The Underground History Of American Education - Chapter 13

Posted on 05/30/2005 in misc

In chapter 13, Gatto explores the influence on BF Skinner and Behavioralism in the school system. To refresh your memory, behavioralism is the theory that we are all born as blank slates, and what we become is merely the sum total of our experiences. The connection to the schools should be obvious. If we are all blank slates, it should be easy to manage how we turn out. It's that pursuit of utopia that has come up in several chapters.

Skinner, by the way, was a real winner.

...B.F. Skinner, that most famous of all behaviorists from Harvard. Skinner was then rearing his own infant daughter in a closed container with a window, much like keeping a baby in an aquarium, a device somewhat mis-described in the famous article "Baby in a Box," (Ladies Home Journal, September 28, 1945).

Skinner's influence went way beyond the schools. This concept that humans were blank slates to be programmed was the defining psychological mantra of the 20th century.

I suspect not many parents look at their offspring as empty vessels because contradictory evidence accumulates from birth, but the whole weight of our economy and its job prospects is built on the outlook that people are empty, or so plastic it's the same thing.

Looking back at my college days - I'm starting to understand what I really studied in Organizational Leadership and Supervision. It was nothing more than applied behavioralism. My degree program may have been in the School of Technology, but when you really strip back the covers, I was a Psych major.

As behavioralism took over, it became obvious that we were all screwed up. Blank slates could not be allowed to develop in the wild. We needed trained professionals to make sure we turned out OK. The late 40's / early 50's was when schools started becoming more about mental health services and less about reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Reading the text "Proceedings of the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth," we learn that school has "responsibility to detect mental disabilities which have escaped parental or pre-school observation." Another huge duty it had was the need to "initiate all necessary health services through various agencies." Still another, to provide "counseling services for all individuals at all age levels. In 1962, an NIMH-sponsored report, "The Role of Schools in Mental Health," stated unambiguously, "Education does not mean teaching people to know." (emphasis added) What then? "It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave," a clear echo of the Rockefeller Foundation?s "dream" from an earlier part of the century (See page 45). Schools were behavioral engineering plants; what remained was to convince kids and parents there was no place to hide.

Looking back on my time in school, it's easy to see this boulder rolling downhill. The end result is predictable and exactly what you would expect. Having let the psychologists take over the schools, the schools have become much more concerned about kids feelings and self-esteem and for the most part, nobody cares if Johnny can read. What's important is that Johnny is ok with the fact that he can't read, and understands that it's not his fault.

It can never be his fault.

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