Sunday, January 29

Is you is or is you ain't my ism?

I started writing this as a reply to Don’s message about behaviourism (see below) and the link to the film. It quickly got too long to be a simple reply and so I’m posting it here.

I love the whole idea – and social practice -- of taking an obvious truth and setting up elaborate experiments to prove it. The real art is to leave people with the impression that you've summed up everything that needs to be said about the subject simply because you have proved that what is obvious is true. People are not only paid to create this proof of the obvious, but they even make careers out of it. And it doesn't stop there: the clever ones can turn it into an "ism".

Do you realize how many people would be unemployed if this wasn’t the case (today as well as in 1948)? But the benefits to society as a whole are even greater. By turning their obvious truth into an ism clever scientists stimulated the economy. How many people that then made careers out of studying the ism (and extending its scope) would have been absolutely idle (and on welfare) if it hadn’t existed?

Behaviorism is the one of the star isms of the 20th century. If I were a historian, I would call the 20th century the “century of isms”. A few years ago I visited an exhibition on early 20th century art at the Gropius museum in Berlin with Jay Cross and was particularly struck by the fact that in the period represented (roughly 1900 to 1930) every artist seemed to belong to an ism, or created one as a brand for his innovative style. Many of them I had never heard of.

Behaviorism teaches us that you can’t learn without motivation and that motivation can be associated with the pleasure (and pain) principle. From there it’s easy – and “scientifically necessary” (question of good marketing) -- to maintain that this accounts for everything, since pleasure and pain can be found everywhere. But it’s like saying I drink wine because it contains water (which it does) and quenches my thirst (which it also does).

Behaviorists would be right if they maintained that the same thing that drives rats in cages applies to people with ipods and cell-phones.. or enough money to buy a bottle of wine. It does. But the same thing that applies to wine and that goes beyond pleasure and pain (sociability, loss of inhibitions, poetic inspiration, a bright tunnel towards the ultimate truth, etc) applies to our use of anything that serves either educational or recreational purposes. Much of our pleasure is communion; much of our pain is boredom. Bored rats – as the film shows us – are called, not “bored” but “satisfied”. They lie down and wait to be hungry again or to receive a shock from a sadistic researcher. They don’t go looking for an ipod or obsessively consult their e-mails.

What strikes me as being particularly significant is the fact that, with or without the behaviorists, we have always known that motivation conditions whether people learn or fail to learn. The most surprising fact –where is the bar that releases the food pellets? – is that nobody seems to be motivated to understand where motivation comes from. Maslow gave us some hints: it comes from needs (perceived or unconscious) which stretch across Maslow’s full range, whether hierarchical or not. But it also contains a lot of mysterious (because repressed) components that Maslow didn't try to describe.

If only we knew what these mysterious components were or where they come from! I would suggest we start looking at what I call the sense of “identity” (personal, social, professional), a permanently evolving entity or bundle of beliefs that is nevertheless based on some deeply stable elements (personality, culture, social status, etc.). By failing to take into account this major factor, the officially recognized pleasure and pain involved in learning become superficial or trivial and we’re left wondering why the planned training didn’t work (face to face, eLearning or simulation, it matters little).

Take the ipod example. It’s mostly (but not always) a solitary pleasure, but if it wasn’t a social phenomenon how many people would be so hooked on it and especially organize a significant part of their lives around it? There is an ipod culture, which I still know precious little about, but I sense it is seriously emerging. I'll leave the commentary to others, in order to further my own social learning.

If we knew how to explore these phenomena (or cared enough to know), we might be able to begin to assess the factors that are at play in social and informal learning. Behaviorism encourages us to focus on single, isolated learning goals: how to get the pellet to fall or to stop the electric shock. Social and informal learning embrace a quantity of associated (and often necessarily associated) goals in a much more holistic framework. Why not go for the whole instead of the parts. Open up the bright tunnel towards truth. Or to quote Jon Hendricks, "Gimme my wine".

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