Jordan Peterson on the moral failure of mass education

Peterson made these remarks near the end of a question period after his talk at the “Mind Matters: Toward a New Understanding of Psychopathology” conference, which occurred on Saturday March 19, 2011.

One of the things i noticed ten years ago was that we never had our students in university make a plan for for the future and justify it. Cause you know, there is no course which is like “Make a plan for the future and justify it”. Cause you know, maybe you’d think that might be worth forty hours of concentrated effort, instead of just being an after thought. And the more I thought about that, the more I thought “jesus that’s weird. I mean, we bring like we bring people into university, there sort of the cream of the academic crop, they write a history essay it gets critiqued. But no one says “here’s what I want to do with my life and why”, and no one comes and says “well this is stupid, and maybe you should think about this”. And, you know like, think about it for god’s sake it’s your life. And the more I thought about that the weirder it got. So then I looked at the history of the education system in north america. And I found out that the elementary schools, pre university, were set up by Chicago in the late 18th century by fascists, really, this was before WW2 so being a fascist wasn’t associated with murderous genocide. They were set up to make the children of workers obedient. Well workers get told what to do by other people. So that’s been there for a hundred years and no one’s noticed so that seems pretty weird. And then, it’s even weirder in universities because theoretically you are being taught to be an individual, like a citizen, in universities, but no one does that. But I think that’s this responsibility issue again. It’s so daunting, that we just don’t pay attention to it. So part of what I do, is make people do that. Think about who you are, think about the fact that if you don’t get your act together you will be one dangerous son of a bitch like one horrible nasty creature, and you will create untold harm. And don’t do that – set your life up so you aren’t inclined to do that. And think about it, and beware that you are like that, even though you don’t want to think you are, because no one wants to think you’re a Nazi but everybody is one. Look, like 95% participation in Germany, and the only thing that distinguishes the average person from Hitler is that Hitler was an organizational genius. That’s the distinction – not the bloody motivation, but the ability. There is no shortage of tyrants in families, it’s probably the rule. And there’s no shortage of tyrants in leaders, it’s probably the rule. So since it’s the rule, it probably applies to you. So if you’re not a tyrant, you’re probably a victim, so you can pick your category.

Would it be a worthwhile thing to work on in university – people’s life plan, with justification? I think it may be highly politically incorrect for professors to critique students’ plans and values – but on the other hand, if students are setting out with values that cross with what they might dismiss as the older generation, shouldn’t they know this and be willing to deal with the conflict? Would the strife and difficulties that would result from such classes be worthwhile?


18 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson on the moral failure of mass education

  1. Profs might not be all that well qualified to evaluate life plans. Their own examples are ones that can only be followed by a tiny handful of students. In many cases, profs have limited experience with the working world as experienced by most people.

  2. I think the above statement is more about encouraging people to take making life plan’s seriously than it is about critiquing the specificities of someone’s particular plan. Also, if profs are not well qualified, that might be because they aren’t trained to do it, because the education system is basically set up to produce conformity rather than citizenship.

  3. Another issue is that only a minority of students go to university. Perhaps this is what ‘career and personal planning’ courses in high school are meant to do. I remember those being tedious and patronizing.

  4. Self- authoring isn’t about selling you a direction. Its more about taking the time to think about your priorities and goals by looking at your past, your present and your hopes for the future. In research conducted by Peterson and others, just going through the exercise of goal setting improved academic performance. I found however, that if a person lacks information about how realistic their plans are, or if a person is extremely perssimistic about the possibility of achieving their goals, the exercise can be extremely difficult. This is not to say that it can’t still be useful to help identify where the problems are.

  5. The goal of the self-authoring exercise is to get students to think critically about their own plans, which is generally a good thing, but I found that having students write about their personal lives for a university course caused some problems with boundary issues. Students wrote extremely private things, and for students who were particularly vulnerable for one reason or another, this was sometimes problematic. Peterson’s emphasis on the importance of goal setting didn’t really address the problems of highly distressed students who were grappling with self-doubts about their abilities to accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves, and psychology courses on meaning attract these confused and distressed students.

    Note that Peteson classifies everyone in Nazi Germany as either a Nazi or a victim, because he only thinks about individual goals, not the operation of collective social groups. Many people in Nazi Germany probably wanted to act but didn’t know how or were afraid to act. Some people were probably preoccupied with their own personal goals and paid little attention to what else was going on. Some people probably just tuned out what they didn’t want to think about.

    I like this quote from Peterson because it reflects both what is good and what is problematic about his philosophy. I think that education should include reflection on personal goals and moral values, but in practice I find that Peterson is too black and white in his moral assumptions.

  6. I agree with Peterson about everyone in Nazi germany as either a Nazi or a victim. Of course there is also the resistance, but this is a tiny portion. There is also “resistenz”, which I’ve written about – the idea of small scale resistance which is symbolic and holds open a critical space without putting your hands in the fire, but I think this is actually just like charity – well meaning, but effectively helps the status quo persists. Conflict situations, or other extreme situations, force you to take sides because your actions have objective effects in the context of you having moral duties to try to understand those effects and to be adequate to your situation.

    I think Peterson’s emphasis on situated responsibility is not problematic – I think what is problematic is the vulgar left’s attempt to disenfranchise liberty by taking complexity as a value in itself.

