Campus & Community

Memorial Minute:

7 min read

John M. Shlien

On May 1, 2003, the following Minute was shared with the Faculty of Education.

We mark with light in the memory the few interviews we have had,
in the dreary years of routine and of sin, with souls that made our
souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew;
that gave us leave to be what we inly were.

-R.W. Emerson, Divinity School Address, 1838

We gather as a community of friends and scholars to pay tribute to the life and work of John M. Shlien. For thirty-five years of insightful teaching and research and then active retirement, he was our colleague at Harvard University. Before that, for some of us, he was a mentor, colleague, and even therapist at the University of Chicago.

As a scholar, John’s theoretical and research interests were firmly centered in psychology. He brought to bear new methods of empirical research concerning the process and outcomes of psychotherapy, research that was much needed in refining our knowledge of how therapeutic relationships bring about personal growth or “personality change.” He stood out as one of the preeminent leaders of the “Client-Centered Therapy” movement, and he was particularly adroit at interweaving experience and research from clinical settings into the ongoing development of theory in that field.

John came to these interests by a natural, though rather distinctive, route. His academic and professional interests developed in social anthropology and the sociology of knowledge as well as in psychological research. He completed his military service in World War II in the Psychological Research Unit of the U.S. Army Air Force. He later held a Civil Service job as Chief Examiner and Director of Test Construction in Chicago. Pursuing advanced studies at the University of Chicago in the late 40’s, he completed his Ph.D. in 1957. His dissertation, “An Experimental Investigation of Brief, Time-Limited, Client Centered Therapy,” demonstrated that time-limited therapy could have just as profound and lasting consequences on personality change as much longer unlimited therapy protocols.

In the process of interviewing professionals regarding the sociology of knowledge John met Carl R. Rogers, the psychologist who first developed the theory and practice of Client-Centered Therapy. Rogers soon became a very important mentor and friend. They shared a profound respect for the inherent capacity of individuals, even under severe psychological stress or neurotic anxiety, to work through confusing and frightening webs of emotional bewilderment, and to regain healthy and constructive growth, given a safe context of genuine therapeutic support.

Much of the early work of the client-centered therapists was undertaken at the Counseling Center at the University of Chicago. John began his own work there in 1950. It became his special responsibility to document through clinical research procedures clear evidence of the psychological changes that occurred when the “necessary and sufficient conditions” of constructive personality change were provided. Carl Rogers became very indebted to John and others for this scientific validation.

In 1967, John Shlien came to Harvard University, as Professor of Education and Counseling Psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. At the time a new interdisciplinary program was being considered that would build on knowledge and research in psychology and psychiatry, but shift away from a clinical emphasis on the treatment of pathology to the proactive design of better systems of community development and institutional planning that would enable people to thrive in more healthy ways. Supported by the Divinity School, the Medical School, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Graduate School of Education, the newly formed “Clinical Psychology and Public Practice” program set out in an “action research” mode to both initiate and study such changes. John Shlien was one of the key framers of this program and helped bring together other significant colleagues like Chester Pierce (medicine), Richard Rowe (education), Ira Goldberg (community development), and William Rogers (divinity). An interdisciplinary curriculum was built to support a strong and innovative doctoral program in Clinical Psychology and Public Practice. The program attracted many talented students with strong interdisciplinary backgrounds and deep convictions about constructive social change along with pushing the frontiers of knowledge about such change.

In 1972, as a major experiment in action research, John Shlien created the “Robert W. White School” in Boston. The idea was to develop with students, especially those who had failed or been expelled from public school mostly for mental or behavioral problems, and with teachers, a curriculum that would positively engage kids. Measuring success was difficult, but in spite of frustrations, the school had a very constructive effect in the lives of many young people. It established a model of program development that could be used in smaller and more focused ways in other public and private schools.

Although John did not codify any “new” theory of personality or of social change the writing that he undertook showed brilliance and courage. He was intrepid about taking on the task of dismantling one of the primary tenets of traditional psychoanalytic theory: the idea of “transference.” The “working through of the transference,” that is, analyzing the emotional and historical psychodynamic content of complex psychosexual feelings presumably “projected” or “displaced” onto the analyst by the patient, was central to the work of psychoanalysis. John effectively countered the theory by showing that such a concept as “transference” shielded the analyst from real feelings that emerged between patient and doctor, or analysand and analyst, or client and therapist. In his words, “Transference is a fiction, invented and maintained by the therapist to protect himself form the consequences of his own behavior.” John developed an historical and psychological argument to support his contention by carefully reviewing the classic cases of J. Breuer with “Anna O,” and of S. Freud with his early female patients. The sexual overtones of these cases were revealed in private correspondence, and in several instances of interrupted therapy. Yet clustering the sexual content within the concepts of transference and counter-transference disguised a potent reality while ironically doing so in the name of unraveling disguises. This is not to say John dismissed completely the presence of displaced feelings or “transference” phenomena in therapy – or real life – but he showed the error of making this the central feature of the therapeutic enterprise. The truly central feature for him was understanding, empathetic understanding – complex, realistic, at the pace of the client, honest, caring. And at this, he was a master.

John retired from the Harvard faculty in 1984. John’s associations with students and colleagues continued. He used his more open schedule to travel and lecture, primarily in Europe, on the principles and applications of Client-Centered or Person-Centered theory.

In this review of John’s life, we should give special honor to his personal affection for his family. His marriage to Helen was a bond of nearly 60 years. He admired her strength, intelligence and independence, her care for the children, and her keen artistic and business sense. They had three children, David, Andrea, and Laura, all three of whom now live in California. There are five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. John loved all of them greatly.

John was not a conventionally religious person, but he certainly had a sense of the ineffable, the mystery of the transcendent, and a wonder at the richness of existence. He once attended a discussion on religion between Bruno Bettleheim and Paul Tillich. He reported finding Bettleheim quite plausible in laying out Freud’s view from The Future of an Illusion that the urge toward religious belief was “projection” of a longed for father. Tillich replied, “But what is the screen?” “Not a weighty reply, to my way of thinking,” John wrote, “but increasingly I realized that “it” cannot be nothing.” (1984) He was a seeker.

So to this fine teacher, scholar and friend, we pay our final respect. A teacher of teachers, a therapist of therapists, a researcher for searchers, an inquirer among those who asked some of the deepest queries of life. Our admiration and appreciation for John Shlien is great. With sadness and many levels of humble identification, we bid him farewell.