Two weeks ago at the Jamestown (Pa.) High School, 53 kids in the American Culture class were told over the classroom intercom that school would be dismissed early because the Soviet Union had attacked an American ship in the Baltic Sea and the president was about to address the nation and a joint session of Congress.
It was, explained John Chancellor in his NBC News commentary, "a kind of civics lesson" designed "to make the kids consider the implications of an international crisis in the most realistic way." Unfortunately, "it backfired." One student went into shock. Another began to cry. Most sat in stunned silence, thinking nuclear bombs were on their way and the world was about to end. "The reaction was so intense and dramatic that the teachers cancelled the experiment and told the students the truth."
The moral? "Grownups mask the (nuclear) terror with technical language about deterrents and bargaining chips." On the other hand, explained Chancellor, "kids know what it's all about."
Now, of the many pseudo-ideas going around these days, surely the most banal is that kids somehow have a clearer, more direct, more "undefended" (as the psychiatrists like to say) route to nuclear reality. The idea got its start with Samantha Smith's smash visit to pen-pal Yuri Andropov. It gained greatest currency when the anti-nuclear movement, having utterly lost the public debate over its pet adult idea, the freeze, took refuge in the argument, so to speak, that you can't argue with adults anyway -- they are too "psychically numbed'' (Dr. Rob diagnosis). Better to listen to kids, who are uncorrupted by "technical language about deterrents and bargaining chips."
But even if kid chic were more than a way for some to avoid the inconvenience of having to argue as adults, it gains not an ounce of support from the Jamestown experiment. Chancellor's inference is worse than banal. It is simply wrong. Put 53 adults in a room, tell them that the Soviet Union has attacked the United States on the high seas, and you're going to have a lot of stunned silences, a crier or two, and maybe a couple of shock cases.
This experiment tells us nothing about nuclear war, even less about kids. The real story here -- that Chancellor could miss it is a wonder -- has to do with the teachers. By what right do they conduct such experiments on kids? On anybody?
It is 20 years now since the issue of deceptive and manipulative experiments was first raised by the famous Milgram study. Stanley Milgram, a Yale social psychologist, was interested in the propensity of ordinary people blindly to obey authority. His subjects were told that in order to teach a task to another volunteer in another room, they would have to administer increasingly painful electric shocks. There were, of course, no shocks. The hidden "volunteer" was a confederate working with Milgram. But the subjects didn't know it. Despite (fake) screams from the hidden confederate, many subjects kept administering (apparently) painful shocks.
Milgram was interested in the ethics of ordinary people. Others have been interested in Milgram's ethics. For many years his study has been severely attacked. The basic objection was that he deceived his subjects and inflicted on them extreme stress, torn as they were between the conflicting imperatives of conscience and authority. (Milgram himself reported that 15 of his subjects experienced "full-blown uncontrollable seizures.")
Now, compare Milgram to Jamestown. Milgram was using volunteers. The Jamestown subjects didn't volunteer for anything. Not even school attendance is voluntary. Second, Milgram's guinea pigs were adults, who necessarily have more life experience in dealing with stress than kids.
Third, Milgram was investigating, under scientific conditions and to gain scientific knowledge, one of the crucial questions of our time: how ordinary people can do the most awful things and then justify themselves by claiming that they were "only following orders." What possible knowledge could the Jamestown teachers have gained? Orson Welles conducted their experiment 47 years ago. His "War of the Worlds" broadcast created an even more impressive panic. Hundreds of listeners were driven to evacuate their homes.
Well, said Jamestown principal David Shaffer, this proves "that kids today have nuclear war on their mind." Really? And it was not an experiment at all, he protested. It was an educational "innovation," "something different," designed to "generate analytical thinkers" in preparation for study of the Cuban missile crisis. Parents take exception to "anything outside the status quo," but teachers must take "risks."
Easy for him to say. UPI reports, reassuringly, that "the students began to calm down a few days after the announcement." A few days, mind you.
Contrary to the view from Jamestown and NBC, the Jamestown experiment is a study of one thing only: what happens when political trendiness meets educational innovation. The results are not encouraging.