EDUCATION:  Bushwhacking Johnny


From the September 2002 Chronicles magazine pp. 41-43 Under the section, Vital Signs

EDUCATION: Bushwhacking Johnny ~ by B.K. Eakman

At dinner, ten-year-old Johnny is sullen and uncommunicative. It has been a bad day. His parents pass off his ill humor as "going through a phase." Actually, it was an easy day--taken up with "another stupid school assembly." Johnny had sat there, bored, listening to people drone on about diversity and tolerance. When a lesbian took the stage, Johnny and his soccer buddies had guffawed. Later, the school counselor cornered him at his locker: "You're a big boy now, Johnny. Your Mom and Dad are from another generation, you know, so it's not surprising they wouldn't be tolerant of gay people. You can make up your own mind. You wouldn't want someone looking at you and your friends as 'dumb soccer jocks,' would you?"

Johnny has been subjected to cognitive dissonance, a tactic often used to mold public opinion. Not only does the technique neutralize unwanted input, it's a nearly foolproof method of manipulating groups for political ends. An adult subjected to it at least has the benefit of maturity and experience. He may recognize, however belatedly, the cause of his annoyance. Johnny, however, is too young to weigh matters, so he broods. His confusion may fester for months below any conscious level of awareness.

Technically, cognitive dissonance is "a stressful mental or emotional reaction caused by trying to reconcile two opposing, inconsistent, or conflicting beliefs held simultaneously." In practice, it is a form of mental coercion. (I ought to know: I sat through enough workshops as a prospective educator and practicing teacher. We learned how to disrupt logic, how to make it difficult for the uninitiated to sustain a train of thought.)

Creating a disorienting psychological environment doesn't require an expert agitator or professional provocateur if you can get gullible third parties--teachers, factory workers, even parents--who don't realize what they're doing to do the dirty work. Educators often think that they are using scientific methodology to transmit "thinking skills" or that they are "empowering pupils to be decisionmakers." Budding journalism students may believe they are perfecting interviewing techniques. Political-science majors typically encounter it as "negotiating tactics," which is closer to the truth. But the goal of cognitive dissonance, as with all surreptitious opinion-molding, is to get the target to respond to contrived "stimuli" (especially hot-button topics or situations) with knee-jerk, emotional reactions, leaving reason behind. In so doing, the victim "internalizes," briefly or permanently, an alternate view of reality.

In today's politically correct schools, this is sold as intellectual and academic freedom. Take any controversial issue--e.g., homosexuality--and examine the method used to bushwhack ten-year-old Johnny.

As a pre-adolescent, Johnny naturally looks to his parents as the primary source of authority. But they have made it clear that teachers and other school staff are also his superiors, requiring obedience.

Enter the school counselor: In one fell swoop, she shakes Johnny's confidence in his parents and himself. At ten, Johnny is not mature enough to understand what homosexuals do, but judging from the counselor's comment, it's apparent to him that his parents oppose homosexuality. (The counselor is sure of this because Johnny has completed untold numbers of questionnaires revealing details about his family--from what they read to how they worship.)

The counselor blindsides Johnny on five levels. First, she provides a justification for not abiding by his parents' values. ("They're from another generation.") Then, she strokes Johnny's ego by implying he is more mature than he actually is. ("You're a big boy now.") Next, she plants the idea that his parents' ethics are shallow. ("It's not surprising they wouldn't be tolerant.") Then, she forces Johnny to choose between two opposing authorities under the pretext of thinking independently. ("You can make up your own mind.") Finally, she legitimizes a lifestyle his parents probably oppose. ("Would you want someone looking at you as a 'dumb soccer jock'?")

How can Johnny go to his parents with this? He probably won't even remember the context in which this conversation occurred. How will Johnny resolve the conflict? He doesn't have the opportunity to do that, because the counselor's question called for a response on the spot.

When cognitive dissonance is employed against an unsuspecting person--or worse, against a captive audience such as schoolchildren--the short-term objective is to prompt insecure individuals to find company, leading to a group (mob) mentality. This makes it easier to reverse values held by the majority. "Truth" can even be turned against itself--for example, "freedom of speech" is now used to legitimize pornography. The very people freedom of speech was designed to protect are left not only vulnerable but suspicious of the principle itself.

What "new values" are educators trying to instill? Here is a seven-point list, given to educators in North Carolina at an in-service workshop:

There is no right or wrong, only conditioned responses.
The collective good is more important than the individual.
Consensus is more important than principle.
Flexibility is more important than accomplishment.
Nothing is permanent except change.
All ethics are situational; there are no moral absolutes.
There are no perpetrators, only victims.
Notice that all of the items on this list involve no particular issue; rather, they reflect ethical "outcomes" that a child is supposed to "internalize."

So cognitive dissonance is not quite brainwashing, and it's not quite subliminal advertising, either. It's more like setting somebody up for a psychological fall. It plays with the mind by pitting various perceived "authorities" against one another and exacerbating tensions. After a while, intellectual deliberations shut down, and emotions take over. Only the strongest-willed individuals can hold out--the "troublemakers."

Classrooms are rife with examples of cognitive dissonance. Take The Cry of the Marsh, an environmentalist film shown in many seventh-grade science classes. It opens with an idyllic, rustic landscape--birds singing in the trees, mother ducks leading their young on a pleasant excursion down a creek, rabbits scampering over the ground. The scene oozes fresh air, sunshine, and peace.

Suddenly, a tractor-bulldozer appears. The camera zooms in on the word "AMERICAN" on the side of the yellow vehicle, which is actually the name of the company that manufactured the equipment, though young viewers are left to interpret it as "an American bulldozer." Because of the camera angle, the vehicle looks like a tank. It overturns everything in its path--shrubs, grass, plants. Exhaust fills the air.

