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Education for...Peace?
by Michael Reid
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The main conclusion for Milgram and Zimbardo was that social roles in institutions like prisons and the military can easily persuade "good" citizens to ignore morality and become willing accomplices in the perpetration of evil. Zimbardo went on to argue that social factors – what he called situational determinants – are ultimately responsible for more of the evil in the world than the aberrant impulses of certain individuals.
For teachers, whose power to change institutions is miniscule, the research might set off a different line of thinking. These institutions, these social systems that cause misery and suffering to others, can only work if individuals give in to the pressure to ignore the moral issues. Clearly the agreed aim of a more peaceful and more humane world requires more individuals who refuse to give in, who have the strength to insist on their sense of morality. In that strength, in that resistance and that insistence there is a cluster of virtues – virtues quite different from the veneer of goodness and peacefulness and obedience; and as teachers, perhaps there are a few things we can do to help cultivate those virtues.

The virtues at issue here were nowhere evident in the experiments of Milgram and Zimbardo, but there are examples in real life. Joseph Darby, for instance, was the soldier at Abu Ghraib in Afghanistan who took the brave decision to blow the whistle on the abuses there. Even though he now has to live in hiding, he apparently has no regrets. "It was a moral call," he said in one interview. "It had to be done."

In one of his later essays(2) Zimbardo referred to Joseph Darby as an example of what he called heroism – the heroism of those who refuse to be either bystanders or accomplices as they insist on a bright line between good and its opposite. Now, is it outrageous to suggest that our education for peace should really be an education for this kind of heroism? In a world organised for war isn't it imperative that we promote, ever so slightly, the virtues seen in the heroes who blow the whistle and speak out?

An education for heroes

How might this be done? Actually, there is nothing new here to describe. All the steps that need to be taken are already implemented by teachers, perhaps for other reasons. For instance, some teachers like to involve students in framing class rules at the beginning of the year. For some teachers this will just seem like a sensible thing to do, but it might also be a small step on the road to heroism.

One of the disturbing observations in the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments was the way people just accepted "the rules of the game" as given and beyond question. A classroom or school environment where the rules are made an object of negotiation and where the students themselves have to take some responsibility for their framing might encourage students to go beyond that naïve acceptance; and there is no need for this to stop with the initial framing of classroom rules.

In a similar vein, students can occasionally be allowed to play the role of the teacher or the examiner, and perhaps follow this with a brief discussion of the experience.

2 Franco, Z., Zimbardo, P., The Banality of  Heroism.   Greater Good,  Fall/Winter,    30-35, 2006.

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