"Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a human or animal has learned to believe that it is helpless. It thinks that it has no control over its situation and that whatever it does is futile. As a result it will stay passive when the situation is unpleasant or harmful and damaging." -- Wikipedia
When we Americans throw up our hands and say things like, "I know it's wrong, but what can I do?" we are expressing the condition of learned helplessness. We know there are problems, but we have been conditioned to believe that others--officials or "authorities"--are handling them. The officials are all too willing, even eager, for us to believe that they are doing something about the problems when they are not, especially when they probably created the problems and are making things worse every day.
When and where did we come to our condition of learned helplessness? Think back. Our first day in school, we were told the rules: "Sit down and be quiet; if you don't, you will be punished; if you still don't you will be drugged." Those rules were in effect for the next twelve years, just long enough for a complete abrogation of our character, our individuality, our conscience, our self-confidence. Our parents even told us not to disobey school employees, no matter how inappropriate, stupid, or self-serving their commands were. The result is Learned Helplessness -- the inability to deal with our own situation. We have been trained to be controlled by others.
If we give away our liberties voluntarily, are we still a "free people"? Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If you trade your liberty for a little security, you lose both and deserve neither." After spending twelve years in school without liberty, but with the illusion of security, we become willing to submit to more and more reductions in our freedom.
We are also asked to tolerate more and more absurdity by local officials. A few examples: A "Mission Statement" (local Public School) that contains no mission; A Five-year School Plan" that has neither plan nor goals; School standards that have no stated aims or requirements; "Principles of Learning" that are not principles of anything. School employees continually tell us that what they do is "For the children," when in fact, the system is set up entirely for the benefit and convenience of those employees and their union.
We have been trained to throw up our hands in helplessness. Long ago, our government created its national school system in order to condition most of us to be followers instead of leaders; to be passive instead of active or creative; to be obedient instead of questioning; to be timid instead of confident and bold. It has worked perfectly for the government whose leaders are simply taking advantage of our learned condition of passivity and submission and obedience.
The school officials dare to call what they offer "Excellence," while it is easily seen as mediocrity with frequent bursts of absurdity. They dare to call their results, "Success," in the face of massive failure. They dare to demand more of our earnings every year without asking themselves for achievement. While keeping the public's mind on "planning for the future," they avoid telling us about the current failures. In these ways, school officials nurture our feelings of impotence, futility, frustration and yes, helplessness.
All the while, the school board--pretending to work for the public who elected them--nod and smile as the administrators trot out new diversions (the next "big plan"), the latest waste of time and money, all designed to let us know that we, the people, have no control over the government school system.
Ned Vare is an architectural designer and author, a former private school teacher, rancher, businessman, elected official.