Saturday, 22 March 2008

The ‘soul’ in Conductive Education

Intelligent love

Live blogs from Budapest remind of vital ingredient

Susie Mallett’s (2008) recent blogs on die Seele (German for ‘soul’) bring to public attention a factor all to often ignored in contemporary discussion of Conductive Education. Susie Mallett’s insights come from being able to interpret her own experience as a conductor through reading some of András Pető’s work in his original German. Whatever language we speak, recognising the essentially psychological nature of the conductive process opens the way for vital psychological questions, with implications for training both conductors and other who would train to participate in this process.

Missing the spirit of Conductive Education

It is quite extraordinary how narrowly Conductive Education has been viewed over the years. There is a real problem for any new paradigm that even its advocates might at times take positions and describe it according to their own existing background, experience and ideology. Over the years many, many people have examined and even claimed to adopt Conductive Education from out of the background, experience and ideology of prevalent services and mind-sets concerned with disabled children and adults, resulting in sometimes major distortions and omissions. Sad to say, there is now a large professional ‘literature’, and even professional training, that does just this.

One extraordinary omission is Conductive Education’s assertion that treatment, intervention etc for motor disorders (the specific word used does not matter for the present argument) has to be before all things a pedagogy and therefore depend upon psychological processes (that is psychological processes both within and between people). This omission is particularly poignant for the conductive movement amongst German-speakers because:
  • they could easily read at least some of András Pető’s original thinking first-hand in their own language (though, remarkably, precious few seem to have done so); and
  • so much of the enthusiasm for Conductive Education amongst German-speaking people has meanwhile been diverted into thinking that seems so ‘medical’ as to be the very antithesis of what András Pető was advocating.
People not speaking German have a sort of excuse in that their very limited access to András Pető’s original thinking has been largely been mediated for them by people who have already failed to ‘get it’.

Using concepts available to him from his own personal ‘background, experience and ideology’ András Pető articulated his insight in terms of die Seele (‘the soul’). As Susie Mallett makes clear, the word ‘soul’ is its own worst enemy in the English language, especially amongst those dealing professionally with motor disorders (though I do wonder whether lay people – particularly those who use Conductive Education services – would have the same problem over it). And to be fair, the particular ‘background, experience and ideology’ in which András Pető expressed himself were far removed from the technical psycho-pedagogic concepts that would be acceptable in professional discourse today (not that they were all that acceptable in his own day!).

However they were expressed, András Pető’s insights are one of the roots from which the present Conductive Education as we now know it has developed. We owe it both to him and to our present endeavours alike to reach beyond the meaning of the words that he used and seek out the underlying sense that he may have been trying to convey.

'Warmth, empathy and genuineness'

In this respect, as seems often the case outside the ‘conductive goldfish bowl’, András Pető’s concerns are hardly novel. Failure to incorporate what András Pető called die Seele has been a long-standing question in other kinds of intervention medical and otherwise. As such it has attracted its own technical formulations and research, with the convenient formulation of ‘warmth, empathy and genuineness’ perhaps standing as a modern-day synonym in more acceptable technical jargon for ‘the soul’.

Twenty-odd years ago now, upon first reviewing what I knew about Conductive Education, I wrote:

It has long been widely known that, regardless of the specific methods used, a certain personality, a certain kind of relationship with the client, can have major effects upon the outcome of an intervention. (Cottam and Sutton, 1986, p. 173)

I cited in support of this a than magisterial review of research into the effects of psychotherapy:

The findings suggest that a person (whether a counsellor, therapist or teacher) who is better able to communicate warmth, genuineness and accurate empathy is more effective in interpersonal relationships, no matter what the goal of the interaction (better grades for college students, better interpersonal relations for the counseling center, adequate personality functioning for the seriously disturbed mental patient, socially acceptable behaviour for the juvenile delinquent or greater reading ability for third grade teaching instruction students). (Truax and Carkhuff, pp. 116-117)

I do not, by the way, advance this as evidence, as one often hears or reads, that ‘András Pető was ahead of his time’. In this respect anyway, he was not. He merely expressed things in a peculiar way, a way that many, even then, might have reasonably considered to be well behind the times. But to assert it in the field of physical disability was novel and revolutionary, and still is.

