Shocking Expectations

Teach for long enough and you will discover that you've reinvented somebody else's wheel.  Years ago, for example, I was teaching a course on free speech and looking for a way to avoid the lecture/quiz-lecture/quiz monotony.  So I began writing elaborate scenarios in which various first amendment issues were in conflict.  My students had some awareness of earlier precedents and case law, but the scenarios contained fresh legal twists.  So my question was simple: given the earlier precedents and the issues at stake here, how do you think the court ruled and why?

I called this technique "coming at the material from below."  Instead of teaching  a legal concept like "the fighting words doctrine" or "clear and present danger," I just put the students in the justices' position.  They had to decide whether existing precedents applied or if some new approach were needed.  To my surprise the students often mirrored the court's reasoning and surfaced the same tensions and dissents as the actual cases.  In other words, they came at the issues from below and found their way to them on their own. Now it wasn't Oliver Wendell Holmes in dissent about seditious libel doctrine.  It was Larry in the corner, who--roused from his torpor-- suddenly became an impassioned advocate for his position.  Better still, he really knew his way around the issue by semester's end.

It was only years later that I discovered concepts like "expectation failure," "naive inquiry" or the effectiveness of inductive pedagogy.  I was just fooling around and instinctively realized that it worked better as a teaching strategy than my old lecture and quiz method.  Since then I am always  looking for places to use this approach in my teaching.  I wish I could say it's been easy.  It isn't.  Frankly, it's a lot of work and much of it trial and miserable failure.  In the end, lecturing from above is a hell of a lot easier.

Last year, however, I did find a way to work some 'teaching from below' into the senior core capstone.  In fact, one of the more interesting books I've incorporated into the capstone is David Livingston-Smith's Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others.   I should mention that the core capstone is a required senior-level seminar in which students examine the meaning, use and significance of their undergraduate education.  I deliberately use Smith's book to shake the class out of any comfortable notions that the Liberal Arts in any way inoculates them against dehumanizing others.

As Smith makes clear, genocide, slavery and denying the essential humanity of others are not periodic aberrations in the human experience.  Even a fleeting glance at history shows that's pretty much how we humans roll.  Indeed, Smith's book is a disturbing examination of how our biology, psychology and culture contribute to a universal human tendency to deny humanness to others.  Unfortunately, our instinctive allegiances are to the tribe rather than the species and under the right conditions most of us will become monsters to other tribes.

The key phrase here is under the right conditions.  It's an aspect of Smith's argument that most of my students overlook, which is exactly what I hope for.  This is where an expectation failure can happen. While discussing Smith,  I show the class clips of Stanley Milgram's famous experiment concerning obedience to authority.  This is a great example to use because the baseline study is so familiar.  My students have already encountered Milgram in high school or in some Intro to Sociology course.  They know that he asked ordinary people to administer electric shocks to "learners" who failed to correctly complete memorization tasks.  In reality, the learners were not shocked. They were just actors who screamed each time the teachers flipped a switch to administer what appeared to be increasingly high jolts of electricity.  In the baseline study, two-thirds of the teachers Milgram tested could be induced by an authority figure to deliver hypothetically lethal shocks.

So after we watch the clips, I ask students what we can make of Milgram's results and how they might relate to Smith's book. In almost every case the students respond that human beings must be essentially awful, horrible creatures.  Moreover, there's likely nothing--least of all a good Liberal Arts education--that can save us from our tribal hard wiring.  They agree with Freud: man is wolf to man. 

Fortunately, most students are unaware that Milgram ran 19 different versions of his experiment, testing such variables as the authority figure's language, whether he wore a white lab coat and even whether the teachers could see learners while they supposedly shocked them. The results differed widely, which meant obedience was contextual rather than some essential aspect of human nature.  Indeed, Milgram discovered that actually ordering teachers to continue or telling them they simply had no choice in the matter reduced their compliance to zero.  

One key finding of Milgram's research was that obedience is predicated on the teachers' belief that they were doing something important or worthwhile that will contribute to greater scientific understanding.  What they were doing may have been distasteful, but they were willing to go along if they believed it was necessary and ultimately beneficial.  When confronted with this new data, my students begin to surface a more nuanced understanding.  What I like about this exercise is that it allows them to draw a conclusion and apply it (Milgram shows that human beings can be beastly, which supports Smith's ideas); then it problematizes the evidences and asks them to think anew.  They realize it's too simplistic to say we're hard-wired for tribalism.  Instead they teach themselves what Smith and Milgram are actually saying: yes, we are hard-wired with tribal instincts, but we can also consciously unwire ourselves with effort by changing the context or becoming more aware of how it effects us

And that's what education is, becoming more aware of context and knowing oneself.   It's what Socrates meant by that hoary old phrase "the examined life."  He, like most disciplines in the Liberal Arts, was suspicious of natural instincts.  In the end,  there's a reason Zen masters pushed their apprentices into the mud every now and then.  It's the same reason Socrates likened himself to a "stinging horsefly."   When it comes to learning, a surprising shock now and then actually works.


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