Academic superstars or superstar conformists: Is the race to the top a threat to our social fabric?

August 12th, 2012 by Briana Cummings

A study of our academic elite

In an Atlantic Monthly article from 2001, “The Organization Kid,” David Brooks writes about going to Princeton University to learn about “what the young people who are going to be running our country in a few decades are like.”What Brooks found with respect to the over-structured lives of the Princeton undergraduates he spoke to is very close to how I remember my undergraduate classmates at Harvard from 1999 to 2003:

English: Exterior of the Princeton University ...

Princeton University Chapel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I asked several students to describe their daily schedules, and their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more. One young man told me that he had to schedule appointment times for chatting with his friends.

No time to think about the big picture

As Brooks points out, this kind of lifestyle leaves “no time to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades.” It also leaves no time or energy for “real relationships” — or even for real discussions. To one student, Brooks

mentioned that when I went to college, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we often spent two or three hours around the table, shooting the breeze and arguing about things. He admitted that there was little discussion about intellectual matters outside class.

Respect for authority

Reading newspapers, negotiating intimate relationships, engaging in intellectual discussion — these are the things that challenge accepted truths and force open a young person’s mental horizons. These are the things that lead to growth and maturation. Without them, Brooks observed, these students showed little inclination to question the status quo — or to question anything:

Dave Wilkinson, professor of physics at Princeton: “Undergrads somehow got this ethos that the faculty is sacrosanct. You don’t mess with the faculty.”

Aaron Friedberg, professor of international relations at Princeton: “It’s very rare to get a student to challenge anything or to take a position that’s counter to what the professor says.”

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton: “They are disconcertingly comfortable with authority. They’re eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform.

As Brooks summarized, “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it . . .  These students are . . . extremely respectful of authority.”

Obedience to authority

“Both [obedience and conformity] refer to the abdication of initiative to an external source.” ~ Stanley Milgram

What is so scary about this pattern of over-structured schedules that leave little time for reflection and powerful desire to conform — especially among those who will likely rise to the most economically and politically powerful rungs of society?

In a 1961 article in the Progressive, C.P. Snow wrote,

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.

Milgram’s famous study

Stanley Milgram’s famous study Obedience to Authority provides empirical grounding for Snow’s claim.

Ontario Science Centre: Milgram's Electric Box

Ontario Science Centre: Milgram’s Electric Box (Photo credit: Diamond Geyser)

Milgram asked his participants to administer ever-increasing levels of shock to a confederate, hidden behind a wall. He wanted to see how much shock the participants would administer before they would disobey the instruction to go on with the shocks. The  higher the level of shock administered, the more pain the confederate would express (e.g., yells, pleas for mercy.) At the highest levels of shock, the confederate would go silent — which led many participants to fear he had been killed.

Milgram designed his test of obedience this way because, “of all moral principles, the one that comes closest to being universally accepted is this: one should not inflict suffering on a helpless person who is neither harmful nor threatening to oneself.”

Two thirds of the participants were willing to go to the maximum voltage level.

Explaining Milgram’s results — echoes of Brooks’ description of Princeton undergrads

In explaining these results, Milgram observed that his obedient participants exhibited

the tendency . . . to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences. The film Dr. Strangelove brilliantly satirized the absorption of a bomber crew in the exacting technical procedure of dropping nuclear weapons on a country. . . . [Similarly, the subjects in Milgram’s study] want to put on a competent performance, but they show an accompanying narrowing of moral concern.

Another mechanism underlying obedience was the tendency to “treat systems of human origin as if they existed above and beyond any human agent, beyond the control of whim or human feeling” — i.e., beyond question or challenge: 

Thus, when the experimenter says, “The experiment requires that you continue,” the subject feels this to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command.  He does not ask the seemingly obvious question, “Whose experiment?  Why should the designer be served while the victim suffers?”…[One subject, for example, kept saying that he must go on.]  He failed to realize that a man like himself wanted it to go on.

What proved to be decisive in Milgram’s experiment was whether the source of the command to go on shocking the confederate was an authority figure. If not (e.g., if a fellow “participant” told the subject to administer the shocks), the person receiving the command was more likely to disobey. But if the participant viewed the person issuing the command as an authority figure (e.g., a psychologist/scientist/experimenter), the participant viewed himself as having no autonomy, and obeyed.

If Milgram’s description of his obedient participants resembles Brooks’ description of the “future leaders of the country,” we should be alarmed:

Civilization means, above all, an unwillingness to inflict unnecessary pain.  Within the ambit of that definition, those of us who heedlessly accept the commands of authority cannot yet claim to be civilized men.

Our business, if we desire to live a life not utterly devoid of meaning and significance, is to accept nothing which contradicts our basic experience merely because it comes to us from tradition or convention or authority.  It may well be that we shall be wrong; but our self-expression is thwarted at the root unless the certainties we are asked to accept coincide with the certainties we experience.  That is why the condition of freedom in any state is always a widespread and consistent skepticism of the canons upon which power insists.

Harold J. Laski, “The Dangers of Obedience,” Harper’s Magazine, 1929

3 Responses to “Academic superstars or superstar conformists: Is the race to the top a threat to our social fabric?”

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