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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Schools: From Stockholm Syndrome to Cruise Ship

Schools require compliant students. The worst case scenario for the best public and prep schools is a massive revolt of smart kids asking, "why are we being taught this curricula; what are the qualifications of the instructors or institutions to prepare us for the future; why are we being taught using books and term papers and tests?"

The traditional coercive tools for school are always a combination of carrots and sticks, promises of bright future for compliance and threats of public and total failure for resistance. Fair enough.

As a result, students often find themselves displaying signs of Stockholm Syndrome. This situation, when victims under the total control of a few people form sympathy with their captors, has been identified from studying hostage situations. But many students as well form a bond with teachers and institutions they feared, and who had similar (perceived but wielded) absolute control over their lives and futures.

We are all seeing the emergence of another sweeping approach used by the ranks of the industrial education complex - turning higher ed campuses into cruise ships. Universities are lavishing perks upon perks to the students, from swanky food and fashion outlets to high-end stadiums and other recreational areas.

This shameless pandering has two costs. The first is that the cost for students of colleges is spiralling beyond "out of control." The costs for tuition are simply catastrophic. Meanwhile alums are being asked to donate even more (with the fund raising processes monopolizing the mind share and creativity of school administers, just as it does with politicians). One friend of mine wrote a large check for his Alma mater, and then drove to campus in the middle of a giant freshman lobster bake.

The second problem with campus-as-cruise-ship is more subtle, but more problematic. Schools have always been out of touch with delivering skills that give students more control over their future lives. But the quasi-austere conditions at least created motivation for students to join the productive world. Now, students are shocked to learn that they are not just unqualified for most jobs, but the living conditions are a massive step down as well.

One result is that students are even more reluctant to leave their university country clubs. They become grad students, get their doctorates if they can afford to borrow the money, and then professors. And the great industrial education complex chugs on.

We as a nation are debating health care, as we should. But the failure of schools to produce students who have control of their lives and are decent stewards of their families, communities, and planet is a far bigger crisis with much larger consequences. And the recent strategy of higher ed, rather to reform the relevancy to instead pander and placate to students is completely the wrong direction.

A final note. The simulations and serious games movement continues to be pulled in two directions. One is "making content more fun" (gamification) and the other is "creating richer content." The first direction is currently a more popular perception, and highly aligned with the cruise ship model: "Let's learn history, but on the shuffleboard court!" The future of the movement, however, is in the second direction. This will take work and investment beyond putting up more plasma television sets in the student lounge. It means recommitting to a future of education.


  1. As a teacher and parent, I've seen signs of the Stockholm Syndrome. But I wonder if you might also consider the social role that schools play. Our daughter learned well how to please teachers--as she will probably have to please bosses through much of her life--but she also became good friends with some of them. Schools are not so much education institutions as social institutions. But the country-club movement at colleges is more about marketing that any social mission.

    Incidentally, the new online game Odysseys2sense is intended to offer depth of content over glitz. We'll see how well that works!

  2. The cruise ship universities sound terrible! Thankfully that's not happened over here - most students go where there is a good nightlife in the city, plenty of pubs, as they always have done!!!

  3. There was another story in the news last night about schools "cruise shipping" up their facilities while firing teachers.