Education Opinion

Shock Treatment

By Mark Edmundson — August 01, 2002 17 min read
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Mark Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. He’s written books of literary and cultural criticism, and his byline has appeared in many notable publications—the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, and Harper’s among them. But at the beginning of the 1969- 70 school year, while a senior at Medford High School in Massachusetts, he had other priorities—girls and football, for instance. Especially football. And he didn’t imagine a life for himself that went far beyond his working-class hometown of Medford.

Inspired by an experiment involving high voltage, a Harvard grad gets an unruly high school class to sit still, then proceeds to change at least one student’s life.

That is, until Franklin Lears showed up. Short, rumpled, mustachioed, and fresh out of Harvard, the idealistic new teacher was given the task of leading a philosophy class for smart, and smart-alecky, kids. In his new book, Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference (Random House), Edmundson describes his old school as “a shabby Gothic cathedral consecrated to Order. . . . If you’d done what you should have at Medford High, the transition into a factory, into an office, into the Marines would be something you’d barely notice; it would be painless, sheer grease.”

Lears, however, had other ideas. Beneath a meek exterior, he burned with a passion for knowledge. And he struggled, the first few months, to get his mostly ornery students to feel the same way. Then, one day, he made a connection.

Mid-November came, the air went frigid, frost took hold of the ground, and Frank Lears apparently decided it was time to fight back. For some time, Lears had played by the rules. He had tried to be a sane, dutiful teacher. He summarized the Will Durant book The Story of Philosophy; he read it to us when need be. He asked us questions and bore with the silence when we said nothing. Sometimes, when Sandra was tapped out and Tom Buller was on the nod, the place was quiet for 10 minutes at a time. All you could hear was the irregular pop of the classroom clock, which detonated like a tiny, eccentric bomb. Things became so dull that the sense of smell took preeminence from sight and hearing, and we got lost in the aromas of very, very inexpensive perfume and hair spray—lots of that—and gym reek, from those who had kept the mandatory white socks on their feet and hadn’t changed their T-shirts after a wild game of crab soccer.

Then, after we had integrated the smells and flattened them out to nothing, to neutrality, as the sense will do for reasons of its own, we would relapse into light trances, docile, slouched, but also touchy, so that if a neighbor stirred us with an elbow or knee, we would leap at him in brief firecracker rage. And we would stare on and on at the clock as it did its funny jitterbug. We were starving Lears out, or trying to, we the herd without shepherd, who needed none, being free and certain in all that mattered. Soon he’d crack.

But I and the rest of us were in error. We had woefully underestimated our man. For unlike Miss Cullen—the English teacher who’d been brought to tears by our stealing her glasses, our purloining her rank book, and our locking her in the supply closet—and unlike a number of other anxious, overworked, insecure teachers, Frank Lears clearly thought extremely well of himself. And after a couple of months of our nonsense, he must have decided to hit back-though, to be sure, he fought us in a way that was entirely in our interest. But this much needs to be clear: He was fighting, taking some territory back.

He started by setting a trap. “Let me tell you a story,” he said one day apropos of nothing much. The story was about an experiment that had been conducted not long ago in New Haven, Connecticut, at Yale University. This installment of the experiment was a preamble, it was worth pointing out. The whole show was to climax in Germany. Americans would act as what the social psychologist in charge of the operation, a man named Stanley Milgram, thought of as the control group. (Much later, I would teach verse writing to Milgram’s daughter. “I’m sure you know about my father,” she said. I claimed innocence. “No,” she insisted. “Everyone who’s been to college knows about my father’s experiment"—which is more or less true. But we in Medford knew nothing whatever of the man.)

The experiment involved pain—inflicting pain. But the people who participated in the experiment did not know this. They came in off the streets, volunteering for an experiment in pedagogy. They thought they were going to be teachers. When they got there, they met a large, pleasant man, who was the student. After a few preliminaries, the “student” disappeared into an adjoining room, while the “teacher,” directed by a supervisor in a lab coat, sat down in front of an impressive-looking console. The teacher understood that he was going to test the student on a memory exercise. The guy in the other room—the student—had to match terms accurately after hearing eight or 10 pairs read to him in sequence just once. But the student was sometimes dull. He made mistakes. It was necessary to do something to enhance his concentration.

