Becoming Skinner

I’ve been thinking lately about the available roles in the intellectual community, and my relative capacity and inclination to fill the same. To put it more concisely, I’ve been debating whether or not I’d want to be a “Skinner.” In the short term, of course that’s exactly what you’d want to be—a leading researcher in the field, making discoveries, laying down theory, breaking ground and more than breaking even. But, though every Psychology of Learning class in every university in the country covers him, his pure mechanism approach to human behavior is all but laughed at today. So, in the long term being a Skinner looks like a decided disadvantage.

Yet as I flipped through the course packet while reviewing for the exam the other day, the case for being a Skinner got a little stronger: That infuriatingly arrogant article on “Why We Need Teaching Machines” had more underlines, more notes in the margin, more question marks and asterisks and cross-references than anything else we had read. I had arguably put more into reading that piece than any of the more measured arguments in the collection, and it had certainly spurred more questions, more thought, more debate.

And given that questions, thought and debate are exactly what’s most required to move a discipline forward, to induce change and foment rebellion, perhaps a “Skinner” is exactly what I want to be. Perhaps taking passionate, more-convicted-than-you-could-possibly-be stands that move the discipline forward is worth looking arrogant, short-sighted, and foolish several decades down the line…

  1. Blake

    Careful – Skinner was not mechanistic. That would be Watson. Maybe it is your professors or textbooks that make Skinner look foolish, but how many of Skinner’s actual writings have you read? Actually I agree that some of his writings are arrogant, however, there are many of us in the Skinner tradition who are emerging and embracing thinking, problem solving, emotion, etc. – all of which were embraced, incidentally, by Skinner himself.

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