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Learned helplessness revisited January 25, 2009

Filed under: Education — Ms.M @ 5:52 pm

The first time I ran into the concept “learned helplessness” it was in a special education course on mild disabilities. In this context it referred to the ways in which students may come to rely so heavily on the teacher for support that even the easiest of tasks seem almost impossible for them to do on their own whether or not they are mentally and/or physically capable of it; therefore, they may never start or complete any task unless a teacher is close at hand to guide them along. It also implies that many students are capable of much more than what they let on, and in another environment may show much more in the way of independence and competence.

Today, I found this same concept used in relation to animals as part of passage which talked about the difference between industrially raised and organically raised pigs.

“A normal pig would fight off his molester, but a demoralized pig has stopped caring. ‘Learned helplessness’ is the psychological term, and it’s not uncommon in CAFOs, where tens of thousands of hogs spend their entire lives ignorant of earth or straw or sunshine, crowded together beneath a metal roof standing on metal slats suspended over a septic tank”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, p. 218

This is the first time I had seen this term used in this way. I particularly picked up on the idea of the pig who has “stopped caring,” to the extent that they are willing to put up with a higher level of abuse and confinement without much in the way of a fight. And I thought about all the students who have stopped caring and feel that doing school is just one of those things they have to do.

In this book, learned helplessness is seen as a tragic by-product of a horrific system which refuses to see pigs as anything other than a product. Whereas in schools, learned helplessness is seen as something that is more dependent on the psychological development of students than the school system itself.


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