"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Monday, April 18, 2011

When behavioral psychology was king

Behavioral psychology was all the rage in the mid-1970s. I'm not sure what kind of currency it has today. Academia is famous for moving from one set of buzzwords to another.
It's not as if we'd ever want to reject behavioral psychology. Behavioral psychology is simply the epitome of common sense. It suggests that human behavior is learned.
It states that we repeat behavior that is "reinforced," for which we get positive feedback and have a positive outcome.
We seek not to repeat behavior that. . . Ah, you know the rest.
It seems awfully fundamental. But it was presented to young people in the 1970s as if it were revelatory.
I remember feeling puzzled at the time. No one doubts that we are more likely to repeat behaviors for which we have a favorable outcome.
What a child of six might ask next, is whether this simple statement of principle explains all human behavior. Academia in the 1970s insisted it did. It was fiercely enunciated.
If you even shared a suspicion about whether the principle was overly simple, the glaring eyes of some Caesar in his palace professor might come down on you.
I remember a professor who trashed a textbook he assigned in his own class. I would guess he was required to assign it. It was a psychology professor co-teaching a course in the education department (for aspiring teachers, where I dabbled for a short time).
This professor was mesmerized by behavioral psychology. He needed to be de-programmed. Someone needed to grab him by the shoulders and shake him.
He gave out a quiz in which all he did is ask questions about whether the author had adequately explained the basis for kids' behavior.
The psychology of adolescence must be fascinating. I gather that the book was quite good. But the professor kept drumming it into our heads that it was worthless.
Because when all is said and done, in his mind, all you have to know about adolescent behavior or anyone's behavior is behavioral psychology. It could fit on one page. Or in one sentence.
"Human behavior is learned."
Mr. Spock of Star Trek might appreciate this. But not Dr. McCoy. These two would spar on behavior issues.
"Stop thinking with your glands," Spock would scold McCoy.
We have learned a lot about how different parts of the brain affect who we are. All things being equal, we repeat behavior that is rewarded. But it's foolish to subscribe to this one principle and then depart from the discussion.
The one principle was popular in the '70s because academic types like revelatory things.
"Forget about what you think you know." Academia has the real answers. Actually academia has to pretend it has the real answers in order to command attention, which in turn is based on the really fundamental motivation here: getting funding.
It usually comes down to money.
When the realization grew that science and math were the keys to bettering our world, the humanities were stunned. Then the humanities tried to adapt. To the extent they could, they hitched their wagon to the scientific framework. The language of science crept in.
In poetry we'd learn about "iambic pentameter" and other such models, approaching structure in the manner a scientist would.
A friend of mine says she's studying "library science." Really? Aren't you just learning to be a librarian?
People learned that aping the sciences was the key to being considered relevant. Which is profoundly sad because the humanities have a richness that ought to sell itself.
Academia is a game of getting attention and money, especially the latter. I do think there is more accountability now.
The 1970s were atypical because America was in a mood of resignation. A recent promo for the movie "Blazing Saddles" stated "America was in decline" at the time this Mel Brooks movie came out. The movie lampooned a once-revered movie genre. So did "Young Frankenstein."
America had lost a war, the economy was bad and Watergate seemed to make us terminally cynical. So academia wasn't as inclined to lean on the old answers anymore.
Academia flailed around looking for a way out. Society and the people who ran colleges didn't seem to mind. Marxist principles were peddled unapologetically.
I remember reading an op-ed in the '70s (probably before the term "op-ed" even came into being) by a writer who really seemed to notice what was going on. He wrote that colleges had come to see themselves as "a refuge from a materialistic world."
"And that's not right," he opined.
I was there, witnessing all the swirling ideas seeking to deconstruct America, and can vouch for what that op-ed writer asserted.
Many of us disdained the business world. But if we weren't going to harness capitalism to ultimately live a comfortable life, why were we in college?
Why did these campuses even exist? How did they get built up to begin with if it didn't have something to do with American economic principles? What kind of future were we really envisioning?
Finally we had the Jimmy Carter "malaise."
America had to forget the failures of the 1970s and simply move on. That's exactly what happened, to the point where boomers who once exuded the hippie ethos (of eschewing materialism) put money in the stock market and came to see Republican politicians as something other than lizards. Many of them became Republicans and maybe even tea partiers.
You see, once people begin acquiring their own assets, they get suspicious of collectivism.
"I am my brother's keeper?" Forget it, my brother can get a voucher to purchase private health insurance.
We promoted egalitarianism in the 1970s. It turned out to be just an experiment.
Today we fully realize that General George Patton was right, that America loves winners and despises losers.
What I'm waiting for is the realization that this ethos taken to its grotesque extreme could take down America. That would not be very reinforcing.
Let's be reinforced by the principle of being our brother's keeper. In that event, behavioral psychology will be fine by me.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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