Carl Rogers' Values
and the Native American M.A. Program

Arthur Warmoth, Ph.D.
Sonoma State University


Carl Rogers was a psychologist for the world, as we can see from the international character of this symposium. But he was also deeply grounded in the American traditions of Protestant individualism and democracy. This is clearly seen in his philosophy of psychotherapy, which is based on the principles of congruence, empathic listening, and unconditional positive regard. These principles are individualistic, following the emphasis on personal redemption characteristic of at least the optimistic versions of Protestantism. And they are inclusive, in the best traditions of both Christianity and democracy.

In this presentation, I would like to suggest that Rogers three principles of psychotherapy imply a larger democratic ethic, an ethic that was implicit in Rogers' writings on organizations and politics, particularly in Carl Rogers On Personal Power (1977). But it deserves to be made more explicit. I would then like briefly to show how Rogers explicit philosophy of person-centered education and his implicit philosophy of democratic power structures shaped the M.A. in Psychology, External Program, at Sonoma State University which was the context of the Native American Masters' Program, as well as that program itself. Royal Alsup, who was the principal adviser for that M.A. program, will discuss the program in greater detail.

A Rogerian Political Ethic

Rogers was a thoughtful, soft spoken individual, and he was--like his colleagues Rollo May and Abraham Maslow--a passionate and revolutionary culture creator. In view of the fact that all three of these founders of the humanistic movement saw themselves as cultural critics, it is interesting that their ideas have had relatively little impact on political thought, compared to their powerful cultural impact through the fields of psychotherapy, education, and organization development. John Vasconcellos (1979) is the politician who has done the most to advance humanistic political theory and practice. But in spite of his personal success in the California legislature, his agenda often has a hard time getting a hearing across the full political spectrum.

In Carl Rogers On Personal Power (1977), he made an interesting admission about the limits of his ability to change the overall structures of the organizations within which he worked. While he felt very effective in implementing a successful person-centered, power sharing administrative philosophy in those programs of which he was in charge, he felt frustrated at not being able to have much effect on the levels of administration above his own, other than to carve our a safe niche for his own programs. If George Lakoff's political psychology (in Moral Politics, 2002) is correct, and our political ideology is deeply rooted in familial metaphors of nurturance vs. discipline, some of the problem may be due to the fact that therapeutic language and its implicit assumptions about human nature is too closely identified with the nurturance end of the continuum. This is not inappropriate among the psychotherapeutic community of professional nurturers. However, I believe that Rogers' core values of effective therapy can be translated into a formulation of a political ethic that is deeply rooted in the democratic tradition but which can be advocated in the yang mode of political debate, as well as in the yin mode of empathic listening. It therefore offers the possibility of reconciling the progressive-conservative polarization by striking a democratic and empowering balance between nurturance and discipline, both of which are profoundly important in human affairs.

In this Rogerian political ethic, congruence can be recast as personal integrity, which includes both honesty and consistency, as well as self-awareness. Unconditional positive regard speaks to the profoundly democratic values of inclusion, which at least implies tolerance, and ideally implies an acceptance and prizing (another Rogerian word) of human diversity. Finally, Rogers' empathic listening implies the Jeffersonian value of free and open discussion and debate, which in its most psychologically sophisticated form (the form that embodies Christ's Golden Rule as well as Buddha’s core ethic) includes empathy and compassion. It is implicit in Rogers' theory of psychotherapy that his core values represent a discipline to which the psychotherapist must aspire if he or she wishes to be effective. In the political sphere, the political analogs of these values need to be both explicitly advocated as a political agenda and formally taught (probably most effectively using Rogers' person-centered pedagogy) as the foundation for a democratic political culture. The democratic leader must teach with the voice of authority &endash; as Rogers often did &endash; the lessons about how human systems can become more inclusive and less hierarchical. This paradoxical yin-yang balance requires substantial self-knowledge &endash; including an intimate acquaintance with the shadow &endash; on the part of democratic leaders. Human nature is essentially good primarily when challenged by authority to rise to its highest potential. There is challenge, as well as permission, in the client-centered approach that challenges us to discover its political analog.

The M.A. in Psychology, External Program

The M.A. in Psychology, External Program, which was established in 1972 and still exists ("External Program" has morphed into "Special Sessions"), was based on a person-centered educational philosophy, as was the entire psychology curriculum at Sonoma State University. The cornerstone of any person-centered educational program is the mentoring role of the faculty. In the Sonoma State program, the curriculum was based on an evolving contract between the student and the faculty adviser. This model permitted students to find and work with appropriate learning resources wherever they could be found--in classes on campus, at work, at professional training workshops, or in any number of novel situations such as the ceremonial events that were an integral part of the Native American program. Learning was evaluated on the basis of a portfolio of documentation, evaluated by a faculty committee in periodic meetings. A thesis or investigative project was also required, and this was intended as an integrative experience which could include reflection on the student's own educational journey.

