Why do we have to take this class?

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

When Bill H. was asked by some Berkeley professors to develop simulations of democracy versus dictatorship in Latin America, he remembered his days teaching government in high school:

Early on, a student had asked the inevitable question: “Why do we have to take this class?” And of course, as seniors they had to pass it to graduate. I didn’t know why it was specifically required, so I looked it up. State legislatures made government and US History required classes for graduation after the Korean War where some American POWs were induced to renounce democracy and the US. The methods used by the North Koreans were diabolical and relevant, so I described this to the Berkeley profs and said I could create a simulation in class around this. This was the simulation following some of the things the North Koreans did, with my own additions.

The professors handed out a survey the first day of class about government, one of the questions being “Do you believe Democracy is the best form of government in the world?” Nearly 100% said yes. The next class, the professors told the students that as this was a class about government that they would be asked to take responsibility for operations in class. Student leaders would be responsible for giving participation points [twenty percent of their grade] as well as points for attendance. The student leaders would also be responsible for operations in the class such as handing out and collecting papers and the behavior of the other students. The professors told students they wanted this system to be efficient.

Then the professors asked for two leaders and sat down. More than 80% of the classes had leaders volunteer with no discussion, no voting. They just presented themselves to the professor as the leaders. The professors told the leaders, in front of the class, that they could chose sub-leaders for groups of students if they wanted. Some did, some didn’t.

Then the class was told that the leaders would be given X amount of participation points and attendance points to give out, enough to give each student 5 points per class for participation and 1 point for attendance. Here we did what the North Koreans did: We gave the leaders 30% more participation and attendance points than needed. The professors told the leaders they could use or not use the points as they saw fit. He expected things to run efficiently and if he had to intervene to get things done, they would lose points.

In 90 percent of the classes, the following happened: The leaders gave themselves and sub-leaders more points from the extras. Students found the leaders `repressive’ but said nothing, even when the often very unequal points were posted. Students that challenged the leaders either lost points or were bribed with points to remain quiet.

Students complained to the professor, who referred them back to the leaders. In about a third of the classes, students asked the professors how they could `get rid of the leaders’. [The students' phrase in most cases.] This possibility was anticipated from reading about the POW camps. The instructions were that if five students stood and declared the leader `dead’, they were removed. However, if they did this, the leader would not receive any participation points. The students came up with the word `assassination.’ And of course, nothing happened in class until new leaders came forward. At times, that didn’t happen very quickly…

This was the situation in all but one class out of ten after just two weeks or six class sessions. The professors were `astonished and disturbed’ by the results. So were the students. A number came to the department head to complain. And of course, the students from different classes were talking, so things like assassinations `caught’ on and leaders from different classes were trading `techniques’ to hold power and avoid being assassinated. Half the classes had assassinations. In the POW camps, in all but two cases, it was simply intimidation or a physical assault that led to the leader `stepping down.’

The simulation was ended after two weeks, and this process was scripted too, by the professors announcing the end of the `system’, even though unstated, students thought it would go on for the entire class.

The basic point of the simulation was that if a group accepts `efficiency’ as the prime value in a government, instead of `fairness’, some form of dictatorship will usually follow. While the professors `knew’ this intellectually, it was quite another thing to see it in action among democratic-loving students. They were not only disturbed by the effectiveness of the simulation, but now they had to `turn it around’ so students wouldn’t be `psychically damaged’ as one professor put it.

We scripted that too. The professors pointed out that the democratic process wasn’t used to chose the leaders or run the class, though no stipulation was made about the form of governance. They all either acquiesced to the uneven distribution of points or turned to assassination to change leaders. It was also pointed out that this was done even when they felt that democracy was the best form of government.


  1. Excited Manatee says:

    Reminds me of Ender’s Game.

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