Carl Ransom Rogers (1902-1987) was an American psychotherapist who originated person-centered, non-directive counseling.
Carl Rogers was born on January 8, 1902, in Oak Park, Illinois, the fourth of six children to Walter and Julia (Cushing) Rogers. His father, a successful contractor, engineer, and farmer, believed in the virtue of hard work. His mother had strong fundamentalist religious convictions and raised her six children (five boys) in a home where drinking, smoking, dancing, and playing cards were sinful. She believed that the elect people of God should not mingle with those whose actions indicated that they were otherwise.
Rogers later said that his attitude as a youth toward others outside the home "was characterized by distance and aloofness … taken over from … parents." (A Way of Being, 1980). He had only superficial contacts with others, "never having a real date in high school." He was a solitary boy who between numerous farm chores found time to read. His interests outside of school focused on science, reading his father's books on scientific farming, and studying systematically the life cycle of moths found in woods near his home.
From Seminarian to Education Student
Rogers' college years brought a break with the orientation of his parents and an end to his solitary life style. During those years at the University of Wisconsin (1919-1924) he began dating and soon developed a close relationship with his childhood friend Helen Elliot, whom he married upon graduation. During his sophomore year he changed majors from agriculture to history, thinking that the latter would be more suitable for a career in religious work. A six-month trip to China with other Christian youths during his junior year impressed upon him that sincere and honest people could hold divergent religious views.
The growing shift away from his parents' perspective was further evidenced by his choice of a liberal seminary for graduate studies, Union Theological Seminary in New York City (1924-1926). In a student initiated seminar at Union he came to the conclusion that although "the possibility of the constructive improvement of life for individuals [was] of deep interest to me, I could not work in a field where I would be required to believe in some specific religious doctrines" (from his 1967 autobiography). As a consequence, he moved across the street to Teachers College-Columbia University, a move which was easily facilitated by the close affiliation of the two schools. He majored in clinical psychology and child guidance and graduated with a master's degree (1926) and a doctorate (1931). He characterized his education in psychology at Teachers College as having a markedly measurement and statistics approach to the understanding of behavior.
In 1928 the Rogers family (now including a two-year-old son and a daughter on the way) moved to Rochester, New York, where he began work as a psychologist for the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In contrast to Teachers College, many colleagues in Rochester emphasized a psychoanalytic approach to behavior. Through the practical and personal experiences in this clinic, however, he began to recognize that the results of both measurement psychologists and psychoanalysts were "never more than superficially effective."
Several incidents in the Rochester clinic helped him "to perceive … that it is the client who knows what hurts, what direction to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried. It began to occur to me that unless I had a need to demonstrate my own cleverness and learning, I would do better to rely upon the client for direction of movement in the therapeutic process." For effective counseling, the psychotherapist, Rogers believed, is "to be genuine and without a facade…. and to be empathetic in understanding. As a result the client begins to feel positive and accepting toward himself… . his own defenses and facade diminishes. …he becomes more open… . and he finds that he is free to grow and change in desired directions."
Advocate of Person-Centered Counseling
During mid-career, as a college professor, Rogers was able to apply his approach to counseling and further test the ideas that had grown out of earlier experiences. This also was a period of wide involvement in professional organizations and much writing effort. His theory and method quickly grew in popularity, but many established psychiatrists remained dubious as to their scientific rigor and applicability. He worked at three midwestern universities: Ohio State (1940-1945) in clinical psychology; University of Chicago (1945-1957) in psychology and as director of the student guidance center; and University of Wisconsin (1957-1963) in psychology and psychiatry.
Other activities during this period included visiting professorships at several universities and the receipt of many honorary degrees. Throughout his career he was active in professional organizations including being elected president of the American Association of Applied Psychology (1944), the American Psychological Association (1946), and the American Academy of Psychotherapists (1956). He received both the First Distinguished Professional Contribution Award and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association, the only psychologist to be thus doubly honored. Rogers was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1961.
Late in his career Rogers was named a fellow to the Center for Advance Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, California (1962-1963). He joined the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute in 1964 and later the Center for the Study of the Person in La Jolla, California, where he continued to work into the 1980s. Over his lifetime he published approximately 260 articles and 15 books, which have had a significant influence on the development of psychology in the 20th century. He was prominent in the human potential movement, and his book on encounter groups had an impressive impact.
After the mid-1970s Rogers was especially interested in facilitating groups involving antagonistic factions, whether the hostilities arose out of cultural, racial, religious, or national issues. He facilitated a group from Belfast containing militant Protestants and Catholics from Ireland and the English. He was involved in intercultural groups whose participants came from many nations, including participants from the Eastern European bloc countries. He facilitated Black-White groups in South Africa. He was deeply interested in applying the principles of the person-centered approach to international affairs in the interest of world peace.
Further Reading on Carl Ransom Rogers
Insightful autobiographical sketches with personal anecdotes are found in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of A Way of Being (1980) and in chapter 1 of On Becoming a Person (1961). A comprehensive biography by Howard Kirchenbaum is On Becoming Carl Rogers (1979). Also, a brief autobiography was published in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 5, edited by Edwin G. Boring (1967). An overview of his person-centered therapy can be found in On Becoming a Person (1961), and an overview of his theory of education is in Freedom To Learn (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Evans, Richard I. (Richard Isadore), Carl Rogers: the man and his ideas, New York: Dutton, 1975.
Evans, Richard I. (Richard Isadore), Dialogue with Carl Rogers, New York, N.Y.: Praeger, 1981, 1975.
Kirschenbaum, Howard, On becoming Carl Rogers, New York: Delacorte Press, 1979.