Friday, September 11, 2009

Stand Up, Speak Out!

It's shocking how obedient we are sometimes. Maybe it comes from our distant evolutionary past where it paid to stay with the herd, follow the alpha male, lest a mountain lion drop out of a tree and gobble you up. If you've had the occasion to observe a 'pack' of 7th graders roaming your local subway system or mall, then you might think it's not such a distant genetic influence I'm talking about.

Maybe we should blame our kindergarten teachers for doing such a good job of socializing us, imposing all those rules that we learned to obediently follow like sit up straight, don't fidget, don't talk out of turn and most of all the teacher is always right and you have to do what they say.

In John Holt's classic book How Children Fail, he observes elementary children and classrooms with piercing clarity, reminding us how scary school, not to be confused with education, was (or is) for most of us and how so much of what passes for teaching is really anathema to our natural curiosity and affinity for learning--especially as young children. In a telling example, Holt explains how he would talk to kids and ask them questions like what do you want to be when you grow up? Another question he would always ask was who thinks they have a good imagination? When he asked this question to a preschool or kindegarten class all the children would raise their hands and often yelp or bounce around to let him know, hey yes, over here, look at me, I've got one, I've got one! In first grade, he continues, maybe 3/4 or 1/2 the class would raise their hands. And by second grade, only a handful and timid few would raise their hands. School had either killed their curiosity and imagination or made them too self-conscious and scared to admit they had any.

And that's just it, either way the ship is sort of sunk. And things don't get much better when we grow up to be big strong adults either. We mostly still fear being different, changing going against the grain, against the herd. We're sheepish that society or the person sitting across from us on the subway will point to us and say, "that's baaaaaaaaaaaad."

It's shocking really how few people will stand up and say something in the face of racist, sexist, fascist, mean or just plain stupid words and deeds. We hope that we will be different when the time comes for true heroism, running into a burning tower, hiding a fugitive Anne Frank, but we mostly don't sweat the small stuff, right? And the problem is, to paraphrase the popular self-help book, at the end of the day, or a life, it has all ended up being small stuff. Minor affronts that slowly shred the fiber of our society through the death of a thousand cuts. Of course there will always be a brave or foolhardy few, but most of us will obediently press the button when we are told even when the results are cruelly and clearly splayed out in front of us.

I'm talking, of course, about a study that was somewhat unscrupulously carried out to study man (and woman's) violent and dangerous obedience to authority. It's called the Milgram Study. Basically, researchers told recruited volunteers that they were going to partake in a study of learning and memory. Each subject was told that they had to teach a student and to punish their errors by administering increasing levels of electric shocks. The "student" was a confederate of the researchers who pretended to be a poor learner and mimicked pain and even unconsciousness as the subjects increased the levels of electric shock. An incredible (or maybe not so incredible) 63% of the subjects went as far administering shocks marked as "lethal"; some even after the "student" claimed to have heart disease.

Now we may not be the most proactive of species, in terms of standing up and speaking out about oppression, injustice and the like, but we are a repentant lot. Apparently some of the test subjects experienced serious emotional crises after being "debriefed" from the study. Yes, we love our fallen angels who sob their apologies and weakness from the pulpit of their sins. It's an interesting evolutionary trait, actually. What evolutionary advantage does remorse confer on an individual?

I suppose nothing if we don't learn from our mistakes. And as John Holt so clearly explains, we don't learn well when we are scared. We tend to just shut up, play dumb, or just go along with the group hoping nobody notices us.

So here's a plug for standing up, speaking out, being noticed and not being afraid to speak our minds. Post your comments below, or better yet, click here and tell your congressional representative!

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