As a social function, vulnerability is an issue that needs to be better understood by those interested in social and cultural issues in education. The main theoretical work addressing this issue is the American anthropologist Jules Henry’s 1966 essay “Vulnerability and Education.” According to Henry, one of the primary purposes of schooling is to condition people to feel vulnerable, making it easier for the social system to shape and control them through fear.
According to Henry, if society could not make people fear losing their status, their property, and their safety, it could not exist. He believes that people who do not feel vulnerable, who are not subject to some degree of fear, are not subject to control. How many people would run stoplights with their cars if it were not for the fear of receiving a traffic ticket or being injured? In this instance, fear is part of self-preservation, as well as of conforming to societal demands, rules, and laws. The fear of a parking ticket leads people to put money into parking meters. This is not the same as the case of obeying a stoplight signal, where self-preservation may also be an important factor at work.
Individuals can be made vulnerable through physical coercion, as well as by threatening them with the loss of their reputations. Also, they may feel vulnerable about the threat of being excluded from a social group that is important to them. This may be a group of friends, family, or social organization. In the most extreme cases, this process takes on forms such as shunning in Amish culture, which is applied to individuals who do not conform to traditional religious rules and customs.
According to this theory, schools play a critical role in communicating to students that they are vulnerable and that they must conform to certain societal norms or they will fail in school and in their lives. Students are threatened that if they do not behave and conform to the rules of the school, they will be thrown out, and so on. Students are told that if they do not study, they will fail a quiz or exam, and they will not make the grades necessary to get accepted by a college or university and to eventually get a good job and make a decent living.
Furthermore, Henry asserts that students are made to feel vulnerable not only to get them to learn, but also to get them to physically submit. Teachers are, by definition, at least until secondary school, larger and physically stronger than their students. Within limits, they are allowed to intimidate and physically threaten students in order to make them conform to required standards and behaviors. Perhaps more important, they are able to make students feel vulnerable by threatening their reputations, making them look foolish with their peers, or withholding respect and overtly positive attention.
According to Henry, as they get older, students learn to resist the process of being made vulnerable and subject to societal control. They do so through active opposition and resistance, as well as through mechanisms such as sham—seemingly accepting direction and control while consciously subverting the actions of those controlling them.
Although a limited degree of vulnerability among students is probably desirable in order to keep a society functioning, it can be taken too far. According to Henry, when society (or teachers) make people feel too vulnerable, this can lead to dysfunction and even madness. As a result, the needs of the social system are not met. Clearly, there is a very fine balance necessary in terms of how much people can be deliberately made to feel vulnerable, and how much making them feel vulnerable becomes dysfunctional.
For teachers, making students feel somewhat vulnerable can be useful but must be carefully regulated. Thus, making students fear failure on an exam may motivate them to study but, if taken to extremes, could cause them to become dysfunctional and fail.
Students are not the only individuals in schools who may be made to feel vulnerable. Teachers and administrators are expected to conform with school system policies, actions, and curricula with which they may not agree. However, they support these things because of their fear of losing advancement in their careers or possibly even the right to work. Thus, the principles of vulnerability that they use to control their students are applied to them to create a functioning, if imperfect, social system.
- Henry, J. (1963). Culture against man. New York: Random House.
- Henry, J. (1966). Vulnerability and education. Teachers College Record, 68(2), 135–145.
- Henry, J. (1973). On sham, vulnerability and other forms of self-destruction: Essays. London: Penguin.
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