An Interview (1971) with Carl Rogers on Nondirectional Teaching

In a 1971 interview (below), Rogers explained his belief that it is impossible to teach another person anything of consequence. He felt that if a teacher were to succeed in changing the thoughts or behaviors of a student, then the teacher would have succeeded only in getting the student to conform to teacher’s ideas—that is to say, good teaching requires students to abandon their own ability to think. It is the opposite of free thinking, independent thinking, critical thinking, and so on. Good teaching is therefore crippling to students.

Films Media Group - Dr. Carl Rogers: Part 2

Carl Rogers (Image from Films Media Group)

The interviewer was then Dean of Students and professor of social ecology at UC-Irvine, John M. Whiteley, who, with his mid-centry series of video-recorded interviews where he asks famous psychologists difficult questions, was a YouTube star 20 years before the internet became a common household resource. 

In his interview with Rogers, Whiteley wastes no time in getting to the conflict between Rogers and the rest of education. After hearing Rogers explain the bit above about how teaching is futile, Whiteley observes: “Yet our whole educational structure is based on one person teaching another." And he asks, "Why is that?”

Founders Award Recipient Quietly Fights for Peace, Justice, Environment |  School of Social Ecology

Picture of Whiteley 50 years after his interview with Rogers (Image from UC-I)

Rogers's response: “I suppose that’s why I am so deeply opposed to what is going on in our educational system.”

The first few minutes of the interview capture nicely Rogers’s radical approach to education. Whiteley—a young scholar with coiffed hair and collarless t-shirt—delivers with a wry smile a series of difficult questions. Rogers, whose shoulders droop unthreateningly over his grandpa-bod, takes each question squarely, giving his answers in a thoughtful yet tentative way. It is as though Whitely is repeatedly asking Rogers to defend himself, but Rogers only ever explains his opinion of the situation as it makes sense to him on this particular interview day.

The Interview

It is clear throughout the interview that Rogers is not interested in changing Whiteley’s mind. He is merely being honest, and stating as clearly and as sympathetically his understanding of what seems to be going on between teachers and students. It is apparent in the interview how disarming Rogers’s presence might be to students in a classroom context. Even when challenged directly with nowhere to hide, Rogers never goes on the defensive. He takes seriously every question, no matter how tangential or ridiculous, and therefore honors the questioner.

Religious scholar (and biographer of progressive educator William Heard-Kilpatrick) Samuel Tenenbaum, in an essay about his experience as a student of Rogers, explains how this process occurred in the classroom. 

[T]he instructor took many blows; and it seemed to me that many times he appeared to be shaken; and although he was the source of our irritation, we had, strange as it may seem, a great affection for him, for it did not seem right to be angry with a man who was so sympathetic, so sensitive to the feelings and ideas of others. (p. 302 of On Becoming a Person)

Within a few minutes of his interview with Rogers, Whiteley asks the question that is on everybody’s mind: “If teachers aren’t to teach, then what are they to do?”

Rogers replies, 

Well, I think if we forgot all about teaching and asked, “How do people learn?” and then tried to focus on the issue of what [I could] do to help this person learn something he regards is of real significance for him, then I think we would be on the right track. 

This would, of course, require a complete revisioning of education. One where teachers and college professors, and their administrations, begin with how learning occurs. Doing so would require taking seriously the unique perspectives and gifts and interests of a given group of students.

It also suggests an emphasis on teacher qualities that don't hinge on knowledge, content expertise, or the ability to control the behavior of students. 

Rogers shines a light on what the alternative qualities might be. Throughout his career, he maintained three qualities that he felt were most essential to his role as facilitator of learning. These are congruence, positive regard, and empathy. Incidentally, Rogers discovered that these were the same qualities that were essential for all helping relationships, such as being a therapist. 


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