Conformity in the Classroom

This past summer marked the 50th anniversary of Stanley Milgram’s famous Milgram obedience experiment conducted at Yale.

Considered to be one of the most notable experiments in the field of social psychology in particular, and perhaps even the research world in general, Milgram originally set out to examine the question of why people obey authority, even when doing so contradicts some of their fundamental morals and conscience. In this research, an innocent participant was given the role of a “teacher” who had to punish the confederate “student” with an alleged electric shock of increasing intensity every time the student would make an error on a memory task. The teachers were constantly prodded by the experiment to continue, despite some of their blatant resistance and genuine concern whenever the student would receive a shock. Milgram’s question: how much would people follow the command of the authority, or in this case, the experimenter, even when it meant “harming” another human being?

Although the methodology used was questionably ethical by today’s standards, Milgram’s conclusions were a shock to many: about 65% of the participants in his experiment went as far as administering the strongest voltage available.

While 50 years have passed since Milgram’s original experiment, we, as a society, would like to think that we have moved on, and that what Milgram found in his laboratory doesn’t pertain to the way we think and behave. After all, we are a society in which individualism is a value, and doing our own thing and going against authority is key. If put into that same experiment room, we would surely act much differently.

Yet has much changed? Have we really moved on and learned from research such as Milgram’? Or, is it simply human behavior to act as Milgram’s subjects did? One can hardly imagine that in today’s day and age anyone would conform to authority to such an extent that his or her own conscience would suffer. After all, we are much “smarter” today than we were back then…

In thinking about these questions, I’d like to bring attention to world of street art. Many street artists have often found their inspiration creating art that represents society’s dire dependence to authority and conformity. In their eyes, as in those of many similar skeptics, we continue to act like Milgram’s subjects, albeit in a more disguised way. We continue to obey like authority, act like everyone else, and believe it is the right way to exist. Commercialization, they argue, is simply a means to this end. We are constantly being bombarded of how we should think, feel, and act, and indeed we follow.


Well, there may not be anything necessarily wrong with “fitting in” to the molds society has carved out for us. In fact, sometimes it’s required. For example, take the world of business, a place near and dear to my heart as an instructor of several business classes. To be able to succeed in a place like corporate America, individuals must think, feel, and act like all others who have gotten ahead in times prior. Put in another way, individuals need to conform and obey the rules that have been set forth, leaving little room for creative expressions of individuality.

So I ask the question of how can we, educators of undergraduate students (and business students in particular) who are at the brink of entering worlds like Corporate America, properly educate students how to communicate and express themselves with their own voice, while still fitting into this mold? How can we encourage them to be their own people, but not appearing too different that they won’t be able to succeed?

As a crucial part of college education (and as other writers have noted), it is necessary to teach students the basics and have them conform the rules until some comfort is reached and students can feel confident in expressing themselves uniquely. However, based on my own experiences, it appears that students never fully disengage from this generic mold, but rather learn it and stick to it without really exploring their own selves and style. The reasons why this occurs can be plenty, ranging from specific educational experiences and instruction that has encouraged this type of communication, to fear of not landing a good job if doesn’t do exactly as told, to the external pressures of a society which (implicitly) values conformity.

Thus, despite it being over 50 years since Milgram’s original experiments, it is easy to see that perhaps very little has changed about the ways in which we, as individuals, fundamentally behave. While that research may have taught us to be more knowledgeable and stop to think before following fascist regimes, we might also want to think about the implications the research still has for other areas of our lives. As educators, it is our job to ensure that students do receive a quality education like everyone else, yet also free themselves of the confines of our instruction.


  1. Why is it “necessary to teach students the basics and have them conform the rules until some comfort is reached and students can feel confident in expressing themselves uniquely”?

    I disagree. Students will express themselves uniquely quite naturally without teaching them “the basics” of conformity and, I’m assuming you mean, obeying authority. Look at young children: they naturally express themselves without being taught a thing. Granted, undergraduate students have already been taught “the basics” of obedience and are usually well “trained” in high school not do disagree too much with their teachers. That is a problem that needs to be countered.

    In my (undergraduate business) courses I focus on independent and critical thinking, including the importance of not obeying or conforming when you find yourself in disagreement. Think independently, act on what you believe. It may not make you filthy rich, but you’ll learn to think for yourself. That’s what education is all about, isn’t it? Or is the purpose of education really about employability in a corporate hierarchy, or getting rich? What is the purpose of education?

  2. Chrissy says:

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your point. However, to clarify, the main point that I was trying to make was that, even though we (as instructors) do our part in fostering independent and critical thinking, students sometimes have trouble in fully doing so. One of the reasons I personally believe this happens is because of that “mold” that students feel they have to fit into. I cite the business students in particular due to the demands of the corporate world that enable this process (although, I still have seen this in other academic areas as well). Your final question is excellent, and I have been asking the same thing myself.

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