Touch and Go

Groups, Gimmicks, and Instant Gurus

by William R. Coulson
Harper & Row, 181 pp., $5.95

The Pit

by Gene Church, by Conrad D. Carnes
Outerbridge & Lazard, 168 pp., $6.95

The banner of the second section of The New York Times on Thursday, March 26, 1970, read, American Churches Are Turning to Sensitivity Training, and in the article, the Rev. Gerald J. Judd, “director of Christian Education for the 2-million member United Church of Christ,” was quoted as saying, “It’s a way of helping members get in touch with their feelings and learn to love. I predict it will be for us what revivalism was for religion on the frontier.” Some columns further on, the Times man, Edward B. Fiske, wrote,

Churches…have been careful to avoid caressing, nudity and other practices that have brought criticism to some secular centers. “I would be extremely hesitant,” said Dr. Judd, “to introduce nude bathing to the Scarsdale United Church of Christ.”

We can see a tiny unilateral smile and a merry twinkle of the eye in the countenance of the Reverend Mr. Judd as he treats us to this levity.

Sensitivity training: what a phrase to conjure with! And what large sums of legal tender the conjurers have realized with their presto-chango. If the subjects of these training courses (they meet in “Encounter Groups” or, more chummily, “T-Groups,” presided over by “facilitators”) were to learn ways of sharpening or refining their five physical senses, their time and money might be well spent: if, let us say, a clerk in the dry-goods department of a big store couldn’t feel the difference between sateen and serge but could learn how to do so at a marathon sensitivity session held in a motel over a weekend, he might improve his fortunes and in middle life be advanced to section manager.

But that is not the aim of this new-style personality improvement. In the “here and now,” the subjects are to disengage themselves from inhibitions (and discretion and shackling courtesy) and to act upon “gut-level feelings” so that thereafter they will be able to give the boss a great big bear hug if they feel like it or to tell him in no uncertain terms that he has bad breath and ought to use Scope. This will improve relations between labor and management, will solidify shaky marriages, and make veritable Edens out of offices, factories, pro hockey teams, and local chapters of the Audobon society. Come hell or high water, sensitivity will save the day.

This curious movement, curiously enough, got its start in Bethel, Maine, in the late 1940s, but, needless to say, it sprang fully to life in Southern California. The hydra-headed pioneer, Esalen in Big Sur, inspired hundreds of its initiates to go forth and establish “growth centers” throughout the country. To these neoplasms, big business, police forces, schools, government agencies, and the Reverend Mr. Judd sent their employees to sit around in groups of ten or twelve for hours and days and sometimes weeks, learning how to “relate.” In very many cases attendance was not optional, and in very many the results were disastrous. A young married couple, friends of …

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