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An American Affidavit

Sunday, August 30, 2015

161. Behaviorists: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org


To understand empty child theory, you have to visit with behaviorists. Their meal ticket 
was hastily jerry-built by the advertising agency guru John Watson and by Edward Lee 
Thorndike, founder of educational psychology. Watson's "Behaviorist Manifesto" (1913) 
promoted a then novel utilitarian psychology whose "theoretical goal is the prediction 
and control of behavior." Like much that passes for wisdom on the collegiate circuit, their 
baby was stitched together from the carcasses of older ideas. Behaviorism (Thorndike's 
version, stillborn, was called "Connectionism") was a purified hybrid of Wilhelm 
Wundt's laboratory at Leipzig and Comte's positivism broadcast in the pragmatic idiom 

of the Scottish common-sense philosophers. We needn't trace all the dead body parts 
pasted together to sigh at the claim of an originality which isn't there — reminiscent of 
Howard Gardner's fashion as seer of multiple intelligence theory — an idea as ancient as 
the pyramids. 

Behaviorists read entrails; they spy on the movements of trapped and hopeless animals, 
usually rats or pigeons. This gives an advantage over other psychologists of standing on a 
pile of animal corpses as the emblem of their science. The study of learning is their chief 
occupation: how rats can be driven to run a maze or press a bar with the proper schedule 
of reward and punishment. Almost from the start they abjured the use of the terms reward 
and punishment, concluding that these beg the question. Who is to say what is rewarding 
except the subject? And the subject tells us more credibly with his future behavior than 
with his testimony. You can only tell whether a reward is truly rewarding from watching 
future behavior. This accurate little semantic curve ball allows a new discipline to grow 
around the terms "positive reinforcement" (reward) and "negative reinforcement" 

Behavior to behaviorists is only what can be seen and measured; there is no inner life. 
Skinner added a wrinkle to the simpler idea of Pavlovian conditioning from which 
subsequent libraries of learned essays have been written, when he stated that the stimulus 
for behavior is usually generated internally. In his so-called "operant" conditioning, the 
stimulus is thus written with a small "s" rather than with a Pavlovian capital "S." So 
what? Just this: Skinner's lowercase, internal "s" leaves a tiny hole for the ghost of free 
will to sneak through! 

Despite the furor this created in the world of academic psychology, the tempest-in-a- 
teapot nature of lowercase/uppercase stimuli is revealed from Skinner's further assertion 
that these mysterious internal stimuli of his can be perfectly controlled by manipulating 
exterior reinforcements according to proper schedules. In other words, even if you do 
have a will (not certain), your will is still perfectly programmable! You can be brought to 
love Big Brother all the same. 

The way I came to the attention of Dr. Keller's teaching assistants was by writing a 
program to cause coeds to surrender their virginity behaviorally without realizing they 
had been scored, with an operant conditioning program. My blueprint delighted the 
assistants. Copies were prepared and sent informally to other colleges; one went, I 
believe, to Skinner himself. When I look back on my well-schooled self who played this 
stupid prank I'm disgusted, but it should serve as a warning how an army of grown-up 
children was and still is encouraged to experiment on each other as a form of higher-level 
modern thinking. An entire echelon of management has been trained in the habit of 
scientific pornography caught by the title of the Cole Porter song, "Anything Goes." 

Behaviorism has no built-in moral brakes to restrain it other than legal jeopardy. You 
hardly have to guess how irresistible this outlook was to cigarette companies, proprietary 
drug purveyors, market researchers, hustlers of white bread, bankers, stock salesmen, 
makers of extruded plastic knick-knacks, sugar brokers, and, of course, to men on 

horseback and heads of state. A short time after I began as a behaviorist, I quit, having 
seen enough of the ragged Eichmannesque crew at Columbia drawn like iron filings to 
this magnetic program which promised to simplify all the confusion of life into 
underlying schemes of reinforcement. 


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