Friday, January 25, 2013

On Walden Two

January 21, 2013

Mr. Skinner,

Accept my deepest appreciation for sending me a copy of your account of Walden Two.  It has been a while since I have read a truly fascinating book, but that fast has thankfully been broken.  Please take no offense at this, but I opened this work dead set on finding flaws, and while I certainly found some, I both thoroughly enjoyed your work and found it instructive on a variety of issues.  As much as I wished it otherwise at first, your community is certainly plausible, even if not compellingly so. 

Education today is a sad sham.  Whatever driving force it may have possessed is long vanished and its current movement is more a matter of inertia than intent.  We do it because that is what is done; the act has become its own justification.  Our curriculum is not designed to provide useful skills for life, or to create independent learners, but rather is imposed from a far away capitol uniformly across all youth to discover who is following the curriculum best.  But that is not a justification of what we teach, merely a sad bureaucratic tool used to measure "success."  But again, higher numbers are pointless until the curriculum is justified.  Teaching them more useless trivia is no better than less useless trivia.

As you have heard, I am currently outside of the professional education industry right now and working in a meat cutting shop.  The folks I work with are not only proud of their job and financially secure, they achieved it without a college degree and in some cases without finishing high school.  Within the school walls, such a career is not only not presented as a useful trade, but is often deployed as a specter to those not involved enough in the book learning.  I yield to nobody in my love of academics, but such a snobbish attitude is not only detrimental to less academic youths (being treated as second class) but is detrimental to society at large.  Jobs are sent overseas for a reason; often the skills are over there but not here. 

If this tide of centralization could be rolled back, it would be nice to see local education flex to the interests and talents of students rather than make futile attempts to bend students to a set way of teaching.  Provide the basics of math and reading, but there is no justification for demanding every youth learn Shakespeare.  None.  If a student is interested in mechanics or butchering, don't deride them; encourage them, and hook them up with those possessing the skills and willingness to teach them!  Let them learn not only the trade but the habits of reliability!  We may not be able to recreate your utopia here, but that alone would greatly improve our culture and society.  So many youths spend 12 years in school hearing they are inferior to the book worm and having their own talents trampled down and despised.  How can anyone be surprised that this recipe brews social disorder?

While being praised, the academically superior are equally done a disservice.  As you rightly notice, not everyone can learn any particular skill, but our quantified system requires teachers to do just that.  Their emphasis naturally falls on the struggling to get them to pass the state tests, which increasingly is the measure of the teacher's worth.  The gifted students are ignored and their potential atrophies.  I envy both your youths and teachers in Walden Two. 

I have but a minor quibble on education.  History does serve a purpose.  We cannot perform experiments in history, as you note, but we can apply inductive reasoning to past events to notice repeating patterns.  I do not know how Frazier could tackle societal problems until he first identified them.  That said, we short change philosophy in our current system, which may in fact be its worst flaw. 

As with Mr. More, I cannot tell how serious you are about implementing your own utopia.  I have not received any word of your actually attempting such a community or even having serious designs in motion.  It seems I owe you an answer as to whether or not I believe Walden Two would work and, if it is really a separate question at all, whether it ought to.  The first response is a clear no.  Though it feels convincing enough as read (especially with Frazier's constant insistence), I cannot help but believe this society is over engineered.  This is not a normative criticism, but rather a practical one.  Society is composed of too many moving parts to remain perfectly tuned.  Your society reminds me of tanks in WWII.  Allied vehicles were not as impressive individually as those of Nazi Germany, but they were mechanically reliable, whereas the Axis vehicles were amazing if and only if they were not waiting for some rare and expensive part to move.  Society as it stands is not necessarily pretty, but it has survived for 10,000 years.  One shock from the outside world would severely test the strength of such behavioral engineering, especially as so much relies on a herd mentality. 

You wisely begin your book a decade after the founding of Walden Two.  The ball is already rolling and the inertia of current human behavior has already been overcome, but how that can be done is exactly the hard question essential to the benevolent use of behavioral science.  Frazier rightly describes people as sheep wanting to be lead, but you were equally right in pointing to the string barrier the sheep would not cross.  Only the Fraziers of the world will be there at first, and a functioning society of such people is unthinkable, much less a utopia!

Some method would be required to fairly assign credit values to community work.  This has been the bane of socialist societies and cannot be dismissed. 

Regarding the pitiful state of democracy, I could hardly agree more.  Mr. Madison has summed up the problem of politics better than anyone: we need a government with sufficient power to impose rules that benefit all, but that same government thereby becomes a threat to us.  While I heartily agree with Mr. Thoreau that the government that governs least governs best, it is "best" in a general sense, and a government that rules absolutely is best for the rulers.  Frankly, I have no idea how to keep the Leviathan at bay, and all thought into a better life in liberty comes to nought as we are chased by this increasingly inscrutable dragon.  The men who respect the rights of others will arrive at about the same time as Plato's Noble King and Marx's New Man.  Economics may be the dismal science, but politics is truly the depressing one. 

I thank you again for your outstanding book.  Walden Two falls short of utopia, but I can hardly think of a lighter criticism.  Any student hungry for tough questions and decent social commentary will find a satisfactory meal here. 

With greatest appreciation, I am humbly yours,

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