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Stanford, prisons and a new curriculum

The words "Stanford," "prison experiment" and "movie" in the same headline may prompt curiosity in many readers' minds.

The headline was actually "Stanford Prison Experiment to become movie" and was followed by a 179-word blurb that said basically the same thing and threw out names like Ryan Phillippe, Kieran Culkin and Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects.

After reading the brief synopsis, I wanted to know what the hell the Stanford Prison Experiment was. So I googled it.

In 1971, four Stanford University researchers decided to conduct a thoroughly cuffs-on, two-week "prison life study," in which a simulated prison was established and students were paid $15 per day to serve as prisoners or guards.

The purpose, head researcher Philip Zimbardo wrote at the time, was twofold: "The problems to be studied are: 1. the development of norms which govern behavior in a novel situation. The creation of a psychological environment within the physical environment provided [and] 2. the differential perception of the same situation, 'the prison experience,' from people who are initially comparable (from the same population) but arbitrarily assigned to play different roles."

As noted, the experiment was scheduled to last two weeks. But things got so out of control so quickly that Zimbardo and his colleagues pulled the plug after only six days.

"There were many results, but perhaps the most important was simply this: The situation became so real, and the guards became so abusive, that the experiment had to be shut down," Zimbardo and his colleagues wrote on the Web site

www.prisonexp.org. Zimbardo has also written a book on the subject, called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which was published in March by Random House.

Sounds like a cult classic in the making.

Harvard changes general education requirements

Harvard University announced this week that it's doing away with its core education requirements, leaving some (OK, probably just me) thinking if Harvard has to overhaul its curriculum, the rest of us are really in trouble.

The new core requirements, according to an article published Tuesday in The Harvard Crimson, will focus on "emphasizing the real-world applications of a liberal arts education."

Among the new requirements are that students must take courses that fall under seven different categories, including "Ethical Reasoning," "Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding" and "the United States and the World," The Crimson reported.

An earlier incarnation of the new requirements suggested that all Harvardites be required to take a religion course. The requirement didn't make the final cut.

As with all large administrative decisions, some people are very pleased, a few are somewhat pleased and others are kind of pissed.

Case in point: former Harvard Dean William Kirby, who expressed his feelings about the proceeding by quoting "a 1924 vote of the Chinese Communist Party," The Crimson reported.

"The motion was passed unanimously although many comrades were opposed," he said.

Apparently this debate has been raging at Harvard for years. Seriously, though, that's as it should be. Education is a thoroughly un-static concept and the material being taught should always be in flux.

A professor urged me yesterday to e-mail faculty with suggestions for curriculum, saying in effect that your professors are looking for your help in shaping what they are going to teach during the next 10 years, particularly in programs where technology is rapidly changing the field.

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