Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble



The Lucifer effect

We are inclined to think that although other people may have suffered from their education, we ourselves came through unscathed. 'I went to a traditional school,' say many people, 'and it never did me any harm.' The experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo have shown that they are almost certainly wrong.

Milgram's experiment, first conducted in 1961, was the one in which a collection of ordinary people were asked to collaborate in an experiment about punishment as a method of teaching. After drawing apparently random lots they each found themselves in the role of teacher, with another person, who was in fact an actor, in the role of student. The student was then taken into a separate room and the experimenter gave the 'teacher' a list of pairs of words to teach and equipment which would give the 'learner' an electric shock after each mistake. Illustration of_Milgram_ExperimentThese shocks increased in 15 volt increments up to a potentially fatal 450 volts. In spite of hearing the learners banging on the intervening wall and screaming with pain, 65% of the 'teachers', encouraged by the experimenter, went right up to the potentially fatal maximum. The experiment has often been repeated since, most recently as part of the 2009 BBC Horizon documentary, How Violent are you? Of the 12 participants in this documentary, only 3 refused to continue to the maximum punishment. We have been trained to obey authority.

Zimbardo's experiment, in 1971, was even more shocking, in that it did not include any actors. A group of students, carefully selected for mental stability, were divided into 'prisoners' and 'guards'. The 'prisoners' were locked into cells and the 'guards' were made responsible for keeping them in order. The intention was that the experiment should last for fourteen days, but after six days the distress of the 'prisoners' and the violence of the 'guards' had so escalated that the experiment had to be halted.

These brutal 'guards' did not start out as bullies. They were carefully chosen, mentally well-balanced young men. (As far as I know no one has attempted a similar experiment with women, but Milgram did repeat his own experiment with women, and found there was little difference in the outcome, although the female 'teachers' felt more stress than their male equivalents.)

In the late sixties and early seventies the American psychologist Ervin Staub conducted experiments that relate this kind of behaviour specifically to schooling. A child would be told to wait in a room alone. After a short time there would be the sound of a falling chair in the next room, followed by crying and moaning from a young girl. After the age of eight or nine, the older the children were the less likely they were to go to see whether they could help. By thirteen they were less likely to try to help than nursery school children. When they were asked about it afterwards they said they were afraid of being told off by the experimenter if they disobeyed him and left the room. They had been successfully taught that obeying orders was more important than concern for other people.

Zimbardo has produced a list of lessons that he thinks must be taught in schools in order to prevent this attitude developing. His first suggestion is that children should be taught to disobey unjust authority. Later he says that they should be encouraged to think before they act and not act on mindless 'autopilot'. He also recommends that all social conditions that make children (or anyone else) feel anonymous should be avoided, independence should be valued more highly than group conformity and freedom should never be sacrificed for security. The full list can be found at

Almost all schools teach exactly the opposite lessons. They teach that authority must be unthinkingly obeyed, that as long as you obey you don't have to think before you act, that as individual you are unimportant, that conforming, both to the official school rules and to the ethics of the subculture, is more important than independent thinking, and that you have to give up your freedom if you are to learn anything.

Zimbardo believes that this small beginning leads to the catastrophic loss of personal responsibility shown by the Nazis and in the treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The perpetrators of these crimes were not Prisoner on dog-leadmad sadists, they were ordinary people who had been trained to follow instructions.

We like to believe that we would never behave in such a way. We are probably wrong, because traditional schooling, with its emphasis on conformity and obedience, trains us to be ready to accept anything, however irrational or unacceptable to our conscience it may be, as long as it is supported by the voice of authority. Zimbardo calls this loss of personal responsibility the Lucifer effect. Of the many different categories of damage inflicted by traditional schooling, this is probably the most harmful of all.