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.
- 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?