    Anyway, you didn’t answer my question.

  7. Does total passivity make you count as a victim? Or is some level of active resistance required? Or is being a target of discriminatory Nazi policies sufficient to make you a victim, even if you did nothing personally to resist them?

  8. Perhaps I wasn’t sufficiently clear. The Maps of Meaning course which Peterson teaches, but which has also been taught by a grad student when he was on sabbatical, is the course where students engage in writing about their life plans for course credit. There have been several variations in the way that the question of assigning marks has been handled, and I am not necessarily aware of all of them. The issue I raised was that marking students on very private personal material was problematic. I know of at least one student with mental health issues who dropped the course because he did not want to share his private personal goals, barriers, and concerns for course credit.

  9. Regarding Milan’s comment. It may be possible to be both a victim and a Nazi. People often collaborated because they were afraid for their families and their livelihood. How can any of us can know if we would have refused to participate in Nazi Germany if our family was at risk? Flanders and Peterson write about complexity management and the impossibilty of truly representing the world’s complexity with any model. The question to ask of any model is how useful is it? In this case creating a binary of victims and tyrants does not seem useful to me since it is well known that bullies are often victims of abuse. Peterson would probably agree that people who feel sorry for themselves, who regard themselves as victims, are among the first to be tryannical towards others.

  10. “How can any of us can know if we would have refused to participate in Nazi Germany if our family was at risk?”

    We can know, within a margin. And the answer is we would have. So yes, you might have been both a victim and a tyrant, and yes many are both. How does that make the example un-useful? The everyday answer is “of course I wouldn’t have collaborated” – Peterson’s example is useful because it reduces the us-them mentality implicit in everyday moral understanding between the pure self and the impure other. And, it encourages people to take responsibility for what would be easier to avoid having as a possibility for them. If you recognize that you would probably be a collaborator in this instance, then you are forced to take responsibility for this potential, and act such as you’d expect someone to act who recognized that put into such a situation they would collaborate – which probably means among other things to do everything possible to avoid being put in that situation.

  11. Research on influencing behaviour shows that the more you make a given behavior appear to be normative, the less people deviate from the norm, so making people see the tendency to comply with tyranny as normative is not likely to achieve the desired outcome of reducing tyranny. I believe very strongly in individual responsibility, and I think that Peterson could have argued that having no moral education makes amoral behaviour appear to be normative, but I think that trying to get people to examine their own potential for evil does not produce the desired outcome. Focussing on people’s potential to do good, which is just as prevalent as their potential for evil, achieves better results.

  12. ” the more you make a given behavior appear to be normative, the less people deviate from the norm,”

    “making people see the tendency to comply with tyranny as normative is not likely to achieve the desired outcome of reducing tyranny.”

    There is a pretty intense descriptive/prescriptive slip going on here. In the first case, you’re referring to to the effectiveness of ideology, and in the second, you’re saying that if you tell people that complying with ideology without personal reflection leads to tyranny, they will do it more?

    I think you’re fighting the battle for the average, everyday, and quite clearly inadequate liberalism of today, which focuses on the positive in a world where the true utopians are the ones who say things can go on in the same way. I suppose you’d suggest we all focus on our individual ability to recycle and slightly reduce our power consumption, despite the fact that we can recognize as individuals that these feel good do-gooderisms in effect sustain the status quo of colonization and destruction of the environment. Focussing on our ability to do good is impotent precisely because as individuals within ideology, that good is limited by the interests of power, and if you want to look at the real power of individuals it is the power to refuse the limits which ideology places on us, not the power to act within those constraints to slightly improve things. Peterson is trying hard to create conscientious revolutionaries who won’t fall to the easy simplifications of tyranny. Critiquing him for being too negative, considering the state of the world today (and over the past 400 years), is part of the liberal obscenity which sees the world as a harmony and as a location for so much positive feeling.

  13. Northernsong, thank you for engaging in debate. I can see that you misinterpreted my arguments but I don’t know how I can clarify my position for you. When I was conducting a research project in Peterson’s lab, all but three participants out of over one hundred people listed friendship as one of their highest values. We are a social species and we do care about other people. Although many people do not extend their caring beyond their immediate circle, many people do give money to complete strangers when there is a natural disaster. Perhaps I am fortunate, but in my day to day life, I have encountered more goodness than evil. Why you would find my point of view obscene is very puzzling to me.

  14. Friendship is of course a good value. But friendship can easily be prevented from being a positive social value by constructing strong in-out group differences. In fact, I’m sure you know that if you join the army you are engineered to become the best friends with your army comrades, and the common enemy plays an important role in this bonding. I doubt very much that friendship is less prevalent in societies engaged in colonization or even genocide.

    Everyone treats their friends well. The difficult thing is to treat your enemies well.

  15. “In this case creating a binary of victims and tyrants does not seem useful to me since it is well known that bullies are often victims of abuse”

    I think this puts far too simple a gloss on things.

    Hitler was only able to commit his atrocities because most of the public collaborated. I think they bear meaningful guilt for that. We have a certain obligation to resist unethical projects undertaken by our own governments – even to overthrow our governments if they are committing atrocities.

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