Test for value of six virtues

I am currently reading Society as it Is: A reader (Second Edition, 1976). The Pathology of Imprisonment chapter is a re-print of a 1972 article by Philip Zimbardo, the creator of the famous prisoner-guard social experiment. After describing the experiment and the horror he experienced while monitoring it, he concluded:

Each of us carries around in our heads a favorable self-image in which we are essentially just, fair, humane and understanding . . . However, there is a growing body of social psychological research which underscores the conclusion derived from this prison study. Many people, perhaps the majority, can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations–regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions. (p. 91)

As an example, Zimbardo described another famous experiment–the study conducted by Stanley Milgram, in which test subjects continued to give electric shocks to subjects who were pleading with them to stop. According to Zimbardo, this experiment is an example of people blindly obeying “the command of the authority figure (the experimenter) who said they must go on.” It supports his conclusion that people “can be made to do almost anything when put into psychologically compelling situations–regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions.” (p. 91)

Zimbardo is a sociologist. He studies people in society and draws conclusions. The book which reprinted his article is entitled, “Society as it Is.” Who can disagree with his conclusion that people can be manipulated to do horrible things to others, “regardless of their morals, ethics, values, attitudes, beliefs, or personal convictions?”

But I am an educator, so I ask if our educational system fights against this conclusion or contributes to it. My belief is that schools contribute to it and may be the main cause of Zimbardo’s conclusion. Children attend school to develop the knowledge and skills valued by authorities. After 12-16 years of schooling–180 days per year, 5 hours per day–almost every citizen has learned this lesson. Learning to do what is directed by authorities is one of the primary purposes of modern American schools. (And from my experience with schools in other countries, I would say it is a primary purpose of all formal schooling.)

So my conclusion is slightly different from Zimbardo’s. His experiments tell him that people in psychologically compelling situations can be made to do almost anything by authorities. I would say that applies to people who are schooled, but not to those who are educated. “Schooled” people earn diplomas and degrees by earning the approval of educators. Of course they will do almost anything directed by authorities. They learned the value of obedience during years of schooling. But educated people are those who have developed the virtues of understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity. Before we conclude that it is human nature to obey authorities in “psychologically compelling situations,” we need to test that conclusion with citizens who graduated from schools that teach those six virtues. Here is my suggestion for developing a citizenry that will not send electric shocks into strangers who are pleading with them to stop; and who will not become sadistic prison guards.

Take a group of kindergartners and make their classroom a six virtues classroom. That means the six virtues would be the foundation and guide for everything that happens. Every lesson has the development of the six virtues as its purpose, and every situation is judged by the extent to which it demonstrates and promotes understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and/or generosity.

Continue that approach through 12 years of school. Then conduct a study in which “six virtue graduates” are placed in “psychologically compelling situations.” What are your predictions as to whether they would send electric shocks into strangers pleading with them to stop? What are your predictions as to the extent to which they would become sadistic prison guards?

The sociological experiments described in this Reader took place more than 40 years ago. Educators are not shocked by Zimbardo’s conclusion. Instead they have moved farther away from a virtue-based system of schooling. Today’s education policy makers say it is essential to hold educators accountable for students’ knowledge and skill. Really? How is that going?


#1 Mark J Steger on 03.31.19 at 4:04 pm

You say, “educated people are those who have developed the virtues of understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity.”

Fair enough, but don’t children develop those virtues by “learning the value of obedience” and “earning the approval of educators” who teach those virtues? What’s the foundation on which it is all built? Or is it “turtles all the way down”?

I like to think the foundation has to include teaching critical thinking skills. Children who demonstrate critical thinking skills can question their own education, including the value of critical thinking skills, for that matter. If they can do that, they are ready to be independent.

#2 casey on 04.01.19 at 1:45 am

I thought about the desirability of critical thinking. Then I thought the intellectual virtues of understanding and imagination cover that idea. As you say, sometimes students ought to obey, and learn the value of obedience. In those situations “critical” thinking is put aside, but a young person never needs to put aside understanding and imagination.
The mind works in two directions. The first is taking in sensory data to deepen understanding. The second is using understanding to direct one’s behavior, which I call the virtue of imagination because it imagines a behavior that does not exist until it becomes an individual’s action.
It is all built on the foundation of the six virtues. I am not sure what you mean by the “turtles all the way down” reference (never heard that before). Maybe the six-virtue foundation sentence is an example of “turtles all the way down.” Is that right?
I agree that questioning/challenging one’s own education is an important part of independent thinking. Weren’t we encouraged to do that in some of our classes at XHS? And didn’t we do that at Bowen Court? Were we blessed or cursed with that kind of independence?

#3 Mark J Steger on 04.01.19 at 9:12 pm

You’ve obviously given much more thought to the Six Virtues than I have, so I’m willing to accept that critical thinking is subsumed in understanding and imagination. As long as it’s in there, I’m satisfied.

If so, then that’s the foundation. You don’t need critical thinking underlying it. It’s already there. The “turtles all the way down” is an allusion to the problem of infinite regress in finding a foundation for one’s beliefs. Google it.

There’s another way out of the problem of infinite regress. I remember learning somewhere a long time ago that by teaching children from the youngest age to, for example, say please and thank you, eventually it comes as second nature to them. They don’t say it anymore for the rewards or neglect to say it out of fear of punishment. They say it because their personalities just believe it’s the right thing to do.

Enough sophomoric late-night bullshit. In some ways, everything I needed to learn about life I learned in such sessions at XHS and Bowen Court.

Leave a Comment