Unlearning and The Stockholm Effect

Patrick Farenga <pfarenga@attbi.com>

The stories Iíve read have all given me much food for thought, so much so that I couldnít possibly say it all in a few pages. The most striking thing about these seven stories, to me, is that these writers all did well in school, come from middle-class families, and yet discovered (or "unlearned"), on their own, that school has limited rather than expanded their learning abilities. Why, I wonder, arenít more people questioning school as these writers have?

Once one reaches compulsory school age in any country, the process of schooling is identical: our natural urge to learn and explore is controlled and measured on a daily basis, and universal compulsory school attendance laws make it hard for alternatives to school to emerge. I think most of us identify with our caretakers in school and make the best of the situation. The phenomena of identifying with oneís captors is known as "The Stockholm Effect," and I think it is this effect that prevents far more people from questioning their schooling and coming up with new solutions.

In August, 1973, two ex-convicts held three women and a man hostage during a robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. The robbers kept the hostages for six days. What is remarkable about the situation is that despite the robbers threats to kill the hostages, the hostages defended the robbers behavior, even days after they were rescued by the police. Indeed, two of the hostages became engaged to their captors! Journalists and doctors who studied this incident dubbed it "the Stockholm Effect" and noted it was common throughout history: slaves defended their masters, prisoners of war felt sympathy for their jailors, prostitutes defended their pimps, incest and other abuse victims excuse the actions of their dominators. School isnít as physically abusive as these other situations, but it nonetheless fits the four criteria for the Stockholm Effect to occur (adapted from http://techsell.com/Galileo/stock.pdf):

1) The hostage experiences a perceived threat to survival and believes that the terrorist captors are willing to act on that threat, i.e. to kill or severely injure him or a loved one in some way.

We tell our children that their current and future success in life depends on pleasing their teachers and thereby doing well in school. The threat of failure, being held back, or being expelled from school is frequently used to keep children in line.

2) The hostage perceives what s/he misidentifies as small kindnesses from the terrorist captors despite the ongoing terror.

Teachers can share their lunch with you, show you all sorts of kindnesses, but at the end of the semester you still must be judged and graded by them.

3) The hostage is deliberately isolated from perspectives, viewpoints and realities except for those dictated and "allowed" by the terrorist captor.

What can better describe the conventional school curriculum?

4) The hostage experiences a perceived inability to escape from his terrorist captors.

If you canít afford to move to another public school district, go to private school, homeschool, or if your parents simply tell you to endure a bad school situation as a way to "build character" (what sort of character is usually not closely examined!), you will perceive an inability to escape.

The Stockholm Effect is one potential answer as to why it is so hard for society to meaningfully change schools; most people identify with school no matter how negative their experience was there and we compel our children to endure what we did. Another answer is simply a lack of imagination on our part. We canít imagine other places for children and teenagers to be besides school. We canít imagine that children would want to do interesting and challenging things unless a higher authority forces them to do so. Thankfully, these essays provide a tonic to these perceptions. Each writer gives us their personal stories about how they came to realize that learning is more than just getting a degree, and as such they provide strong evidence that individual action and independent thought are not easily squashed by the Skinner-box techniques of modern schooling.

For these writers school was not a place of exploration or refuge. Nor was it hell. Most describe it as just a bland diet of instruction. Many people seem able to happily ignore their poor school performance as children and succeed as adults. Others perpetually feel inferior, stupid, "not mathematical" or "not a writer," or otherwise stunted by their years of schooling. In either case, Iíve noticed that both types of people blame themselves for their failures, not their schooling.

However, as these writers show, once one escapes the platitudes and assumptions of schooling, when one can recognize the Stockholm Effect and objectively question school, one can view school in a new light. The writers presented here express outrage, disappointment, and bitter resentment upon discovering that the mission of school is to classify rather than equalize people. Like a lover who discovers their partner is in love with someone else, these writers explode with anger at their betrayal, throwing the silverware, furniture, and the china at their hypocritical spouse. Dodging the projectiles, the spouse pleads for another chance:

"But school is vital for democracy!"

"School provides equal opportunity for everybody!"

"School is the best way to solve societyís problems!"

"Schools can only be changed by working within the system!"

"You wouldnít be able to read or argue with me if school didnít teach you!"

But these writers are hardened to these conventional entreaties against change. Shilpa Jain writes,

I have often wondered how people can do something they know to be wrong or cruel or pointless or irrelevant. Donít they get a sick, horrible feeling in the pit of their stomach, like I do? If I persist in doing or condoning what I know is not right, that dull ache in my gut becomes unbearable and I vomit. Like I did for three days in Morocco, when it hit me full-on that international development projects were all a sham.

That dull ache in the gut doesnít incapacitate Jain or any of these writers, instead it spurs them on to create new ways to learn with people, such as Jainís work with Shikshantar in India, Mako Hillís work with the Free Software movement, or Yusef Proglerís teaching in a New York City college. Not only are they refusing to identify with their captors, they are actively creating escape routes for others to follow.

Another common element I find among these stories about unlearning is how often disappointment with conventional schooling leads to independent scholarship. All these writers do well in their conventional schools, although one only does well in school when he is drugged with Ritalin. Nonetheless, the interests and causes that engage these writers are not typically part of any schoolís curriculum and these writers discover they must unlearn schoolís lessons in order to become fulfilled in their personal lives. Zaid Hassan writes,

Ultimately I came to the realization that the formal learning systems I had been a part of (and was still a part of) held no emotional engagement for me, hence there were few emotional reasons to keep me there, there was nothing I deeply wanted to learn there at the time and nothing I liked there. University could offer me no insights in the true nature of the world around me, could offer me no understanding of the feelings I was going through; and, least of all they could offer me no solutions.

School is thought of as a completely positive force by most people, perhaps, as Iíve noted, because they canít help but identify with their captors. But as these authors show, disillusionment with conventional school can be channeled into a positive force. This collection of personal biographies demonstrates the power of individual example and, as we continue to explore issues of unlearning, the cumulative effect of persuasive action.