Monday, April 23, 2012

What to tell the teacher who says, "I don't like what's going on in education, but I'm just going to do what they tell me to do and not stir up trouble."

Stanley Milgram, noted for his From Obedience to Authority Figures study, realized while reading through the transcripts of the My Lai Massacre, the Nuremberg trials, and statements from Lieutenant Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville, this theme recurs:
Obedience does not take the form of a dramatic confrontation of opposed wills or philosophies but is embedded in a larger atmosphere where social relationships, career aspirations, and technical routines set the dominant tone. Typically, we do not find a heroic figure struggling with conscience, nor a pathologically aggressive man ruthlessly exploiting a position of power, but a functionary who has been given a job to do and who strives to create an impression of competence in his work.
Milgram said this of his obedience experiments:
They raise the possibility that human nature, or-more specifically-the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
In an article entitled "The Dangers of Obedience," Harold J. Laski noted:
...civilization means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain...Those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilized.
...Our business, if we desire to live a life not utterly devoid of meaning and significance, is to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority.

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.  ---Thomas Paine:  Common Sense

Chris Hedges at Truthdig cites Immanuel Kant, Socrates, and Hannah Arendt to put it all together in  the last few paragraphs of his recent article, Why the United States is Destroying its Public Education:

Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love—love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you—but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside—including religious laws—are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.
“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur—the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”

Howard Zinn let us know we did not have a civil disobedience problem, but an obedience problem.  He also said this, to end on a postive note:

Did I miss the quote that most often comes to your mind?  Leave it in a comment, please.


  1. Great quotes! Two others come to mind as I think about colleagues who truly want to take action, but are afraid or unsure:

    Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear. ~Ambrose Redmoon

    You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do. E. Roosevelt

    I regularly remind myself of these truths when I need to take action and feel myself hesitate.

  2. And:

    "Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity.
    But silence is impossible.
    Silence screams.
    Silence is a message,
    just as doing nothing is an act.
    Let who you are ring out & resonate
    in every word & every deed.
    Yes, become who you are.
    There's no sidestepping your own being
    or your own responsibility.
    What you do is who you are.
    You are your own comeuppance.
    You become your own message.
    You are the message." --Leonard Peltier

    In other words... Be the change you wish to see in the world.

    And, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead

    1. Here is a quote that is appropriate for "education reform" in 2012:

      “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it” ~ Adolf Hitler