, but then began to have doubt about his religious vocation and the truth of Christian doctrines. He received his master's degree in education from Columbia University in 1928 and his doctorate in psychology three years later. His early research involved child abuse, and his first book was The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child in 1939. Even at this point, Rogers was developing his humanistic and client-centered approach based on the psychotherapeutic model of Otto Rank. His second book, Counseling and Psychotherapy (1942), Rogers began to express doubt that the standard theoretical model of Freudian analysis, including its rigid stages of development, and decided that the best method of treating patients was simply to listen to them with patience and understanding and let them determine their own course and speed of treatment (Kramer 1995).
From 1940-45, Rogers taught at Ohio State and then at the University of Chicago from 1945-57, where he established the student counseling center to test his humanistic theories. His next books, Client-Centered Therapy (1951) and Psychotherapy and Personality Change (1954), were based on the results he achieved with students using this approach. When he was at the University of Wisconsin in 1957-63, he wrote his most famous book, On Becoming a Person (1961), in which he argued that the best type of psychotherapy relied on "the client for the direction of movement" (Rogers 1961). From 1963, Rogers was director of the Center for Studies of the Person in La Jolla, California, where he remained until his death at age 85. Rogers wrote over 100 books and scholarly articles on humanistic psychology and won numerous awards and honors, including a nomination for the Nobel Prize. Politically, his views were leftist and progressive, and he was an outspoken opponent of McCarthyism in the 1950s, although at the same time he did classified research for the CIA's MK Ultra program (Demanchick and Kirschenbaum 2008). Rogers believed that his humanistic theories could improve cross-cultural communications and world peace, and in his later years traveled frequently to conflictive zones of the world like South Africa, Northern Ireland and Latin America.
Rogers' Theory of Humanistic Psychology and Personality Development
Rogers called his version of therapy as client-centered and in fact was the first psychologist to use the term client instead of patient. Growth and development are based on self-esteem and self-actualization, not negotiating the rigid stages of Freudian development, and this process could be facilitated by an understanding therapist who through reflection and unconditional acceptance helps the clients better understand what they are thinking and feeling. Instead of imposing their own theories and models on clients, the therapists follow an inductive method and allow them to speak and direct their own therapy. This was a truly revolutionary development in psychology and psychotherapy, and an innovation that is now used all over the world. At first, Rogers called this 'non-directive therapy' and then a 'person-centered approach', which he believed could be applied to many situations outside of treatment for psychological problems, such as nursing, social work, education, and cross-cultural relations.
In his books Client-Centered Therapy and Freedom to Learn, for example, Rogers applied this approach to education, which he maintained should be learner-centered rather than teacher-centered. Just as in therapy the clients treated themselves, in learning "a person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another's learning" (Rogers, 1951). Each student will learn differently based on their own experience, personality and desires, and the learning process will always be enhanced when it brings about feelings of self-esteem. It has to be relevant to them on a personal level, and then the student will be more open-minded to change, especially in a relaxed and non-threatening environment. Classrooms should therefore leave students with a sense of freedom and ability to express themselves rather than having teachers impose knowledge through lectures. In addition, teachers should also be aware that they do not know everything and they can also learn from students. Rogers was certain that his ideas could tested and proved scientifically and "consistently stood for an empirical evaluation of psychotherapy" (White 2007)
Exegesis of On Becoming a Person
Rogers-based many of his ideas on existentialist and phenomenological philosophies, which centered on the perceptions and experiences of individuals that define 'reality' -- for themselves. All self-concepts develop as a result of the interaction with the person and their environment, as well as other individuals. To be human was to experience, and they only way to understand behavior was to get inside the personal experiences and perceptions of the client or learner (Snygg and Combs 1949). Individuals also tend to ignore experiences that are not relevant to themselves personally, and behavior and values are always based on ideas consistent with self-concept, while those that are not are perceived as threats. Human development does not occur in stages or any one-size-fits-all system, but as a process that leads to a fully self-actualized person. A fully-functioning person is self-aware and open to new experiences, living each moment to the fullest, rather than being closed, rigid and defensive. Self-actualized personalities are open to "what is going on now," are also bold, trusting, creative and spontaneous (Rogers 1961). Their ideas about right and wrong do not come from laws, religions or traditional moral codes but from their internal code of right and wrong. They make choices and then accept responsibility for their actions, and experience life more fully.
For most people, though, this ideal self is something they feel that they can never achieve, which leads to a sense of incongruity, and feelings of alienation, anomie and inauthenticity. They do not have genuine lives but simply conform to the dictates of society or exist only to meet the needs of others. Incongruent personalities are rigid, narrow and defensive, generally closed to new experiences and threatened by change. They will also distort and deny reality in order to fit their self-concept rather than changing it, and this can even lead to violence, neurosis and irrationality (Rogers 1961). For Rogers, the goal of the therapist is to assist the clients to overcome these blockages and rigidities, freeing them to become self-actualizing through expression of their real feelings and desires, even if these are negative. True insight comes only with acceptance and understanding of the self, and once this occurs it opens the door to the possibility of new growth.
From his work with the CIA's MK Ultra program and its Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology in the 1950s, Rogers became well-acquainted with the anti-humanistic usages of psychology that he strongly opposed. He had become involved in government work because of what he had learned about Soviet and Chinese brainwashing methods during the Korean War, and he realized that "we know how to disintegrate a man's personality structure, dissolving his self-confidence, destroying the concept he has of himself, and making him dependent on another" (Rogers, 1961, p. 375). These were the methods used by secret police forces and intelligence agencies in Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia, and then borrowed by the U.S. government, and even though they more primitive modern scientific knowledge could make them more efficient. Rogers condemned these methods strongly, since he believed the purpose of psychotherapy was to build up and improve the human personality, not destroy it.
Rogers' influence in education, management theory, social work and psychology has been so widespread that it would be impossible to measure,…