So when the learner made a mistake, he received a punishment—a jolt of electricity. Given a wrong answer, the teacher pushed a lever and administered a certain set voltage. With every mistake, the voltage rose. To some teachers this was a bit troubling. In the initial interview, the student, a man of about 50, had claimed to have a heart condition. At 300 volts, he began crying out about his heart “hurting.” The supervisor said to ignore it. The shocks were painful, he said, but they were not dangerous. As the teacher inflicted more and more voltage, the student in the other room cried louder.

Of course the cries were coming from a confederate, someone who was in on the experiment. No real pain was being inflicted, though the teacher didn’t know as much. When the teacher demurred about inflicting the pain, the supervisor would encourage him with a few words: “It’s all right. Go ahead. Don’t worry.” On many occasions, the arrow went into the red zone. Screams came from the adjoining room. Then, after the teacher reached 350 volts, there was no noise whatever. The lab supervisor encouraged the teacher to keep posing the questions. When the student didn’t reply after five seconds, he got another dose. The top dose was 500 volts.

Half the people who participated in the experiment went all the way—500 rousing American volts.

We were starving Lears out, or trying to, we the herd without shepherd, who needed none, being free and certain in all that mattered. Soon he’d crack.

What was supposed to happen, Lears told us, was much different. The Americans in the experiment were supposed to be incensed at the whole idea. When someone told them to send an electric charge through a stranger’s skin, they were supposed to swear at the experimenter, then storm out in rage, maybe ante up a punch in the jaw to the bad guy in the white coat.

In Germany, it would all be different. There, lulled by the banality of evil or subsumed by the totalitarian mind or whatever, the people would cheerfully goose the needle up as high as it could go, as fast as they could get it there.

The experiment never made its way to Germany. The control group failed to perform its function. Instead of providing a glowing image of American independence, many of the people in the experiment showed themselves remarkably eager to do what they were told and torture an innocent man for not being able to pair two words correctly.

“Well,” said Lears (hand-swinging, a bit of tongue-clicking, the tch-tch sound having been recently added, whether because he was getting more comfortable or less, one couldn’t say). “What do people think?” If they did that sort of experiment here at Medford High, what would the results be? Would all of us—Lear always included himself in a potential indictment—be eager to keep pushing the buttons? Would we be good experimental confederates? Would we follow orders?

We had been quiet for a long time. We had provided Lears with deserts of silence, where he could straggle absurdly, trying to sustain himself in his wanderings on the manna of his own thoughts. We had given him the silent treatment. But now we had plenty to say. We bubbled with insight. We would never, under any conditions, be willing to push the plunger down while someone screamed in the next room. No way—not us.

“So how do you explain these other people doing it then?”

Buller thought he knew. Maybe the thing was a stunt. Everyone in it was an actor. It was like the American moon landing as explained by the Chinese government to its people—a fat hoax. The experimenters had done it to get attention. Some respectful murmuring at this.

“I don’t think so,” Lears said. “I believe that they really did it.”

We roared on, nobly defending ourselves, our compatriots, America and its way, and Lears nodded and smiled and listened to every word we said as though we were inspired prophets. I spoke up and said most people I knew would never do such a thing—no way.

And I can still remember the way Lears settled his gaze on me as I talked. His soft brown eyes were mesmerizing; it was as if a deer had somehow acquired preternatural intelligence and could combine warmth with the greatest level of comprehension. It struck me then for the first time that when this guy listened to you, the experience was of a different order from anyone else. He wasn’t thinking about anything else. He was completely poised on your thoughts.

What I said was dumb, neither here nor there. But one of kids’ great inducements to say idiotic things is the deeply in-worked feeling that no one cares what it is they might have to say. If it doesn’t matter, then what the hell? And if you’re outrageous enough, then they will at last pay you some attention, though probably not of the sort that you hoped for at the beginning.

But when Lears listened—and this was probably my first full-length expostulation in class—it felt as though, odd to say but true, you were being fed something, something very good and sustaining. And when he stopped listening because your turn was up, it was as though earthly ambrosia was being taken from you. It was a beautiful drug he dispensed. I had never gotten it before.

