Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kids as machines

Aristotle argued that a falling body accelerated because it grew more jubilant as it found itself nearer home, and later authorities supposed that a projectile was carried forward by an impetus, something called an “impetuosity.” All this was eventually abandoned, and to good effect, but the behavioral sciences still appeal to comparable internal states. No one is surprised to hear it said that a person carrying good news walks more rapidly because he feels jubilant, or acts carelessly because of his impetuosity, or hold stubbornly to a course of action through sheer force of will. Careless references to purpose are still to be found in both physics and biology, but good practice has no place for them; yet almost everyone attributes human behavior to intentions, purposes, aims, and goals.
--B.F. Skinner, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971

I remember how eye-opening I found that paragraph when I first read it, as a college student. The idea that human behavior might be understood as governed by physical laws in the same way that falling objects are; that even the most “consciously chosen” act might be the unavoidable effect of some preceding cause; that “intentions, purposes, aims, and goals” and even free will itself might be an illusion -- this was enough to keep a good liberal arts student up at night. For a time I was so fascinated with Skinner that once, finding myself in Boston, I called him -- he was in his eighties but still working at MIT -- and asked him to lunch. (He declined.) 

It’s tempting, in retrospect, to compare my reaction to Skinner with this scene from Animal House:


But that would be too harsh on my younger self. I still think Skinner’s ideas are thought-provoking, but I don’t believe -- and never did -- that we can better understand our fellow human beings by focusing only on behavior and by discarding the concept of the mind. 

Somehow, of all the philosophies that mankind has developed over the millennia, Skinner’s behaviorism -- which sees the mind as an illusion -- is the one that now rules the world of education. My kids’ school, for example, like schools nationwide, tries to get the kids to comply with school rules not by reasoning with them or engaging them in the process of developing moral standards, but by simply rewarding the behaviors the school wants. What difference does it make why the children are complying? Intentions, purposes, aims, and goals aren’t real. 

The behaviorists’ central idea -- that people’s thoughts and feelings don’t matter -- has taken on a life of its own in educational practice and policy. It’s reflected, for example, in the “more is better” philosophy: if six hours of daily instruction is good, just think what seven or eight could do! There’s no reason to inquire whether the children might be bored, or whether they might rebel against this forced instruction, or whether it might teach them that learning is an aversive chore, or whether they should be given more autonomy over their own learning. Much of our educational debate today assumes that the kids are essentially machines: we just need to decide what we want them to learn, and then make them learn those things. If you suggest that we should consider how this type of education makes the children feel, and what values it instills in them, you will be seen as soft-headed, sentimental, unscientific -- you know, like Aristotle. 

For all its influence on educators, behaviorism hasn’t transformed society as Skinner dreamed it would. Even under our now absurdly lowered goals -- can we achieve short-term increases in standardized test scores? -- it has no great success to claim. But I’ll give it this: we sure have moved beyond freedom and dignity. .


FedUpMom said...

Chris -- it's not just the emphasis on behavior that bugs me -- it's the way the school's demands are unquestioned.

It's all compliance, all the time. Nobody's asking whether the school's demands are reasonable in the first place.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- me too. I do think that part of the problem is that at some level people have mistaken behaviorism for a philosophy (I even called it one, above), when really it's just a way to understand how things work. It's no more of a philosophy than the law of gravity is; it gives you no reason to prefer one state of affairs over another. So questions about values -- like, What are we teaching with all this emphasis on compliance? and, Should we be demanding these things of children? -- end up dropping out of the discussion entirely.

StepfordTO said...

Chris -- The problem we have in our school system is slightly different. Our board thinks of itself as progressive, and would never admit to adhering to any kind of behaviourist "philosopy" of education. But it's still very much part of the hidden curriculum. In fact, it's everywhere, but nobody acknowledges it. (What are awards ceremonies at graduation, for instance, if not an expression of behaviourist pedagogy?) At least in your district it seems as if the behaviorist impulses are up front. That may make them a little easier to challenge.

Chris said...

You may be right, northTOmom -- but sometimes I wish that the hidden curriculum were a little better hidden . . .