Tuesday Teaching Topic: Teaching Disobedience

Last week, TTT raised the question of the motivation for teaching soft skills, whether we should teach soft skills, and if we should teach them, then how do professors at HWC teach them. As promised, this TTT is a continuation of that. And this begins with a proposal for consideration: insofar as it is the purpose of education to prepare students for citizenship, as well as employment, and insofar as a democratic state with rights of free speech for its citizens depends upon citizens to insert their views in the local and national discourse, and insofar as those in positions of power may be blind to the conditions of those with less power, it becomes a duty for all citizens in such a state to effectively wield disobedience.

The final element of this proposal: if skills like “dressing professionally” are considered badge-worthy soft skills because it helps a student’s employability, then skills like “disobedience” be considered soft skills because it helps a student’s citizenship.

This weeks question is concerned with teaching disobedience. What would be the motivation for teaching disobedience? Should we teach disobedience? How do we, or how should we, teach disobedience? How do we teach our students to recognize situations where disobedience is the proper tool. 

At first, this may sound like an odd question. Isn’t disobedience a bad quality? This is especially true if CCC’s primary mission involves preparing students for the workforce: if we teach students how to be disobedient, are we not undermining our primary mission? However, it does not take long to find important cases in both history and in our own lives to find examples of disobedience that we not only find acceptable, but even heroic and revolutionary. Nearly every political, religious, social, and otherwise ideological movement is based on heroes of disobedience: Anne Hutchinson, Malcolm X, and Charles Darwin, to pull just the smallest smattering from a legion. But we can agree they are heroes while still demanding obedience–either in our voice or in our hearts–from the subordinates we see and speak to on a daily basis.

But is disobedience a skill, or is it simply a choice? We may say that disobedience is simply an action that bold or rebellious individuals or groups engage in once they recognize injustice or frustrated by their situation. On the other hand, we may argue that effective disobedience begins with the proper recognition that the current situation is unjust and requires disobedience. And, like courage, it is one think to say to one’s self, “now is the time for disobedience,” and something quite different to confront authority and engage in disobedience. Like courage, the exercise of confronting adversity enables one to more capably confront it subsequently. This combination of the enhancement of the cognitive recognition plus the enhancement of one’s abilities through practice is the very definition of “skill:” something that can be enhanced through practice and education.

According to a few now infamous psychology experiments, human beings can be notoriously obedient when commanded by authority, even if ordered to do something that strikes them as obviously immoral. The experiments I linked to, the Steven Milgram shock experiment and the Philip Zombardo Stanford prison experiment, are examples of obedience where otherwise normal individuals willingly engage in harming other people.

Last week, I ran into a couple articles about a new experiment (the journal article is unfortunately behind a pay wall) that looked at why some people are obedient and others disobedient. The researcher, Matthew Hollander, was interested in the Milgram experiment and what was the difference between those who obey and disobey. Hollander observed that all participants attempted to disobey: they made the choice. However, only a minority were capable of disobeying. Disobedience, it seems, is not merely a choice, or else nearly everyone would have disobeyed.

Furthermore, Hollander believes his research supports the notion that effective disobedience can be improved through training. As one article states,

“If people could be trained to tap practices for resistance like those outlined in Hollander’s analysis, they may be better equipped to stand up to an illegal, unethical or inappropriate order from a superior. And not just in extreme situations, according to Maynard.

“‘It doesn’t have to be the Nazis or torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described in the recent U.S. Senate report,’ [Hollander] says. ‘Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive and even disobedient when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice.'” (Source)

And if we tend to be obedient in such explicit situations, how much more often are we obedient to authority where their commands much less obviously lead to injustices and malpractices? If a student is disobedient in a classroom, how do you, as the authority, determine if it was a meritorious form of disobedience, or to we all too often believe that “disobedience is good, but there is no good reason for someone to be disobedient in my classroom.” What would a student need to say or do to effectively practice disobedience then?

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