8 minute read

Carl Rogers (1902–1987)

Counseling and Clinical Practice, The Move beyond Individual Counseling, An International Dialogue

American psychologist and therapist, Carl R. Rogers relied on personal experience as well as scientific inquiry to guide his methodology, much of which foreshadowed late-twentieth-century practice of psychotherapy.

Rogers was born in Oak Park, Illinois, to a prosperous and quite religiously conservative Protestant upper-middle-class family. He was a precocious child, reading bible stories before he entered school, achieving an A grade average through high school, and testing near the top of every intellectual aptitude test he took. As an adolescent some of his interests in science and agriculture were crystallized in working on his father's farm and reading a major book on scientific farming. A five-month YMCA trip to China while still a twenty-year-old college student confirmed his religious interests, but also gave him a chance to begin to formulate his own personal philosophy independent of his parents. During the following year, he remembered in 1967, he spoke of the trip as "the greatest experience of my life." After college (University of Wisconsin), he attended the liberal Union Theological Seminary, but he completed his Ph.D. at Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1931.

Intellectually Rogers was liberal, idealistic, and optimistic. In a very critical biography David Cohen, drawing on unpublished notes, letters, and essays in the 140 boxes of the Rogers archives in the Library of Congress, painted a different picture of Rogers: a troubled man, often in conflict with his parents, siblings, wife, children and their spouses, and a number of colleagues. Rogers, in more temperate terms, made public only an inkling of his problems, in some brief comments in his chapter in the History of Psychology in Autobiography by David Boring and Gardner Lindzey. In contrast, Howard Kirschenbaum in a biography based on many interviews with Rogers and others presents what he, Kirschenbaum, views as "a balanced picture of the man" (p. xvi).

Counseling and Clinical Practice

Rogers's concern for making clinical work in psychology scientific appeared early in his dissertation "Measuring Personality Adjustment in Children Nine to Thirteen Years of Age" (1931). He developed a paper and pencil objective test with six kinds of item formats, which were derived heavily from clinical interview questions and four subscales of adjustment, and summarized into an overall score. The test was empirically developed, cross-validated, and had norms based on elementary school children from New York City. One group of items required the children to rate perceived self versus ideal self, a conception that would be increasingly a part of Rogers's long-term view of personality.

The dozen years he spent doing clinical work and directing what became the Rochester Guidance Center resulted in the Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939). He dealt with testing, interviewing, camps, foster homes, families, and schools, and the beginning of "relationship therapy," with an acknowledgment of the work of Otto Rank, Jessie Taft, and Frederick Allen. The comprehensiveness of the book along with Rogers's developing point of view presages an intellectual and writing style in his later efforts.

He became a candidate for, and accepted, a full professorship at the Ohio State University, teaching courses in mental hygiene and counseling practices and guiding Ph.D. students in their dissertations. There he wrote what is arguably his most important and provocative book, Counseling and Psychotherapy (1942). Significantly it carried the subtitle, 'Newer concepts in practice,' which accented the shift from diagnosis to therapy that was occurring in several of the helping disciplines. The audience was broadly construed: psychologists, college counselors, marital advisers, psychiatrists, social workers, and high school guidance counselors. Methodologically, his intent was to present his extensive personal experience in the practical work of counseling in a number of settings over the 1930s and 1940s–increasingly important, personal experience as well as scientific research became a major baseline for his ideas and practices.

More recent theorists and methodologists might have labeled his efforts "action research," "a discovering/generating grounded theory," and "reconstruals." The seeds of nondirective and client-centered counseling are readily apparent, as are the beginnings of basic conceptions of fully functioning, authenticity/congruence, unconditional positive regard and acceptance, and empathy. Transcripts of phonographic recordings of counseling interviews document every idea in the text. The back-and-forth dialogue between the data and the conjectures is stimulating. The apex of the recording thrust appears in part four, "the case of Herbert Bryan." All eight counseling interviews were recorded, a full 178 pages. The verbatim transcripts carry interpolated reactions, thoughts, hunches, criticisms, and suggestions, and the reader is able to follow along and make his or her own interpretations.

Less than a decade later, Rogers edited Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications, and Theory (1951), and was teaching at the University of Chicago. The preface acknowledges the large group of counselors at the Chicago Counseling Center whose thought and effort had contributed to his thinking. The preface, in emotional and near spiritual terms, thanks the clients from whose struggles and concerns he and his colleagues have learned. Mostly though, the book is a treatise on Rogers's evolving point of view, almost an intellectual autobiography. Beyond the continuity and the elaboration of issues in nondirective counseling or client-centered therapy, several other aspects stand out: discussions of group-centered therapy and leadership, a move toward student-centered teaching, and a theory of personality and behavior. The chapter on theory of personality and behavior formalized much of Rogers's contribution to what came to be called "third force psychology," a complex set of alternatives to behaviorism and psychoanalysis. He commented: "Like Maslow, the writer would confess that in the early portion of his professional life he held a theoretical view opposed at almost every point to the view he has gradually come to adopt as a result of clinical experience and clinically oriented research" (Rogers 1951, p. 482).