A man jumps out of the front seat and goes over to the embankment to drain the creek where the ducklings had been following their mother. Another man brings a can of gasoline, pours it over the surrounding area, and ignites it. As the men drive away, flames leap into the air. Trees catch fire. Living creatures run for cover.

Suddenly, the ducklings--which, by that time, have emerged on the other side of the creek--are overcome by encroaching flames and burned alive. Nests of baby birds come crashing to the ground, and the camera zooms in on what is left. In a final close-up, the tractor-bulldozer is shown plowing under the remains of the nest, the ducklings, and some bird eggs.

As the scene fades from the screen, a sentence flashes: "Man cannot foresee or forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." After the film ends, pupils are divided into groups for a canned discussion activity: "Who Shall Populate the Planet?"

Why does this exercise meet the definition of cognitive dissonance? First, there is subliminal deception and psychological impact--the way "AMERICAN" is depicted, the camera angle, the carnage. The last frame in the film condemns mankind wholesale--we will kill off our own species and, possibly, the planet itself. There is no issue to debate. The film aims for the gut, not for intellectual discussion. For all the children know, the men were creating mayhem in the forest purely for pleasure.

Finally, the follow-up exercise requires immediate decision-making--by consensus and under pressure. By the time the children get home, they can be counted on to have forgotten the relationship of the activity to the film and, therefore, will have no context to bring to their bewildered parents, who, no doubt, will hear impassioned outbursts over the ensuing weeks and months about grown-ups "destroying our world!" Parents aren't likely either to see the film or to hear any description of the follow-up activity that triggered this reaction.

With this curriculum under their belt, youngsters are deemed prepared to weigh in on such topics as urban sprawl, nuclear waste, and global warming, all of which require considerably more advanced study than seventh-graders possess. But these particular seventh-graders, prepped as they are, will be quite full of politically correct opinions that they cannot articulate.

Cognitive dissonance is not so much about skewing questions, interjecting bias, or censoring information as it is about a controlled-stress approach to precipitating conflict and overwhelming rational thought. The tactic relies largely on obscuring the lines between "authority," "loyalty," and ego.

You didn't "brainwash" your child into believing that a teacher, policeman, or minister is an authority figure. That's much too strong a term. You did, however, transmit the notion. What happens, then, when one of those authority figures forces your child to choose among them or tries to marginalize the others? The answer largely depends on which authority figure the child spends the most time with and which one the child perceives as being the greater threat to his pride.

Thanks to a culture that increasingly keeps children with their peers and away from their parents, most youngsters today view their classmates as the authority figures--as the persons having the greatest effect on their ego. Unethical educators capitalize on this; they use children to punish and report on other youngsters, then call it "peer pressure" or "classroom dynamics."

Herbert Marcuse identified adolescents as the perfect targets--eager, always, to become independent of their parents but still needy of approval. A fan of Germany's Kurt Lewin, who conducted the first groundbreaking experiments to induce neurosis on a mass scale, Marcuse combined the anti-authoritarianism of Erich Fromm with Karl Marx's theory of alienation (people will do almost anything to avoid ostracism or ridicule) and put it to work. If you could get impressionable young people to believe they were thinking independently, even while performing mob-dependent acts, you could start a revolution, he wrote.

Marcuse went on to foment and organize (usually behind the scenes) many of the campus riots of the 1960's. He understood that it was easier to manipulate groups than individuals. In dealing with team players, you reduce the chance of "lone rangers" who attempt to solve problems on their own initiative.

The key was to blur the lines between dependence and loyalty. Marcuse's students confused group loyalty with herd approval. "We're all in this together" became a recruitment slogan. Today, it's a rallying cry for every agitator with a cause, especially in the social sciences, which, increasingly, includes education.

By placing "interdependence" over "rugged individualism" and a herd mentality over personal principle, educators have scuttled American ideals about self-reliance and personal integrity. If it is politically correct to accept promiscuous behavior as "normal" and monogamy as "religious extremism," then anyone who balks is a pariah.

Thus was my generation (the Baby Boomers) educated to "need" our peers more than we needed our principles, making us easy marks for such tactics as cognitive dissonance. Our children are now sitting ducks, with civilized norms forever under attack.

Consider the following scenario: A pregnant young woman contracts German measles. After a sonogram and an amniocentesis, she is told her unborn child has serious deformities. Two simultaneous and incompatible messages will plague this woman, both bolstered by the media: First, If I go through with the pregnancy and birth, I am a bad person because I am opting, voluntarily, to commit this child to a tortured existence that I could have prevented. Second, If I terminate this pregnancy, I am a bad person because I have murdered my baby. Conclusion: No matter what I do, I am a bad person.

Enter the "third party," an advertisement: "Just do it!" "Take control of your life!" "Be a decision-maker!" "Do what feels right!"

Unless this woman can "default" to firm principles one way or the other, she is a candidate for suicide. She has been given a justification for not abiding by an earlier generation's values; her ego is stroked by implying she has more decision-making power than she really has (she can't undo the German measles); she has been taught that life-and-death dilemmas are inconveniences, not moral decisions; she must choose between two opposing authorities, God and "science," under the pretext of thinking independently; and, finally, all choices are equally legitimized.

Today, cognitive dissonance is an institutionalized method used to force-feed whatever is politically expedient. In a climate where fear of alienation vastly outweighs fear of moral corruption, what has happened to "intellectual freedom"?

B.K. Eakman, a former teacher and the current executive director of the National Education Consortium, is the author of Cloning of the American Mind: Eradicating Morality Through Education (Huntington House). Her website is