The "Bystander Effect" and Difficult Conversations

March 26, 2015

Putney students participating in an MLK Day workshop on leadership and privilege, led by the Marlboro Graduate School Social Justice Program, January 2015

Dear Parents,

We have recently welcomed students back for Spring term, and I am confident that spring will arrive eventually.  I was in Washington DC briefly over the break, and visited the Holocaust Museum, where I had never been.  It seemed to me to be brilliantly well designed, and I learned a lot in spite of having taught this topic in depth many times.  The focus on the role of the ‘bystander effect’ was powerful.  The museum’s narrative makes it clear that, as Edmund Burke observed, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  

A visit to this museum lingers in the mind, needless to say, and it provided a powerful background to my reading the editorial by Judith Shulevitz in the NY Times this past weekend.  Titled “Hiding from Scary Ideas” it describes the extent to which some colleges are creating, or at least allowing, expectations that students should not have to be exposed to ideas they find uncomfortable or distressing.  Not only are students allowed to avoid discussing or even hearing things that may be difficult for them, but in some (and some of the ‘best’) universities intellectual debate risks being eviscerated by the language of therapy and fear.

At Putney we talk often with students about their obligation not to be bystanders to injustice and the pain of other people.  We regularly invite speakers who address this theme, and we talk with seniors before they leave for college about how they will navigate a much wider and less controlled social scene, and what their responsibilities are.  We wish them to look the world in the face. Our Fundamental Beliefs ask us to “treasure the hard stretching of oneself” and to be “willing to take risks, if need be, for moral growth, so that one definitely progresses along the long slow road toward achieving a civilization worthy of the name.”   I hope and trust that while making Putney feel like a safe place for all students, we are not also making them afraid or unwilling to boldly step outside their comfort zones.

I am interested to know what you think.




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