Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock

Walden Two and Beyond Freedom

    While completing my doctorate in 1981, I read an article in Science by B.F. Skinner titled “Selection by Consequences.” It closely mirrored concepts described by Jacob Bronowski in “New Concepts in the Evolution of Complexity.” I wrote to the famous Harvard professor and included Bronowski’s essay. He was a world-famous founder of behaviorism. I was a nobody. So I did not expect an answer. I was wrong.

    He responded with respect, and indicating that “operant conditioning serves as a bridge between natural selection and cultural evolution.” And from his perspective, what he had read indicated that Bronowski “was not free of some troublesome mentalism.” Indeed, he would say that most of us were into mentalism, which meant any idea that human behavior was anything beyond stimulus-response conditioning. Skinner was the most prominent proponent of behaviorism. His ideas were dominant in the 1960s to 1980s, and they continue to permeate Education Schools today.

    B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) was a professor in the Department of Psychology and Social Relations at Harvard University from 1985 until he retired in 1974. But obviously he continued on working at his Harvard office. Ivan Pavlov’s first worked on training that determined dogs’ responses and won a Nobel Prize in 1904. John B. Watson then advanced such studies early in the 20th century. But B.F. Skinner was easily the major proponent of behaviorism and conditioned responses, using operant conditioning (rewards or reinforcement) to train animals in what are today called “Skinner boxes.”

    While Skinner wrote a total of 21 books, his early publication of “Walden Two” in 1948, with added commentary 28 years later, was major. It was ignored for a dozen years, and then gained recognition and sold a million copies. This utopia permeated Education Schools, the training of new teachers, and resulted in some limited curricular reforms. In this novel, Skinner uses a guide named Frazier to escort visitors through Walden Two where education follows Skinner’s vision of a perfect school and society.     
    Skinner argues against large cities. He includes considerable ecology in his utopian proposal, including the need to not only reduce human consumption, but also the number of consumers. He advocates eating more nutritious grain instead of meat, and better contraception (the birth control pill would be approved in 1960). All of Walden Two’s strategies clearly spring from behaviorism.

    -A four-hour work day becomes standard because we are more productive in our first hours of work.

    -Food trays are transparent so they can be washed, rinsed and dried when only viewed from one side.

    -Power lawn mower so are wasteful; use goats instead.
    -Eliminate most educational administrative machinery.

    -No distinction is made between respect for plumbers and medical doctors.
    But other aspects of Walden Two caused many readers to set the book aside.

    -There is no need to delay childbirth. Being a mother by age 18 would be common in Walden Two.

    -And all members of the Walden Two community serve as parents to all children, thus dramatically altering the concept of family and spreading responsibility to all.

     Yet Walden Two remained in the background to provide rationale for several educational concepts. There were no grade levels, so some students of varied ages worked together on class projects since they varied in the skill levels they had achieved. I used this rationale to help develop our middle school science curriculum into a set of many 9-week mini-courses the students selected. It was a wonderful system and students attended because they had chosen the topic. But it was soon canceled by the “back to basics” fad. And today, the standardization of 2001 No Child Left Behind and ESSA has reduced schools to teach-to-the-test assembly lines, in 180 degrees opposition to Skinner’s ideas.

    Skinner drew considerable opposition from a variety of younger sociologists, psychologists and philosophers. In 1971, Skinner authored a series of essays in “Beyond Freedom & Dignity” that discusses his philosophy without having to set it in a fictional setting, and in turn uses the essays to answer criticisms from other sociologists and philosophers. Our huge and growing population means that we can no longer afford freedom, and society will have to “condition” citizens to cooperate. He concludes that “man himself may be controlled by his environment, but it is an environment which is almost wholly of his own making.”