Thursday, April 15, 2010

Absence of Mind

One of the disturbing aspects of behavioral rewards systems like PBIS -- as these Connecticut parents point out -- is that they put “little or no emphasis on dealing with why the individual child is behaving unacceptably.” One doesn’t ask why a trained seal prefers to swim around than to spin a ball on its nose; one just pulls out the clicker and the barrel of treats and goes to work. So the same principles apply to “teaching” our kids to behave.

I thought about this aspect of PBIS as I read Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Absence of Mind. Her thesis:

I propose that the core assumption that remains unchallenged and unquestioned through all the variations within the diverse traditions of “modern” thought is that the experience and testimony of the individual mind is to be explained away, excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human being and of being altogether.

What Robinson sees as the most distinctive feature of our species -- the conscious mind -- is now disparaged by many as a mere illusion, a kind of unreliable narrator, serving mainly to trick the body into pursuing whatever will propagate its genes to the next generation. Robinson makes the case that these understandings of the human mind, and of human nature, are inadequate, and that their claims to being comprehensive explanations of the human condition are comically overblown. Unsurprisingly, Robinson includes, on her list of such modern schools of thought, the behaviorists.

Which raises the question: What does it say about a society when the task of education, of all things, is turned over to people who believe in the fundamental unimportance of the conscious mind?

..How can I comment?