Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Behaviorism and Education

I've been asked to do a review of Judith Rich Harris' "The Nurture Assumption," and I when I finish the book I will certainly do so. I would like to make some comments not on the book per se, but on one of the areas of psychology she criticizes -- behaviorism -- and its continuing detrimental effect on U.S. education.

The American education system is fundamentally based on the following quote from John B. Watson, whom Harris quotes. He claims that all we have to do is

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select -- doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors" (Harris, 6).

I suspect he might be able to accomplish the latter two, but, as Harris points out, he would have to somehow manage to raise IQ 20 points in most of his students in order to accomplish at least the first two.

As Harris points out, Watson was "expressing the basic belief of behaviorism: that children are malleable and that it is their environment, not innate qualities such as talent or temperament, that determines their destiny" (7). The basic theory most public schools work under is that of behaviorism -- which is really just one of the blank-slate theories of the human mind. Certainly Watson is right that what your parents do, etc. doesn't necessarily have anything to do with your abilities. My mother couldn't spell, and my father is almost illiterate due to (likely) severe dyslexia and is thus a coal miner, so one would not have expected them to create a professional writer, let alone a poet. On the other hand, one cannot discount genetics and the home environment, as my brother is dyslexic, like our father, and a visual artist, like our mother. Any myself? My mother read to me when I was young, which I have little doubt influenced my love of reading, especially as it resulted in my becoming literate at the age of 3 (this should give you some indication of what the future review of Harris' book will probably look like). Our father has a high IQ, which was sabotaged by his dyslexia.

The bottom line is this: no one can turn any child into anything they want. Each child has their own abilities, IQ, interests, etc. that have to be taken into consideration. Until the educational system understands this, they will continue to fail to educate our children.
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