By Bill Fox/Columnist
While reading the book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, I came across a study that I had heard about years ago. This study involved a professor and some of his students at Yale. He solicited some of his students to be part of an experiment on learning. The study involved some other “participants” who agreed to be electrically shocked in order to receive financial rewards. Apparently, these “participants” had signed waivers and agreed to finish the experiment or else lose their payments.
The professor explained to his Yale students that, along with him, they would be behind a one-way glass and would be observing, as these participants would be given increased electrical shocks. Because he would be monitoring heartbeat and other medical changes, he needed his Yale students to increase the amount of electrical shock as he would request.
Little did the Yale students know that the “participants” were actually actors pretending to be shocked. As the Yale students increased the amount of electricity, and witnessed the apparent discomfort of the subjects, the professor would increase the intensity of shocks even further. Despite hearing their screams and their complaining of heart pains, the students did as the professor told them. He explained that the participants would lose their financial reward and had agreed in writing to complete this experiment on learning.
Almost all of the Yale students complied with the wishes of the professor even though some of the “participants” seemed to lose consciousness.
The professor, I have since learned, was a psychologist by the name of Stanley Milgram. Milgram concluded that people are surprisingly willing to harm and even kill others in the service of some new purpose if they are so instructed by a higher authority.
Timothy Snyder is the author of the aforementioned book, and in his first lesson warns about, “Do not obey in Advance!” His point being that even in Nazi Germany, there was an obedience that was anticipated by an authority and this apparently could explain why some Nazis behaved as they had.
It seems amazing to me that this study showed how many people, otherwise good folks, would obey authority figures without question. Now, normally I have great respect for authority figures. I know the few times I have been pulled over for my driving infractions it was well deserved and the officers were only doing their jobs. Pointless then to question their authority under those circumstances. Similarly, while I was teaching, for the most part I had great respect for the authorities directly above me (my principals). However, at times I admit to lacking respect for a superintendent and even a director of education for a board I once worked for. It’s been said that some people rise to their level of incompetence! In the profession years ago, the principal used to be the “Master Teacher.” Regrettably a few principals I worked for were, in fact, not good teachers and taking courses and moving up the chain of command could be a way out of their ineptitude.
I’m thinking that maybe some Americans had such great respect for the Office of President of the United States that they believed all that they were told! I’m sure however, that many others voted for Trump because they felt Republicans were better attuned to the needs of the nation than Democrats. My point is simply that people sometimes will act and react according to the wishes of a higher authority without questioning the authority.
In my 40 years in the classroom, I had one main rule I gave my students: “I will respect you, and I ask that you show me and your classmates the same respect.” I hope during my teaching years I earned the respect of my students.
Snyder finishes his book with warnings about how we have to defend institutions (democracy?). He further has a warning about one-party states and paramilitaries, and stresses the importance of believing in truth and contributing to good causes.
I’m at email@example.com, very concerned about guns in the States, and Canada, too.