Grad School’s Psychological Imprint Morphs into A Bigger Blind Spot Later On

Dig, if you will, a fathering, in the form of a folkloric, social psychological blindness, known as pluralistic ignorance.  Read an argument for how a hidden curriculum of pluralistic ignorance, that is acquired in grad school, impedes future action to make graduate education better.  In Leaving the Ivory Tower (2001) Barbara Lovitts uses the psychological defense called pluralistic ignorance to explain why some practices in graduate education, which don’t make sense to students, go unchallenged.  When pluralistic ignorance gets sewn into the fabric of graduate school, it goes on to blind the eyes of those staffing graduate education or those representing graduate students.


The Emperor and his men watch the spinners make the invisible fabric for his clothes.

Pluralistic ignorance works like the social psychology in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes.   Graduate students don’t want to appear stupid or ignorant. Students assume that everyone supports the status quo, save only them.  Students zip their lips to gain acceptance in an educational culture which has failed to take an interest in its practices. While all the residents of the kingdom know that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, none of them can say anything, not even to each other. The entire kingdom has too much to loose by speaking out.  The only one with nothing to lose, is a child, who finally bursts the bubble and announces, “The Emperor is not wearing any clothes”.   The child rescues the kingdom from a dangerous, shared delusion.

Pluralistic ignorance reigns still.  At the International Conference on Developments in Doctoral Education and Training in Oxford in March 2015, the keynote speaker, Dr. Debra Stewart, who is president emeritus of the Council of Graduate Schools, issued another ‘wake-up’ call.  Wake-up calls, which go unheeded and unheard, are oft-repeated throughout the history of graduate education studies.

Pluralistic ignorance writ large over careers in graduate education can not hear a wake-up call.  When a grad student acquires a pluralistic ignorance filter, that filter becomes part of the armamentarium going forward.  When these students take their place as supervisors, department heads, and deans, the reality shut out by pluralistic ignorance in grad school becomes a blind spot.  Graduate educators can not hear or heed wake-up calls because of the deafening and blinding that took root in grad school.

Whether pluralistic ignorance explains a lack of initiative on the academic front, ‘don’t ask’ offers a reasonable excuse.  Graduate student leaders, like other graduate students, may assume the mantle of pluralistic ignorance even as their experience tells them otherwise.  As such, graduate student advocacy bodies in Canada have achieved precious little in getting departments to change academic practices that do not serve their members.  Even with legions of former union  members, who add to the ranks of the high attrition statistic, pluralistic ignorance preempts action.  Let’s not notice, forms a tacit agreement between grad ed leaders.

Any sound program that looses 50% of students bears some responsibility for high attrition, save in the censure of ‘don’t ask’.  Pluralistic ignorance allows graduate students to leave their programs in shame, taking full responsibility.  What if  graduate students got proactive messages crafted by graduate student associations that in grad school students often assume more responsibility for academic struggles than is warranted?   Why haven’t grad associations crafted such messages?

Graduate programs escape responsibility for their failure to pay attention to the wake-up calls in high attrition statistics via the clamp of pluralistic ignorance.  Hence the ‘silent’ exit of grad students.  Silence, induced by shattering shame and self blame, fails to ring the alarm bell for the grad department and the graduate students’ association.  In exiting their program and blaming themselves, not their indifferent programs or unresponsive graduate students’ associations for failure, the drop-outs experience in grad school goes unaddressed.

A tacit trust between Canadian grad school leaders, from the dean to the graduate student leader, seems to exist that all is well with academic matters. Some Canadian graduate student associations lack and do not elect executives designated to represent the membership on academic matters.

Graduate student leadership awakened to academic issues briefly when a national graduate students association enjoyed brief support in the early years of the millennium. Unfortunately, Canadian GSAs withdrew their support, even though research undertaken by the organization specifically addressed graduate student concerns.  The research undertaken by the national association spoke to not gaps but holes in the literature.    Since then no cohesive efforts to address academic matters from a graduate student’s perspective have punctured the delirium of the shared delusion.  The blind spot persists.

Dig, if you will, a mothering, calling for graduate education leaders to say, “oh but the emperor is wearing no clothes.  Let’s put some real clothes on him.  Ah,  when first we practice to self-deceive, we doom the future for qui vive”.

See Wikipedia for the definition of pluralistic ignorance.