And the harder and more humanely he listened, the more anxious we felt. The fact that he seemed ready to credit our inane, defensive reactions, to respond to them as though they were long-pondered elements of contoured philosophic systems, started out by making us feel better, more comfortable and self-assured. But the listening intensity also somehow threw the issue back onto us. Is this really what we believe? Is it what we think? If it’s not, do we want this person, on whom nothing much seems to be lost, to see that we’re trying to deceive ourselves and him both? It was not humiliating to lie to teachers—we did that all the time. What was humiliating was to be seen through by someone who felt not outrage about our deceptions but compassion, genuine pity that we couldn’t actually think about matters and then speak our minds.

Lears gave us 30 full minutes to defend ourselves and the American way. Then, without a word of commentary, he let us go. But he was not through with the issue, not through with us. This was to be a play in two parts, and the second act was on its way.

One cold late-autumn day, on the cusp of New England winter, not long after a big football game against Somerville, when we could still taste the rich, briny flavor of the win, not long after Lears had laid down the riff about Milgram and his experiment, he began class by sending Rick Cirone off to run an interminable errand.

Rick had a high-arching spring in his step during those days—guys in a good mood often did; the bouncing walk was part of their élan—but Rick, being Rick, not only did the bounce, but parodied it, apparently enjoying its pleasures and its deflation at the same time. Rick had been catching passes. Our quarterback Cap’s primary receiver the first few games, Tom Danton, was now getting double coverage. And Rick, who had been playing ball with Cap since grammar school, was snagging pass after pass.

I can still remember the way Lears settled his gaze on me as I talked. His soft brown eyes were mesmerizing; it was as if a deer had somehow acquired preternatural intelligence and could combine warmth with the greatest level of comprehension.

Number 49 was ascendant. He flew like his favorite player, Gayle Sayres, flourishing the single-bar white face guard (“go ahead, land a shot and knock my teeth out, but you gotta catch me first”)—blithe, quick, wind-propelled.

Lears sent him, Mercurylike, off to the main office, then the library, and then the gym—a 10-minute odyssey, even with the bounce turned up high. As soon as Rick left the room, Lears, sly look on, walking up and down in front of us like a physician pondering the intricacies of a case, laid out his plan. When Richard, as he called Rick, came back, there would be a surprise for him. We were going to play a game. The game would have some counters—a few pieces, as it were. These would be paired sets of lines drawn on the blackboard. There would be about 10 of these pairs. Sometimes the lines would be the same length exactly; at other times, they would be unequal.

When Rick returned, Lears would get the game going. He would ask us to designate, by a show of hands, whether the lines were equal in length or different. We were, he instructed us, nearly rubbing his hands together, always to answer incorrectly. If the lines were of equal length, well then, a roomful of arms should sprout at the moment when Lears asked how many thought they were unequal. Get that? Are you ready? Kids?

Rick, bounce and all, took a long time to complete the errand. And while he was gone, we had the chance to writhe and shake in delight. Oh how delicious to see how he’d react to this gambit. What a singular pleasure for school to yield. For this was one of those rare moments—akin to a fight in gym class, a urinary accident in study hall, the sudden gross illness of a teacher—when school became as interesting as life outside its confines could, at its best, become. Rick—well-liked, good-humored, funny, intelligent-was about to drop into the scapegoat’s role. We were all well-pleased.

In 10 or so minutes Rick returned. Still on the bounce, he cut the corner toward his desk with a mock head fake and resumed his seat. Then the games began. Lears actually made like the exercise was already in full swing and that Rick had arrived at something like the beginning of the second quarter.

“And how many think both lines are equal?” says Lears, looking out mildly at us all. The lines are different in size, though not outrageously so. Hands grab for the ceiling.

“How many think they are different?” Up, with almost no hesitation, goes the hand of Rick Cirone, one of the pass-catching mitts.

The sole hand is up. Lears looks at Rick balefully.

“How many take them to be equal?” he says, pointing to a perfectly matched couple, lines that would go through life in a state of geometric bliss. No one lifts a hand. Rick sees them, obviously knows they are the same, hesitates. “Different?” Up fly the arms, like salutes at the rally. Rick, after a moment’s hesitation, joins in. Now he’s ours.

It is amazing how good we are at this game. It is splendid how well we restrain ourselves from staring at Rick or laughing or coughing obtrusively; it’s striking how ready his friends and teammates are not to feed him critical info and let him in on the game. This is something that Lears will remark: We have a talent for this kind of thing that seems natural, seems innate almost. We are pros at this art, whatever precisely this art might be.