The Move beyond Individual Counseling

One of Rogers's most significant contributions involved his concern for the education of children and adolescents, as well as adults. Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become (1969), represents an attack on traditional formal schooling. In one chapter, Rogers based the work on a diary kept by a teacher about her efforts to refocus her sixth-grade class toward better learning. Interpreting her actions, Rogers recounted the realities of a class experiencing apathy, discipline problems, and parental concerns, and the teacher who, after reading an account of student-centered teaching–"an unstructured or non-directive approach"–worked to build a more exciting and stimulating classroom. The diary is supplemented with responses written to questions raised by Rogers. In another chapter Rogers extended his ideas to the college level, using a college professor's descriptive account and adding his own interpretations. Then he wrote of his personal experience in teaching a course, "Values in Human Behavior Including Sensitivity Training," at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute. One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is a four and a half page statement, "Personal thoughts on teaching and learning," which was a very radical document that received major criticism. Rogers began, "I find it very troubling to think, particularly when I think about my own experiences and try to extract from those experiences the meaning that seems genuinely inherent in them." He then stated thirteen propositions/hypotheses with five consequences. His first proposition is "My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach." His fourth is "I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning." After a baker's dozen of these, the consequences include doing away with teaching, examinations, and grades.

In 1970, he joined the faculty of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute and later the Center for the Study of the Person, writing another major book Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups (1970). He and the times had shifted dramatically. The book continues his personal and autobiographical style, this time his experiences with the nature, process, and impact of groups on the lives of individuals. Quickly he grounds the reader in prior key figures (e.g., Kurt Lewin), in prior labels (e.g., T-groups), sensitivity training, and encounter groups. Notes, letters, stories, and individual accounts illustrate processes, changes, and personal experiences. He then turns autobiographical, "Can I be a facilitative person in a group?," to ward off a brief general statement that "would have to be so homogenized that every truth in it would also be so some extent a falsehood" and also to minimize "the flavor of expertise in it, that I did not want to emphasize" (p. 43). Then, too, the more traditional scientist in him leads to a chapter "What we know from research." The book has a persuasive rhetorical quality in the mix of vivid data, startling personal experiences from leaders and participants, and broad useful practical ideas and suggestions.

An International Dialogue

Rogers was at the forefront of psychology, engaging in discussions with international scholars. He discussed individual psychotherapy as an approach to the "I-Thou" relationship with the eminent Jewish intellectual Martin Buber in 1957, asking him "How have you lived so deeply in interpersonal relationships and gained such an understanding of the human individual without being a psychotherapist? (Buber laughs)" (Kirschenbaum and Henderson, p.45). A long elaborate answer followed and the dialogue continued. A discussion with the theologian Paul Tillich moved into a major give-and-take on the nature–multiple natures–of man. With the behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner, the issue of freedom and control in human life became central. Others would argue that the soul of psychology was in debate. Discussions with Gregory Bateson, Michael Polanyi, and Reinhold Niebuhr enlarged the scope of the discussions. With Rollo May, the role of evil and the daimonic and demonic came to the fore and cut to the heart of Rogers's central tenets of the goodness of man versus man having the potentiality for goodness and evil. In short, one finds Rogers, a brilliant psychologist and therapist, in contention with some of the most important minds of the twentieth century, over issues that have puzzled human beings for centuries–millennia, really.


COHEN, DAVID. 1997. Carl Rogers: A Critical Biography. London: Constable.

KIRSCHENBAUM, HOWARD. 1979. On Becoming Carl Rogers. New York: Delacorte.

KIRSCHENBAUM, HOWARD, and HENDERSON, VALERIE LAND, eds. 1989. Carl Rogers: Dialogues. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1931. Measuring Personality Adjustment in Children Nine to Thirteen Years of Age. New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1939. The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1942. Counseling and Psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1951. Client-Centered Therapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1967. "Autobiography." In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol. 5, ed. Edwin Boring and Gardner Lindzey. New York: Appleton, Century, Crofts.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1969. Freedom to Learn: A View of What Education Might Become. Columbus, OH: Merrill.

ROGERS, CARL R. 1970. Carl Rogers on Encounter Groups. New York: Harper and Row.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia