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.
The main conclusion for Milgram and Zimbardo was that social roles in institutions like prisons and the military can easily persuade "good" citizens to ignore morality and become willing accomplices in the perpetration of evil. Zimbardo went on to argue that social factors – what he called situational determinants – are ultimately responsible for more of the evil in the world than the aberrant impulses of certain individuals.
For teachers, whose power to change institutions is miniscule, the research might set off a different line of thinking. These institutions, these social systems that cause misery and suffering to others, can only work if individuals give in to the pressure to ignore the moral issues. Clearly the agreed aim of a more peaceful and more humane world requires more individuals who refuse to give in, who have the strength to insist on their sense of morality. In that strength, in that resistance and that insistence there is a cluster of virtues – virtues quite different from the veneer of goodness and peacefulness and obedience; and as teachers, perhaps there are a few things we can do to help cultivate those virtues.
The virtues at issue here were nowhere evident in the experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo, but there are examples in real life. Joseph Darby, for instance, was the soldier at Abu Ghraib in Afghanistan who took the brave decision to blow the whistle on the abuses there. Even though he now has to live in hiding, he apparently has no regrets. "It was a moral call," he said in one interview. "It had to be done."
In one of his later essays(2) Zimbardo referred to Joseph Darby as an example of what he called heroism – the heroism of those who refuse to be either bystanders or accomplices as they insist on a bright line between good and its opposite. Now, is it outrageous to suggest that our education for peace should really be an education for this kind of heroism? In a world organised for war isn't it imperative that we promote, ever so slightly, the virtues seen in the heroes who blow the whistle and speak out?
An education for heroes
How might this be done? Actually, there is nothing new here to describe. All the steps that need to be taken are already implemented by teachers, perhaps for other reasons. For instance, some teachers like to involve students in framing class rules at the beginning of the year. For some teachers this will just seem like a sensible thing to do, but it might also be a small step on the road to heroism.
One of the disturbing observations in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments was the way people just accepted "the rules of the game" as given and beyond question. A classroom or school environment where the rules are made an object of negotiation and where the students themselves have to take some responsibility for their framing might encourage students to go beyond that naïve acceptance; and there is no need for this to stop with the initial framing of classroom rules.
In a similar vein, students can occasionally be allowed to play the role of the teacher or the examiner, and perhaps follow this with a brief discussion of the experience.
In the English classroom opportunities also need to be found for students to enjoy judging and defending those judgments in public. In writing activities, for instance, students can evaluate each other's work and discuss both the evaluations and the criteria used in making them. With experienced writers in exam classes it is particularly interesting to let them make their own evaluations of official benchmark essays before comparing their assessments with the official grading.
In every English lesson we come across descriptions of situations in the lesson material. There is ample scope here to pause briefly and ask students what they would do in such a situation (assuming that students are familiar with the second conditional), followed by the request to explain why. From one perspective this is just good oral practice, but for those concerned about an education for heroes this is good practice in being accountable for one's actions and learning to live more responsibly.
Another idea that is not at all new: teachers exercising self-restraint and, from time to time, choosing not to be the authoritative source of knowledge. Some of us delight in feigning ignorance, pointing students in the direction of dictionaries and grammar reference books and the like when they have a question. We also refuse to spoonfeed and discourage parroting, especially when it comes to essays. The students must come up with their own ideas and must find a way both to evaluate and develop those ideas. And why stick to the absolute minimum essay length required by the examination board? There are moral grounds – not just linguistic ones – for insisting on depth; and depth requires length. At an advanced level the same good moral reasoning bolsters the examiner's (amoral) insistence that essay writers "explore some of the complexities" of the matter in hand. The students' thinking (and not just their language) needs to become nuanced, and therefore more frequently peppered with phrases like "although," "having said that," "it has to be admitted that," "to a certain extent," "and yet," and "seen from the perspective of."
Of course, what goes on in the English classroom can only be a tiny contribution. Children need to do many, many other things, such as lying on a hillside on a sunny day with their eyes closed listening – really listening – to the songs of birds, and then perhaps going to the same spot after sunset and looking – really looking – at the vast expanse of the abysmally black night sky. There is a long sentimental education that cannot be advanced in our classrooms, but as language teachers we may be in a privileged position to influence the more intellectual powers of critique and judgment that could make the difference between a good-hearted accomplice and the kind of moral hero prepared to speak out for peace.
1 For a good summary of Milgram's and Zimbardo's research see
2 Franco, Z., Zimbardo, P., The Banality of Heroism. Greater Good, Fall/Winter, 30-35, 2006.
|Michael Reid is a teacher, author of ECPE Challenge and contributor to www.fullspate.net
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