All you need is love?

Nor does this advance the notion that warmth, empathy and genuineness, are all that is needed to achieve Conductive Education. On the contrary in Mária Hári’s words:

Love is not enough here. It must be an intelligent love. (Hári, 1986)

She liked to use the English word ‘contact’:

Because of this, for whole generation who learned of Conductive Education in English in Budapest, ‘the contact’ became and has remained one of the technical terms of the conductive field in the English-speaking world… The original Hungarian word was kapscolat means ‘link' or ‘connection' and can also be used to refer to the fastening of a garment. Perhaps a better translation in this sense would have been ‘bond’, with all its psychological associations…. The first American visitor to her Institute in Budapest, James House, had immediately recognised this factor at work and put it to the forefront of his published report (1968). He called it ‘love’. (Maguire and Sutton, 2004, p. 31)

James House’s report was a rather a ‘spiritual’ one and that early report, standing outside the normal therapeutic and special-educational terms of reference of the professional world, was almost wholly ignored. ‘Love’ stands right outside contemporary terms of reference for professional services for children, certainly in the United Kingdom and I suspect throughout at least the English-speaking world.

So are ‘faith’ and ‘hope’, both words that have an important part to play in analysing the conductive experience.

These three! You presumably recall which was the greatest of these… If you do, then by education or upbringing you reveal yourself to have had contact with ‘spiritual’ ways of thinking outside the explicitly technical discourse of professional services, to Seelische ways of thinking.

Can you teach ‘soul’?

Susie Mallett raised the question of whether you can teach ‘soul’. If you want to train conductors, then this is a surely the central question. Again the questions raised are hardly novel ones, unique to Conductive Education: ‘Are good teachers born and not made?’ ‘Is good teaching “caught” and not “taught”?’.

Experience tells, hardly surprisingly, that some people are ‘naturals’, already through their earlier life experiences emotionally and philosophically switched on to the ‘contact’ and the values within Conductive Education. Others lie at the other end of the spectrum, actively switched off and outrightly oppositional to this way of practising and its values. Most people are distributed between. It is of course a fundamental principle of Conductive Education (and this applies to its professionals as well as to its clients) that all people can be taught – it is just a question of time, patience and instilling the right motivation. For some learning can be very hard indeed, and requires breaking down sometimes deeply held mind-sets and personality traits. Fortunately for all involved they usually part company with Conductive Education fairly early on in he process. But for everybody, the training can be very hard, ask any final-year student conductor: expressions like ‘boot camp’ and ‘brain washing’ are some of the kinder things that they say about what they are going through, showing again that there’s nothing new in Conductive Education that has not been explored and achieved elsewhere.

Conductors ‘know’ that people can be changed as a product of their conduction. This is not the sort of ‘knowing’ that comes from hearing a lecture or reading a book but from having been there yourself, been there, seen it and done it. Again, this process towards a deeper ‘knowing’ is not unique to Conductive Education. In modern-day terms András Pető would have been described as a ‘complementary and alternative’ practitioner (probably more alternative than complementary!). Toby Murcott’s recent critical investigation of complementary and alternative therapies, and their contemporary relationship to conventional medicine, put it thus:

The depth of interaction is something that virtually all complementary and alternative therapists emphasise. It is more than just spending an hour with their clients as opposed to the 10 minutes or so available to a harried general practitioner.. It is also about engaging and giving of themselves. It’s evidently very important and rewarding, and is regularly described as vital to what they do. Many researchers investigating complementary medicine suspect that this deep connection with clients is part of the reason that the therapists get results.

Another noteworthy aspect of some complementary therapies is that they often require practitioners to receive regular treatment themselves, particularly while training…. This is also the case for psychotherapists, most particularly psychoanalysts, and Alexander Technique teachers. It’s an interesting requirement for a healer to have to undergo the treatment they [sic] dispense. Maybe this routine helps practitioners to maintain a strong empathy with their patients. (Murcott, 2005, p. 48).

You might object that conductors in training cannot and do not receive treatment for motor disorders; I would respond that conductive pedagogy is not fundamentally about ‘motor’ or even ‘disorders’: it is about affecting psychological change, a process that can be directed to many ends.

