Corning by the Book: Utopian or Orwellian?
July 12, 2002
By LISA W. FODERARO
CORNING, N.Y. - People in other cities may all
the same book, but here they are living the same life. And
what a charmed life it is: free from nagging, threatening,
blaming, criticizing, complaining, bribing - and full of
loving, encouraging, accepting and negotiating.
At least that's the theory,
"choice theory" to be exact:
the framework for a happier existence as outlined by
William Glasser, a psychiatrist in California and author of
some 20 books whose beliefs about human nature have
improbably taken root here.
Five years ago, Dr. Glasser spoke to a group
of teachers in
Corning and offered the idea of creating a "quality
community" based on his ideas. (There are already nine
Glasser "quality schools" around the country, from
Charlottesville, Va., to Boulder, Colo.)
Corning chose, and in a social
experiment that might be
utopian or Orwellian, depending on your point of view, Dr.
Glasser's theories have seeped into many corners of this
city of 12,000, tucked into a corner of the Finger Lakes
It's not as if smiling people were skipping down the street
in an environment out of "The Truman Show." But supporters
of the Choice Community Project, as it is called, say there
are signs that Corning - person by person, household by
household - is gradually becoming a kinder, gentler place.
we teach people the very necessary skills of
how to get along better with the people who matter the
most, which is something that is not taught in households
across America," said Mary Hayes-O'Brien, the project's
director. "We're trying to get all the village members
talking the same language."
In a nutshell, choice theory says that unsatisfying
relationships are the source of almost all crime,
addiction, mental illness, family breakdown and school
failure. For progress in human relationships, Dr. Glasser
says, people need to give up trying to control others and
accept that the one thing they can control is their own
behavior. So a manager who routinely gives orders might get
better results by first asking workers what they think.
That may sound painfully obvious, but putting it into
practice is another matter. And Dr. Glasser's followers say
choice theory offers a way to focus people's attention on
doing just that.
The superintendent of the Corning-Painted Post public
schools, Donald B. Trombley - who called Corning a petri
dish for Dr. Glasser's theories - said, "When I think about
relationships, I ask myself, "Am I bringing you closer to
me or am I pushing you away?' "
Dr. Glasser estimates that about 1,000
people in Corning
have read his book, "Choice Theory: A New Psychology of
Personal Freedom" (Harper Perennial, 1998). So far, about a
quarter of the teachers in the district have been trained
in choice theory, and all freshmen in one of the city's two
high schools learn about it in their "high school success"
The Corning Senior Center is offering the theory in a
support group for women. The Steuben County jail is holding
workshops in choice theory for its inmates. The pastor of a
Baptist church asks all couples in pre-marriage counseling
to read the first five chapters of another Glasser book,
"Getting Together and Staying Together." And, in nearby
Addison, a parenting workshop lays out the "deadly habits"
of criticizing and blaming as well as the "caring habits"
of encouraging, negotiating and accepting.
Debbie Finamore-Flint, an assistant
principal in the
Addison Central School District, said she and her husband
had benefited from a "peaceful parenting" class that
provided a model, based on choice theory, for raising their
3-year-old daughter, Catherine. "The workshops have changed
even the language in our home," Mrs. Finamore-Flint said.
"Whereas before we might have said, `That was a dumb thing,
you know better than that,' we now say, `What are you going
to do to make it better?' or `What could you have done to
prevent that?' "
Then there is Pat Carlineo, 38, who said his life was
turned around by the choice-theory workshops he attended in
the county jail, where he was sentenced for driving while
intoxicated when he was on probation for torching a
motorboat he had owned with a former girlfriend. "I
realized I was an adult and thought, `Geez, I've got
children and when am I going to get a grip on life and set
an example,' " said Mr. Carlineo, a guitarist who has
formed two bands since leaving jail. "I accept that my life
isn't a Disney film," he said, "there are going to be times
when I slip up. But I think I have the tools now to deal
with everyday pressure."
Still, some residents find the whole enterprise
suspect, if not silly.
Megan O'Neil-Haight, owner of a preschool program
Corning, detects a paradox in the school district's taking
on choice theory. A plan for the district calls for the
incorporation of the theory into the entire curriculum,
from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. "To implement
that with a broad brush without having been given choices
about other programs," she said, "I find that particularly
School officials counter with the argument that choice
theory is not being forced on anyone: teachers have been
encouraged but not required to receive training.
Other criticism has come
from parents who worry that giving
young people more freedom and control over their lives
could lead to trouble. Advocates of choice theory argue,
however, that it encourages children to take responsibility
for their actions and accept consequences.
Gary A. McCaslin, pastor of
the First Baptist Church of
Painted Post, said of some critics, "They have their radar
"It's a misunderstanding of what the basic tenets are," he
said. "If the only thing you hear is that you can't force
people to do things, there are people in the conservative
Christian church who will make the leap and say, `Oh, kids
can do anything they want,' but that's not choice theory."
for the initiative has come from the school
district, which has lent office space to the project's few
employees. Financial help has come from foundations and
from Corning Incorporated, which despite its major role in
the community quietly contributed $200,000 but has not
asked employees to take part in the training.
Some here consider Dr. Glasser
a visionary whose views on
human nature are profound in their simplicity. Others say
he is an idealist whose pop psychology is merely
simplistic. Dr. Glasser, who has been quite successful, has
one book, "Reality Therapy," published in 1965, that has
sold about a million copies. He also founded the William
Glasser Institute in Chatsworth, Calif., which trains
educators, therapists and others around the world.
When asked whether