It was the flexibility of the program that permitted me to work with an adviser--Royal--and a group of students in Humboldt County, more than 200 miles from campus. (One of the things we have discovered over the years is that for many students, person-centered education works better when there is not only a fruitful relationship with a faculty mentor, but also a peer support system of fellow students. We have therefore incorporated a cohort model in many aspects of our masters program. It should be noted that the Native American M.A. Program was an early experiment in the cohort model.)

The Native American M.A. Program

Carl Rogers' explicit person-centered educational philosophy and his implicit political philosophy (as described above) came together in the Native American M.A. Program.

As is much of the curriculum of the Psychology Department at Sonoma State University, the Native American M.A. Program embodied Carl Rogers principles of person-centered education:

Rogers summarized his principles of person-centered education as follows:

  • Precondition. A leader or person who is perceived as an authority figure in the situation is sufficiently secure within himself and in his relationship to others that he experiences an essential trust in the capacity of others to think for themselves, to learn for themselves. If this precondition exists, then the following aspects become possible.

  • The facilitative person shares with the others--students and possibly also parents or community members--the responsibility for the learning process. . . .

    The facilitator provides learning resources--from within himself and his own experience, from books or materials or community experiences. . . .

    The student develops his own program of learning, alone or in cooperation with others. . .

    A facilitative learning climate is provided. . . .

    It can be seen that the focus is primarily on fostering the continuing process of learning.

    The discipline necessary to reach the student's goals is a self-discipline. . .

    The evaluation of the extent and significance of the student's learning is made primarily by the learner himself. . .

    In this growth-promoting climate, the learning is deeper, proceeds at a more rapid rate, and is more pervasive in the life and behavior of the student than learning acquired in the traditional classroom. (Rogers, 1977, pp. 72-74)

    But Native American M.A. Program also embodied the political principle of the acceptance of culturally diverse worldviews. Cultural identity is an integral dimension of personal identity. In other words, as Walter Truett Anderson argues in The Future of the Self (1997), the self is always constructed in a sociocultural context. Our personality is formed in its earliest stages through a process that Berger & Luckmann call primary socialization. In this pre-oedipal stage of socialization, the structure of our worldview is shaped by symbolic and presymbolic imaginal and kinesthetic experiences as much as, if not more than, by verbal narrative (Warmoth, 2000). This primary worldview can be overlaid and modified by the secondary socialization that is accomplished through formal education and subsequent life experiences in general. But it continues to exert its influence in our lives as the foundational structure and dynamic of our consciousness. And this primary worldview is always shaped by a cultural or subcultural context of family and community relationships--and in modern society of communications media, particularly television--that operate according to a describable coherence. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset calls this coherence "historical reason" (1957). By this he means that the internal coherence of our foundational cultural worldview is by no means arbitrary; however the logic it follows is the historical logic of narrative and aesthetic order, not the linear logic of Aristotelian philosophy and positivistic science.

    Thus, a Rogerian ethics implies not only the acceptance of a diversity of individual worldviews, as Rogers suggested in his article "Do We Need ‘A’ Reality" (1980), but the acceptance of a diversity of cultural worldviews as well. While these worldviews may offer varying philosophical interpretations of nature, and thus of the deeper philosophical meanings of the natural sciences, they are particularly central to the processes of the social construction of social reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Anderson, 1990). That is, they represent a particular imaginal and narrative interpretation of the world (and the cosmos) that is both shaped by history and existentially engaged in contemporary political and aesthetic discourse. In the contemporary globally integrating world, full and effective participation in political and cultural discourse, conversation, and dialogue requires the capacity for empathic understanding of diverse cultural, as well as personal, worldviews. And the capacity for such empathic understanding requires first of all a self-reflective and conscious understanding of one's own personal and ethnic worldview.

    Therefore, as a vehicle for promoting the cultural self-understanding of the students, the use of Jungian or archetypal psychology was also an important aspect of the curriculum. Archetypal theory was not, however, used as a means to interpret or explain the Native American world view. Rather it was offered as a communication bridge between the Native American worldview and the worldview of contemporary humanistic psychology.

    Working with this group of Native American students, being invited to participate in their worldview and share their ceremonies, was one of the high points of my teaching career. Royal will describe in greater detail the curriculum and what it has led to in terms of the accomplishments of some of its students.


  • Anderson, W. T. (1990). Reality isn't what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

  • Anderson, W. T. (1997). The future of the self. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

    Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality. New York: Doubleday.

    Lakoff, G. (2002). Moral politics (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Ortega y Gasset, J. (1957). Historical reason. New York: W. W. Norton.

    Rogers, C. R. (1977). Carl Rogers on personal power. New York: Delacorte Press.

    Rogers, C. R. (1980). Do we need "a" reality? In A way of Being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Vasconcellos, J. (1979). A liberating vision. San Louis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.

    Warmoth, A. (2000). Culture , Somas, and Human Development. Somatics Magazine-Journal, vol. XIII (no. 1), Fall-Winter 2000-01.