Do Torture, Shunning, Shaming and Humiliation Build Character?

05/02/2015 08:27 am ET | Updated May 02, 2016

It hasn't been a good week for psychologists. Perhaps they should stay out of matters of torture or school policy -- two realms that have far too much overlap these days.

The New York Times reported this week that the American Psychological Association (APA) provided support or ethical cover to the CIA in its post-9/11 campaign of torture. The evidence, while not conclusively damning, is deeply concerning.

A central figure in the assertions is University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, a leading figure in the positive psychology field. While his role in the emerging scandal is unclear, at least one group of colleagues has presented cause for further investigation. The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology documents a number of intersections between Seligman, the CIA and other psychologists and law enforcement luminaries.

The psychological phenomenon linked to the torture-enabling allegations is "learned helplessness." Learned helplessness is essentially the notion that animals (including humans) forced to endure aversive or painful events may become unable or unwilling to take any action to avoid subsequent aversive or painful events, even if the possibility of escape is apparent. While the APA vehemently rejects any complicity in or approval of torture, the concept of learned helplessness appears to have been shared with the CIA as part of the development of interrogation techniques.

But I'm an educator, not a human rights activist (at least not as a vocation), so my concerns are more about schools than terrorism (two realms that also have far too much overlap).

The other context in which Seligman's name regularly arises is school policy, particularly the burgeoning fields of character development, grit and resilience. Seligman, Angela Duckworth (another University of Pennsylvania psychologist), Paul Tough (author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) and David Levin (co-founder of Knowledge is Power Program-KIPP Schools) are central figures in a grit/resilience/character movement that is affecting schools, public, private and charter, across America.

I neither wish nor am I sufficiently informed to comment on Seligman's alleged complicity in torture. My familiarity with his work and my general spirit of optimism lead me to suspect that his work and theories were misconstrued or misused. There is no evidence to suggest that either Seligman or the APA endorse torture. The bulk of his work is directed toward human happiness, not human misery.

I am less sanguine about the grit/resilience/character industry and its impact on America's children.

In a forthcoming book I write this about grit:

"While it is valuable to recognize that perseverance, motivation and determination are distinct from intelligence(s) and important to school and life success, the grit bandwagon has a dangerous collateral effect. It takes one flawed idea -- 'you aren't smart enough to do well in school' -- and compounds it with another flawed idea -- 'you aren't gritty enough to do well in school.'

These notions, in combination, relieve policy makers and educators of the responsibility to look at their practices and expectations. The first responsibility of good educators, particularly in the early years, is to make learning so dynamic, interesting and fun that it would take grit to turn away! Focusing on the importance of grit allows a teacher or policy maker to design any manner of unimaginative, rote, tedious or punitive exercise and then blame a student's indifference, inattention or failure on their lack of grit.

KIPP schools are a case in point.

Students in KIPP schools wear uniforms, walk silently in single file lines from class to class, and are disciplined for even the smallest infraction. It is a school-based version of the 'broken windows' policing philosophy, which claims that the best way to control crime is to aggressively criminalize every small act. Arrest the window breaker, the theory goes, and murders will go down. As this has played out in places like NYC, where the metaphorical 'broken window' is often possession of a small amount of recreational drugs, the crime rate did indeed go down. Probably because an unconscionable proportion of young black men are in jail, where they can't soil the statistics by breaking windows or anything else.

Jim Horn, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA, describes KIPP's approach:

'(It is) intended to create a culturally-sterilized corps of black order takers and low level corporate drones who never complain and always ask How High? when the boss man says, Jump. If the KIPP neo-eugenic treatment can be perfected by Seligman (psychologist Martin Seligman) and David Levin (co-founder of KIPP), America may finally be on the road to ridding itself of the inferior and depraved cultures that are responsible for poverty and its effects, and we may herald a new day when the unfit accept their own responsibility for their unfitness and, then, work double time to make up for their own shortcomings that keep them from entering the gritty corporate bubble where down always looks up, where everyone keeps on the sunny side of an increasingly shady Wall Street.'

Horn's rhetoric is certainly inflammatory, but his critique is on point."

I am less inclined to inflammatory characterization, but KIPP and other "no excuses" charter schools are engaging in shunning, shaming and humiliation. These practices, as implemented at Success Academies in New York, were clearly explicated in a recent, controversial New York Times piece. Seligman was a significant influence on KIPP policy and I am not aware that he or other "grit and character" proponents have ever questioned the policies their theories have spawned at KIPP, Success or other "no excuses" schools. Perhaps, as is the likely truth about Seligman and torture, the lessons of positive psychology and learned helplessness have been misapplied. If so, it would be helpful for Seligman, Duckworth and others to speak out.

It is ironic and troubling that programs supposedly inspired by the power of grit and resilience are instead driving mindless conformity and compliance. KIPP Schools, Success Academies, Democracy Prep and any number of other "no excuses" schools are not developing true grit and resilience other than the numb grit required to endure humiliation and the resilience necessary to get up and go to school every day.

It may be unintended, but what Seligman and others have enabled is a system of school discipline that produces the very "learned helplessness" that was advised as an aid to efficient torture.

Punishment, shaming, shunning, compliance and conformity are not tools for character development. They are agents of oppression.