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14. They learn to obey

14. They learn to obey

‘Good behaviour’ in children is often defined as doing as you are told by authority figures. This includes adults from parents and teachers to police officers, doctors, play workers and child-minders. In case parents haven’t rigorously instilled this, schools take over from age three or so. As Kohn points out, many people are intolerant of children who do not instantly obey without question, irrespective of what they are being asked to do.1

The problems with unquestioning obedience are many. Terry Pratchett summed it up in The Carpet People when he said that when people learn to obey they are constantly vulnerable to being at the mercy of those giving orders.2 There is little evidence from history or from schools that the ones giving orders are doing so in the best interests of those being told to obey. Children’s compliance makes all manner of atrocities against them possible. At the extreme, it is a key feature of sexual abuse.

The orders given can be meaningless, stupid, pointless or even harmful, yet it is still unquestioning obedience that is required. Adherence to the rules is paramount whether the rules make sense or not. In schools, teachers are often simply obeying orders, even if this means a betrayal of their deepest beliefs about children.

Training for obedience has been at the root of many atrocities and much pain. Concentration camp Commandants and guards were ‘only obeying orders’. As Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz stated:“(I learned) to obey promptly the wishes and commands of my parents, teachers and priests and indeed all adults. Whatever they said was right”.3 Only with unquestioning obedience could otherwise ‘normal’ human beings dissociate from any moral responsibility for their actions and say they were only obeying orders. As Gandhi said:”You assist an evil system most effectively by obeying its orders and decrees”.

In the Vietnam war, a massacre of over three hundred civilians (men, women, children, babies) by American forces was the result of men obeying commands to round up and shoot innocent people.4 Holt points out that rulers will demand others do what they themselves would never do. The ruled, on the other hand, will do, under orders, what they would never do without such orders.5

In his classic experiment on obedience to authority, Stanley Milgram required volunteers to administer electric shocks to ‘innocent’ learners if they failed to recall words. They gradually increased the severity of shocks while an impassive, white- coated scientist encouraged them to continue. Sixty-five percent of the subjects continued throughout despite loud protests from the ‘learner’ who was an actor. Not one stopped before administering 300 volts, when the learner/actor began to kick the wall and cry out.6 It is disturbing to realise how often obedience to authority is the default position, trained into us all in an attempt to blind us to its lack of integrity. It is also worth noting that the context of the experiment was one that linked learning to punishment.

When unjust rules are in place there are only a few options. Obey and lose integrity, disobey and risk punishment and labelling or appear to obey but frustrate authority by getting it wrong. There is never an option inside school to either question the rules…who makes them and why, or to contribute to making rules that make sense and are for everyone’s benefit. (except at Summerhill.)7

Authority’s requirement for children to submit their will and obey, no matter what, obviously has damaging consequences for the child. Loss of autonomy, loss of the opportunity to be self-directed, to find their own integrity, are just some of the things subjugated by the will of the system. As Pirsig puts it: “little children are trained not to do ‘just what they liked’ but…but what? Of course! What others liked. And which others? Parents, teachers, supervisors, policemen, judges, officials, kings, dictators. All authorities. When you are trained to despise ‘just what you like’ then, of course, you become a much more obedient servant of others – a good slave. When you learn not to do ‘just what you like’ then the system loves you”.8

Learning to obey is part of the process of destruction of self-reliance. It means learning to rely on others, authorities, experts, to tell you what to do, what to think, who you are and what you are worth. As Zimbardo said: “More crimes are committed in the name of obedience than disobedience – it is those who follow authority blindly who are the real danger”.9


1. Kohn Alfie (1999) Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes (New York: Houghton Miffin)

2. Pratchett Terry (2004) The Carpet People (Corgi Childrenʼs)

3. Höss quoted in Levine B.E. (2003) Commonsense Rebellion (New York, London: Continuum) page 28

4. My Lai massacre 16 March 1968. 5. Holt John (2004) Instead of Education: ways to make people do things better  Boulder Colorado, Sentient Publications)

6. Atkinson R.L., Atkinson R.C., Hilgard E.R. (1983) Introduction to Psychology (8th Edition)(Harcourt Brace Janovich, New York) For an online video of a replication experiment go to v=BcvSNg0HZwk accessed 27 Dec 2012

7. Summerhill School was set up by A.S.Neill as a democratic school where pupils and teachers make the rules together.

8. Pirsig M (1991) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (London: Vintage)page 236

9. Zimbardo quoted in Harber Clive (2004) Schooling as Violence – How Schools Harm Pupils and society (London, New York: Routledge Falmer) page 43

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