Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Two Great Essays

Last week I held a discussion in my Literature-Based Research class over William Faulkner's classic (creepy) short story, "A Rose for Emily." Part of that discussion was about power and influence, and it caused one of my students to reflect on a past writing course he took. He recalled an essay he wanted me to read, and he brought his old anthology, 75 Readings, the next class day. With the Essay Reading Challenge in mind, I read the essay he recommended titled, "If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute Somebody, Would You? Probably." by Philip Meyer. 75 Readings is a fantastic anthology full of gems by David Sedaris, Plato, Joan Didion, George Orwell, and some less famous names. Nonetheless, while I told him I'd return it this week, I asked for an extension so I can explore more great essays! Here are the two I've enjoyed most so far:'

"If Hitler Asked You to Electrocute Somebody, Would You? Probably." by Philip Meyer. A social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, concluded in the 1960s that Germans might have been a more obedient culture than most, and that could help explain why Hitler was able to exert such control and cause such havoc through the Holocaust. He sets up an experiment wherein a test subect is set up as the "teacher" and a team of his colleagues play the roles of the others in the experiment: the "learner" and helpers, etc. The "teacher" test subject is asked to administer an electric shock from 15 volts on up to 450 on command to the "learner." Obviously, there's not really any shock, but Milgram wanted to see how far most people would take the experiment before they bailed out and refused to shock the "learner" anymore. Basically, this would demonstrate how obedient the "teacher" was and whether positive reinforcement is stronger than negative. Milgram had plans to take this experiment from its origins in the U.S. to Germany to compare the results, but he was so shaken by the results in the U.S. that he never even started the German portion.

What Milgram found was that Americans were very obedient. Even when the shocks were labeled "dangerous" or "painful" and when the "learner" stopped making any noise (assumed to have passed out), the "teacher" test subject would usually do as the instructor said and administer the shock anyway. The teachers might protest or seem queasy about it, but they did it anyway!

My student was surprised by this essay, and I have to say that I am too. I would like to think I'm one of those people who would protest and refuse to carry on with the experiment, but who's to say for sure unless put in that situation? It was definitely a thought-provoking essay on ethics and control.

This morning while I was waiting to take Rocketgirl to school, I happened to open the book to Malcolm X's, "Coming to an Awareness of Language." In this essay, Malcolm X describes how he began to acquire some "homemade education" while he was in prison. He was disturbed by the fact that he could not capture his thoughts on paper due to his inability to read and write effectively. He began to copy pages from the dictionary and read them over and over. What he soon found was that the dictionary functioned like a baby encyclopedia and fueled his interest in reading. Eventually he copied the entire dictionary and began his love affair with books.

No matter how controversial his teachings and his politics, this story was nothing short of inspirational for a book lover and educator. I can only imagine being in that situation and laboriously copying hour after hour.

I highly recommend both of these essays, so take a few minutes to click the links and enjoy them if you can!


  1. WOW, in a way I'm not surprised that Milgram's findings with Americans were that extreme, and in some ways, I hope that I wouldn't be one of them. Although as you said, there's a good chance that we don't know how we'd respond until we were actually in that situation. I'm looking forward to reading the full essay.

  2. This sounds like a great collection of essays!

    And I'm with you on the testing. I, too, would like to think I would protest, but our moral objections sometimes falter in the face of reality.


  3. I've always found the Milgram experiment very creepy. Do you know there is a biography of him, from 2004 but still. And the Malcolm X one sounds great -- I love to read about how language and reading expand someone's world.

  4. We read about that experiment in my intro to psych class-they can't re-do it today because of ethical issues. But I definitely found it fsacinating!

    I've always been the person who can't just keep her mouth shut and go with the flow, so I think I'd be like "This isn't ok!" But it's impossible to know for sure.

  5. Great review of two essays that sound intriguing! I'll be adding this link to the Essay Challenge Page soon.

  6. Thanks for sharing these two so different but so interesting essays. Milgram's experiment is beyond creepy, but he was onto something; fear has tremendous power.
    Malcolm X sounds much more inspirational. Think I'll start with that one.

  7. Amanda, I hope you enjoy the essay--as creepy as it is! Maybe I should've counted it for RIP IV!

    Lezlie, it is! I've been really impressed with this collection, and upon first glance it's just so unassuming.

    Melanie, I'll have to check out the Milgram bio. He's popping up everywhere! I was teaching a reading class last night, and our book included a paragraph about Milgram's "six degrees of separation" experiments.

    Eva, I'm like you. I can't keep my mouth shut either. I'd love to think I'd revolt, but I'm less likely to revolt in an academic situation.

    Thanks, Carrie!

    I hope you enjoy the Malcolm X essay, DS! It was very inspirational.


Thanks for taking the time to comment! Blogger has been a beast lately, so I hope you do not have any troubles leaving your thoughts.

Images by Freepik