The Weekly World: In defense of courage


In 1963, Stanley Milgram verified with empirical observation what historians and philosophers have postulated for centuries. In his experiments on obedience to authority, he found that 65 percent of tested subjects could be induced to electrocute another innocent person—without coercion. In the face of legal pressure, this number would almost certainly be much higher. The conclusion? Milgram is worth quoting at length in this case: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. 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.”

Many writers have articulated the solution to Milgram’s dilemma, butI think C.S. Lewis grasps a depth in his answer that many others miss. “Courage,” he wrote, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Being nice simply doesn’t cut it. Bravery and standing firmly on one’s values, without the benefit of anonymity, has proven time and again to an insufficient but necessary foundation for a moral—and safe—society.

This, however, is precisely what society has been discouraging. Day to day, we run into countless demonstrations of this, but one particularly relevant and concrete example epitomizes the effects that this kind of cowardice-acceptance has in schools like ours.

In the strange world of education, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects student privacy, because normal legal privacy protections apparently aren’t enough. It’s scary to stand in the public eye, so we should protect students from that. “For the educational environment,” we’re told. But anonymity is a double-edged sword, and the fantastic levels of “privacy” being forced upon students also “protects” them from having cases of their own abuse at the hands of school administrations, teachers or other students being made public. It also teaches them all the wrong lessons about citizenship and due process.

An example: a student who makes an allegation of drug abuse about another student can expect anonymity under FERPA law, eliminating the check imposed by public opinion on administrative kangaroo courts.

This is often in violation of the sixth amendment rights of the accused to a public trial and to face one’s accuser. In some cases, even proof of innocence isn’t enough to escape conviction and punishment; and why should it be? There’s no reason for the school to care, after all, without public oversight. Legal incentives give them reason to convict, in fact. Many schools have 100 percent conviction rates for drug or harassment charges against students. In a fascinating twist of logic, these rules can allow schools to invade student’s privacy—their facebook page, locker and even their person—oversight thanks to student privacy laws.

Why do we need this superfluous privacy protection? Where is our audacity to stand on our own two feet? Aren’t we supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave? It won’t be  for long if we continue to reward cowardice disguised as victimhood and psychological trauma, and the ongoing legal labyrinth will continue snare innocents until we stop letting negligent emotion trample all over reason and due process. Courage, not the soppy self-pity that leads to these ridiculous laws, should be the goal of our education.