Compliance: A Serious Wake-Up Call
“The new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate,and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible. Such a will can henceforth be relied on with confidence and certainty.” - Johann Fichte, 1808
Craig Zobel’s film, Compliance, recounts the true story of a fast food employee held captive by her manager at the behest of a prank caller posing as a police officer. The film is disturbing, frustrating, and horrific in its portrayal of each character’s willingness to go along with the directives of the perpetrator. What begins as a simple search of Becky’s purse quickly degenerates into cold, ruthless, mental and physical abuse.
What is most shocking, however, is the collective ignorance of everyone involved. If this wasn’t a well documented true story, the movie would have fallen quickly to pieces. But knowing that over 70 cases just like this one have been reported across 30 states makes Compliance a study in the dangers inherent in American society. It is easy to be reminded of the compliance so easily won by Adolph Hitler that led to the extermination of millions of innocent people.
But when we consider the foundations of that German society, rebuilt upon the rubble left by Napoleon’s successful 18th century invasion with an educational system founded on Johann Fichte’s philosophy that stated unequivocally, “By means of the new education we want to mould the Germans into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by the same interest.” And so it was that Prussian education was born with the purpose of removing the individual spirit from each child and replacing it with the will of the state.
As a result, a population sprang forth that was predictable, nationalistic, and compliant. This method of schooling, as stated by Johann Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation (1808), “must exist and on which the existence of the community depends, are to be enforced in case of necessity by fear of immediate punishment, and this penal law must be administered absolutely without indulgence or exception.” It is this very system that found its way to America at the start of the 20th century.
The battle for control of public education raged in America for nearly 100 years, until the state finally wrestled control away from neighborhoods and local communities. The fate of American (schooling) education was finally sealed in 1910 with the well documented Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1910), which shifted American education from a thinking man’s curriculum dominated by liberal arts studies, toward a curriculum for “developing attitudes and habits important in a democracy.”
In today’s compulsory educational landscape, outcome based education and standardized testing dominate. Critical thinking and personal inquiry have all but been removed from the majority of public schools across the country. The communities who suffer the most, of course, are the middle to low-income neighborhoods where schools are labeled as “failures,” but the testing craze and school grading initiatives have impacted the entire nation.
Compliance is, ultimately, a cautionary tale. It is what can happen when a society is coerced into conformity through punishment and retribution. It is what happens when a society is promised “all the riches, all the gold,” if they just show up, sit down, shut up, and complete. When the collective mass absorbs the individual spirit, the dissenting voices grow quiet. And with silence, comes compliance.