The study began on Sunday, August 17, 1971. But no one knew what, exactly, they were getting into.
Forty years later, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains among the most notableâ€”and notoriousâ€”research projects ever carried out at the University. For six days, half the study’s participants endured cruel and dehumanizing abuse at the hands of their peers. At various times, they were taunted, stripped naked, deprived of sleep and forced to use plastic buckets as toilets. Some of them rebelled violently; others became hysterical or withdrew into despair. As the situation descended into chaos, the researchers stood by and watchedâ€”until one of their colleagues finally spoke out.
The public’s fascination with the SPE and its implicationsâ€”the notion, as Zimbardo says, "that these ordinary college students could do such terrible things when caught in that situation" â€”brought Zimbardo international renown. It also provoked criticism from other researchers, who questioned the ethics of subjecting student volunteers to such extreme emotional trauma. The study had been approved by Stanford’s Human Subjects Research Committee, and Zimbardo says that "neither they nor we could have imagined" that the guards would treat the prisoners so inhumanely.
In 1973, an investigation by the American Psychological Association concluded that the prison study had satisfied the profession’s existing ethical standards. But in subsequent years, those guidelines were revised to prohibit human-subject simulations modeled on the SPE. "No behavioral research that puts people in that kind of setting can ever be done again in America," Zimbardo says.
In an interview I shot with Eddie Gibbs a couple of years ago (no longer available online, I’m afraid), Eddie talked about the present seminary model that leads to students incurring huge debts in pursuit of their Masters Degrees. He commented that his banker, financial advisor and a real estate agent he knew were all M.Div’s who couldn’t afford to work full time at a church – they wouldn’t be able to service their seminary education debt.
Eddie was bold enough to suggest that seminaries needed to learn how to give their education away for free – like MIT and Stanford are doing. (Not that I expect to see that any time soon.) He also suggested that churches needed to be the ones sending folk to seminaries, paying for that education and expecting the seminarians to return to their sending community to work there or to be sent out from that community to plant new churches.
This is where the Disseminary makes so much sense to me.