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Milgram in the Modern Day: Psychology of Antisemitism in Higher Ed

May 02, 2024

Mere days after Columbia’s president testified the university was doing “everything it can” against antisemitism, extremist protestors took over the campus, threatening and attacking Jewish students, encouraging others to become “martyrs” like the Hamas terrorists who committed the Oct. 7 massacre, and calling for Oct. 7 to become “every day” for Jews worldwide. After Jewish community leaders called for Jewish students to leave Columbia, President Shafik moved all classes online.

Now, similar antisemitic extremism is spreading to other campuses, including Harvard, the University of Southern California, Yale, and Princeton. The police are getting involved. The protests are being praised by Iran’s Ayatollah and even Hamas.

How did we get here? How can generations raised on Holocaust history, museums, and films like “Schindler’s List” or the recently controversial “The Zone of Interest” be so spectacularly blind to their own antisemitism? How have we failed to learn from the past? 

Basic psychology provides the answer.

Psychology has never been as culturally ubiquitous as it is today. It is one of the most popular college majors. Figures like Esther Perel, Jonathan Haidt, and Brené Brown are household names. Topics like empathy and emotional intelligence are widely discussed, and terms like “groupthink,” “confirmation bias,” and “the Dunning-Kruger effect” – all clearly at play in the current wave of antisemitism –  are used in everyday conversations. However, despite this popularity, psychology’s fundamental lessons about human nature remain unlearned. One of the most powerful examples of this is the Milgram experiment.

In post-WWII America, the Holocaust was dismissed as something that “couldn’t happen here” but must have resulted from something innate to Germany. This was particularly ironic, considering Nazism’s widespread popularity in the U.S., including in academia. Stanley Milgram, a Jewish psychologist who spent his entire life trying to understand the Holocaust, found this widespread belief disturbingly naïve and sought to prove it wrong.

He created “learning” experiments wherein participants were told to administer electric shocks of varying potency to a “learner” (actually an experimental collaborator) who answered questions incorrectly while hooked up to an electrical device in another room. The majority of Milgram’s participants administered lethal (had they been real) electrical shocks simply because they were told to. Even when distressed, questioning whether what they were doing was right or inquiring after the “learner’s” welfare, Milgram’s subjects continued administering shock after shock – to the point that many believed they had actually killed the “learner.” 

This spectacularly disproved the comfortable myth of Americans being “built different.” Turns out, all humans are capable of committing and excusing atrocity.

It’s comforting to think that just because we can use words like “empathy” or “prejudice,” we’re immune to the psychological forces that lead others to commit and support atrocities. Surely we’d refuse to continue the Milgram experiment. We’d hide Jews in our attic and runaway slaves in our cellar.

That is a comfortable lie. 

Stanley Milgram believed that for society to flourish, every individual must be equipped to understand this about themselves, and he believed that higher education is integral to that process. Sixty years later, however, higher education seems to have abandoned this role.

The last six months are an indictment not only of specific institutions’ antisemitism but of higher education’s broader failures of vision and purpose. Jewish professors are barred from campus, while Jewish students are harassed and terrorized. Even while calling for “Intifada revolution,” to bomb Tel Aviv, and actively sympathizing with and praising terrorism, protestors claim they cannot possibly be antisemitic. Much the same way, when Milgram was planning his study, critics told him Americans wouldn’t lethally shock someone. In both cases, the belief in being “built different” – i.e., “better” – produced a profound and harmful lack of self-awareness. 

In the information age, higher education cannot simply be about communicating knowledge; Substack and Khan Academy beat us there. Nor can higher education be about ideological influence; we can’t surpass social media algorithms.

Today, the point of higher education ought to be to forge the critical thinking, ethical reasoning, and intellectual humility necessary for tomorrow’s leaders. It is our responsibility to develop students who are self-aware enough to know they aren’t “built different.” The current wave of campus antisemitism makes it plain that higher ed is failing in that pursuit. Given how many professors and administrators are actively aiding and abetting the current protests, one could even say that higher education is actively undermining its own ability to accomplish its purpose of student development.

Higher education stands at a crossroads. We can continue our current trajectory, which has clearly failed to develop self-aware and morally coherent students, or we can embrace the challenge of student development. We must internalize the uncomfortable truths of the Milgram experiment; the unthinkable could happen here, and it already is. Higher education must develop the next generation – tomorrow’s leaders – by equipping them not only with knowledge, but the self-awareness, critical thinking, and moral sense to confront such challenges. This is critical not only for the well-being of Jewish students and faculty (and, selfishly, Jewish post-docs) but for the integrity of higher education itself. If higher education fails to embrace our responsibility for student development, we risk repeating some of history’s darkest chapters, and while Jews might be the initial and current victims, we most assuredly will not be the final ones.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Dr. Aaron Pomerantz is a social psychologist and postdoctoral research fellow at Rice University's Doerr Institute for New Leaders, where he studies the psychology of destructive leadership and strategies for developing ethical leaders in both society and higher education.

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