Saturday, November 26, 2011

Gender, obedience and the education system

I know a couple who decided to educate all their children at home, because schools teach conformity. (The children all did very well, in different ways.)

There is a famous experiment by the Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, who wanted to test whether the Holocaust criminals' excuse "I was only obeying orders" was a true reflection of their feelings at the time. In 1961, he got volunteers to administer what they believed to be electric shocks of increasing intensity, to a human victim (who was merely acting). Disturbingly, some two-thirds of volunteers ultimately inflicted the highest-voltage "shock", despite misgivings, when reassured or ordered by an authority figure wearing a white coat.

I knew about that, but not until tonight, reading Richard Wiseman's "Quirkology", did I learn of a follow-up experiment, conducted some 10 years later. A flaw in the first test was that some participants may have correctly suspected that the man being given shocks was an actor; so researchers Charles Sheridan and Richard King repeated the experiment, using a live puppy. The results, reported in 1972 in a paper entitled "Obedience to authority with an authentic victim", were equally disturbing, with a fresh twist: slightly over half the male volunteers had been willing to use the maximum voltage, but 100% of the women complied, even though some of the latter burst into tears.

Back to schools. Primary schoolchildren have long been taught mostly by female teachers, but now women make up 87.5% of the staff, and 28% of state primaries have no men teachers at all;  and though when I started teaching men were the majority in secondaries, by 2008 the balance had shifted so that 59% the teaching staff there were women.

Some questions:

  • How valid was the 1971 experiment, bearing in mind the small sample (26 people)?
  • Has society changed since, so that the results would be very different if the same experiment were carried out today?
  • Would it now make a difference depending on the gender of the white-coated superior? And would the results be affected by the whether or not the "boss" was the same gender as the volunteer?
  • If women are indeed more obedient to authority than men, does this affect their expectations of obedience from the children, and how they react to a child's disobedience (or initiative)?
  • Are male children equally obedient as female children? Should they be expected to be?
  • Is men teachers' approach to obedience and conformity different from that of women teachers?
  • Should the gender of the teacher be matched (or opposite) to the gender of the pupils, in single-sex classes?
  • Is one gender better than another for teaching mixed-sex classes? And how about age groups?
  • Do you, too, think it's better to keep your children from the hidden curriculum of schools?


Twisted Root said...

Great questions. I have an opinion on a couple of them and not a clue about the rest.

Millgram's experiment was replicated many times in many different settings. For example it was thought that the setting at Yale Uni may have influenced people into thinking that nothing could be allowed to go wrong in such an august institution, so it was repeated as though carried out by a commercial organisation in a commercial building. The results were pretty well identical.

Interesting that 100% of women murdered the puppy, but I think the same experiment would yield the same results today (its's about two thirds across all demographics willing to apply lethal voltage, isn't it?).

As to the gender of the teacher being matched to the pupils I can only go from experience in an all boys school and being taught French by a young French lass in our third year. Very little was learned about the French language that year.

Sackerson said...

Hi, TR. Interesting, what you say about subsequent experiments, didn't know any of that. And yes, I don't know the answers to the questions, either.

I think my friends' decision was right, for their children, but then those parents are very intelligent, well-read and independent thinkers, and very loving and caring.

Thanks for stopping by.

hatfield girl said...

'Do you, too, think it's better to keep your children from the hidden curriculum of schools?'


It's not so much 'shades of the prison house' as

' even with something of a Mother's mind,
And no unworthy aim, The homely Nurse doth all she can To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man, Forget the glories he hath known, And that imperial palace whence he came..'