Education Opinion

Are Compliant Teachers Exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome?

By Nancy Flanagan — June 16, 2012 4 min read
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My last blog, on the preponderance of male voices and thinking running the ed-policy show, hit several nerves. Among the most interesting points made here, on Twitter, Facebook pages and blogs, was the assertion made by an Indiana teacher who calls himself Horace Mann. “Horace” suggested that both male and female teachers were subject to a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, eager to please their bosses and maintain personal safety. I invited Horace to expand on that thinking. Here’s his take on women, teachers, compliance and self-preservation.

Dear Nancy Flanagan,

In your latest postIs Education a Girl Thingyou ponder if “the gender makeup of the teaching force impacts the profession’s willingness to stand up for itself.” Does the fact that more than three-fourths of public school teachers are women impact the profession’s ability to stand up for itself? The answer to that question greatly depends on the treatment of women by society. Moreover, it’s critical to understand the evolutionary processes, especially of our ancestral women, which have shaped all our psyches.

Collectively, females have spent almost all of their existence, in an evolutionary sense, living under the threat of brutality and abduction. Raids were frequent. A woman might attempt to fight off assailants, or succumb to victors who now possessed the power to grant life or death. In most instances, fighting meant death or disfigurement and almost certain death to offspring. Succumbing meant a greater chance for survival. It is highly likely then that our genetic code, women’s and men’s, is deeply engrained to not resist authoritative powers, even those that are malevolent.

After World War II, this idea was explored by social psychologist Stanley Milgram. In his infamous Obedience to Authority Figures experiments, he found 65% of “teachers” would administer electric shocks at the request of a perceived authority, despite the screams of “students” begging to stop. From his experiments, Milgram believed obedience to authority must have had an evolutionary advantage. Obedience may have prevailed not because idealistically, mutually cooperative societies succeeded, but because submission was necessary to preserve the self.

Milgram found no statistical difference between the percentage of women or men who “do what they are told to do. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

Not only are people obedient to authority, but in highly stressful situations victims will actually defend their abductors. This effect, known as Stockholm Syndrome, may seem irrational to the outside observer, but to the captive, the preservation of the self becomes attached to the needs of the abusive abductor.

During the rescue attempt of four female hostages in a Stockholm bank, the women surrounded their assailants so police would not hurt them. Amidst the Nazi concentration camps, some detainees tried to earn the respect of their captors by emulating them, sometimes outdoing the Nazis themselves in their cruelty. After the rescue of a prolonged hijacking in which one hostage was killed, one male victim disembarking the plane was quoted as saying, “They weren’t bad people; they let me eat, they let me sleep, they gave me life.”

Perhaps we are witnessing a collective Stockholm Syndrome as some teachers unwittingly defend those institutions that are destroying public education. The Center on Law and Globalization warns, “Just because certain characteristics of humans and groups were adaptive in our distant past does not make them adaptive now.” This is an urgent message we need all teachers to understand.

Nancy, did you write your article because you have been disappointed by one too many “teacher of the year” speeches expounding platitudes when education needed someone in the limelight taking a stand? After receiving “special recognition” from a bogus not-for-profit, did a teacher you know unwittingly turn on the colleagues she was supposedly helping?

Or perhaps, like me, you are floored that several million teachers in forty-five states are rolling over to public education’s demise--the “Common Core"-- with so few grumbles that most of the public is unaware.

To varying degrees, teaching requires maintaining discipline and expectations of compliance. It seems highly probable then that teachers are more likely empathetic and compliant to higher authority. According to research,the best safeguard against Stockholm Syndrome is self-assured people. Deskilling the profession by relaxing licensing requirements is a backwards idea.

What else can we glean from Milgram and Stockholm?

Milgram noted that the closer people were in proximity to victims, the less likely they were to be obedient in carrying out the malicious bidding of an authority. Likewise, FBI negotiators ask kidnappers to pass personal messages along to hostages. In some hostage cases, FBI negotiators actually encourage Stockholm Syndrome to develop as it keeps victims safe until a rescue force can intervene.

No outside rescue force is coming to save public schools.

Teachers and parents need to comprehend that they know better about what works for children than legislators who see children as nothing more than test scores to manipulate and private corporations which see students as nothing more than dollars. They must demand that edu-crats making unwise decisions adversely affecting students see the damages first hand.

Horace Mann is the pseudonym of a public education teacher from Huntington, Indiana. Horace began blogging about the perils of education reform in February of this year here.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.