So, if ‘love is not enough’, what is the ‘intelligent love’ that conductors have to acquire? Certainly, there are lots of skills, and activities and routines that have to be taught, leaned and continually corrected and refined. That is ‘training as is widely understood. There are also ‘academic’ things, facts and theories, that have to be listened to, read, learned and examined. This is higher ‘education’ as is widely understood. But a conductive ‘soul’ is not a simple cognitive skill or educational understanding, and therefore practitioners cannot achieve it through training and education alone – though these are also needed. Rather, it is the product of socialisation to the conductive culture, to a set of beliefs and values, to an ethos, to a way of life, achieved largely (though not wholly) through apprenticeship within exemplary and effective conductive practice.
This may involve hard-learned and sometimes painful personal reconstruction: no pain, no gain! And it takes time, measured not in hours or Stunde, perhaps not even in months but over years.

His soul goes marching on

András Pető ‘soul’ might be quaintly expressed but the sense of it is not unique and its heuristic value should not be lost in confronting some of the problems that Conductive Education faces today. It breathes life into the perennial question of defining Conductive Education, not least in helping clarify the ingredient-x that raises the tired old adjective ‘holistic’ to more than a ‘multidisciplinary’ sum of the troika of the conventional therapies plus teaching. In doing so, it provides a model for explaining why the supposed ‘principles of Conductive Education’ fall qualitatively short of constituting Conductive Education. Further examination of the conductive soul, how one generates this attribute, and how ‘tough love’ transcends mere tender loving care, seem a sine quâ non of providing appropriate training for aides, assistants and paraprofessionals working in conductive settings. They should also be a serious and unavoidable issue for other professionals contemplating what might be needed to train in Conductive Education.


Cottam, P., Sutton, A. (eds) (1986) Conductive Education: a system for overcoming motor disorder, London: Croom Helm

Hári, M. (1986) Interviewed in Standing up for Joe, BBC 1, 1 April

House, J. (1967) Breakthrough in Budapest: an interview, Ideas of Today, vol. 16, no3, pp.110-114

Maguire, G., Sutton, A. (2004) Mária Hári on conductive pedagogy, Birmingham Foundation for Conductive Education

Mallett, S. (2008) Conductor http://www.conductor.blogspot/

Murcott, T. (2005) The whole story. Alternative medicine on trial? London and New York, Macmillan

Truax, C. B., Carkhuff, R. R. (1967) Towards Effective Counselling and Psychotherapy, Chicago, Aldine
Two footnotes

Susie Mallet is currently in Budapest and may be extending her postings on this topic.

There are doubtless some who do not recognise the allusion to ‘faith, hope and charity’. It comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Personally, I prefer the King James translation:

And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity. (1 Corinthians, 13: 13)

I do appreciate why other English translations favour the word ‘love’. But this is another instance of a translation where it is more important to seek the deeper sense rather than fret over the particular words used. Do that and you will find then three kinds of love a useful jumping off point for discussing the concept of ‘conductive love’ – but that’s another story.

Meanwhile, given that a theme in this posting has been that there’s nothing new under the sun, those with a taste for Saint Paul might look to the relevance to present-day Conductive Education to the opening verses of the same chapter (2 Cor, vv 1-8):
  • those who claim to work conductively on the basis of the supposed ‘principles of Conductive Education’, without such love’s being part of their professional preparation and practice (v 1)
  • researching and writing and speaking about Conductive Education, without incorporating this factor (v 2)
  • directing sometimes immense time, energy and resources to developing practices, programs and services that, whatever their other manifest virtues, are fundamentally without the right kind of love (v 3)
  • some personal qualities for conductors? (vv 4-7)
I could go on… In mitigation, I did compose this item during the Easter break!


  1. Hi Andrew,

    Another interesting post - thank you. Just to point out a small typo in this extract - "... English in Budapest, ‘the contract’ became and has ...", shouldn't contract be contact?

  2. Thanks for spotting this. I can't type and l'm always grateful for notification of my typos.

    I'd quite lwelcome comments or correction of more substantive matters too...