by Michael Reid
Surely no one would object to the idea that it would be good to squeeze a few activities into the curriculum to promote peace. But once we see that our students are basically good and peaceful individuals who sit obediently at their desks is there really much left for us to do? Of course it would be good, and fun, to organize a "Poster for Peace" competition, for instance, but since our students are already so good and peaceful and obedient, aren't we really preaching to the converted?
There is reason to think, though, that the goodness, the peacefulness and, above all, the obedience of our students are part of the problem, and if this is so, there may be something for us to do as teachers that is not just a matter of preaching to the converted.
As a way into this line of thought we might recall the research of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo(1) - certainly not recent research but arguably still very relevant. They looked at the way ordinary citizens - all of them apparently good and peaceful and obedient individuals - behaved when given a social role which encouraged them to take actions causing suffering to others. In Milgram's experiment the volunteers agreed to act as teachers using electric shocks supposedly to improve the memory of a student whose voice (whose screams) could be heard from the room next door. The "teachers" had their instructions from an authoritative-looking scientist in a white coat, and they were told to punish incorrect answers by pushing a button administering the mildest electric shock, then increasing the level of the shock for each successive incorrect answer.
Most volunteers made some objection when they first heard the screams from the adjacent room, but when reminded of their agreement to complete the research and when assured that if anything went wrong they would not be held accountable, they dutifully continued following their instructions, applying larger and larger electric shocks.
Interestingly, before the experiment Milgram asked a number of psychiatrists to estimate the proportion of the experimental subjects who would agree to keep increasing the voltage to a level that was clearly marked as lethal. The estimate was 1% - a figure equal to the assumed proportion of pathological sadists in society. What Milgram discovered, though, was that 65% of his volunteer teachers agreed to keep pressing the series of buttons, despite the screams (which eventually ceased), all the way up to the one marked "450 volts Danger XXX", and no one quit before they got to 275 volts.
The findings of Zimbardo's famous prison experiment at Stanford University were equally disturbing. When given the opportunity to become prison guards he saw otherwise good and peaceful and obedient citizens turn into brutes. Some of the volunteer guards did not sink so low and were obviously unenthusiastic participants in the brutality, but not one of these "good" guards tried to stop the inhumane actions of his colleagues.
1 For a good summary of Milgram's and Zimbardo's research see
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