On Lears goes, from one set of lines to the next. Does Rick cave? Does he go trotting along with the herd, off to the next watering place? No, not quite. But he doesn’t stand up to us consistently either. He about splits the rest. Sometimes he manages to hang tough and to say the two obviously equal lines are so, even in the face of complete opposition from the class. But other times he gives in, mistrusts his own vision and goes clop-clopping with the group, a stray who’s seen the advantages of getting with the program.

Lears is patient. He takes Rick and the class all the way to the end. And only then does he offer the explanation and let Rick in on the secret, the way the experimenters in the Milgram scam do. Rick doesn’t seem crushed, exactly—just very, very nonplussed. He blushes, something I’ve never seen him do, and moves around uncomfortably in his chair.

But Lears isn’t finished yet. He has a little more salt to shake on the wound. He looks out at us and poses a very simple question. He does it deadpan, Charlie Chaplin-style: “Do any of you think that you might have fared better on this experiment than Richard did?”

This is not, it turns out, a rhetorical question. He asks it once, then again. No hand goes up. We all burrow as far as we can go into our private molehills. We scatter dirt over our heads and wait. “Mark?” He’s on me. “How do you think it would have gone with you?” I say nothing. I feel that the room has gotten about 20 degrees hotter. All my efforts go into holding on and giving no clue as to the thermal pressures I’m suffering. He hits a few more of us, with similar results.

But then it’s time for dessert. And after what Lears has put up with on this front, how is he to be blamed? “Thomas?” No noise. “Thomas? What would you have done?” Buller snorts and chews his scabrous paw, but he will not even emit a grunt. The clock jumps and waits, dozes, sleeps, jumps again as Lears asks every one of us how it would go. He asks Dubby and John Vincents and Nora Balakian and Cecilia Doe and Caroline Cummer. And no one has anything of substance to say. Because, really, we all know Rick is the best we can offer. Not one of us has the ease and smooth high school élan that he has, and no one combines his level of smarts with his genuine confidence. And he, it turns out, had only partial staying power.

Finally the clock hops for the last time. The bell rings, and we are free.

On the way out, Lears stops Rick to thank him for taking it all so well. “I needed someone with an even temper,” he said. “I’m terrified to imagine what might have happened if I’d chosen Tom Capallano.”

Maybe Lears thought Cap would have blown up when he saw the trick, having been so roundly humiliated. And what he assumed, of course, is that Cap, herd animal that he was, would have been duped every time. I’m not so sure, even now.

It took about a week, maybe more, for the implications of this seemingly trivial event to dawn on me. For even now, one says, oh yes, of course that’s how it would go. People are like that, group animals. Groupthink always prevails. We’ve all taken Sociology 101 or encountered some equivalent lesson in this or that magazine article. But the effect of these displaced encounters with the phenomenon is to jade you, to draw the poison out of the stinger.

He could give you the pleasure and pain of sticking to your way, of seeing things as truly as a human being can, of not going around lying, at least most of the time.

Really, what went down that day, and probably will any time you stage an experiment like this, is something to make you stand and gape. Asked to choose between their own eyes, which have made few if any simple mistakes up to now, and the will of the group, many people (nearly all?) will cave in and join. They will push that whole stack of chips, the individual free-standing I, tottering as it might be, to the center and merge it with the rest. It happens so easily. It is hard to believe.

Which of us would have clung to the truth? The answer was clear enough to me. Not a single blessed one—probably not even Sandra, or bulldog Buller, J. Edgar Hoover’s little brother. No one, with the possible exception, I realized, of the unprepossessing little fellow up front. He would have wagged his hand and stroked his mustache and nodded his head and looked at the gunboats, and he would have gone his own way. Just as, faced with the Milgram experiment, he would have turned to the fellow in the lab coat and told him, in the most decorous possible way, that he, Frank Lears, was not going to send a single volt of electricity into another human being. And, further, that the whole idea of trying to teach anyone through electric shock was obscene.

And that, I would come to understand, is what he had to offer. He could give you the pleasure and pain of sticking to your way, of seeing things as truly as a human being can, of not going around lying, at least most of the time. And for it, what would you get? Stones maybe, spitballs perhaps, or looks from your coevals that were equivalent. (Socrates, they killed-don’t forget.) But you’d carry with you the sense that you told the truth, didn’t conform to the tribal usages for convenience or gain. Noble enough.


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