Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Purity of Speculation

In J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003), which I am teaching this week, the title character discusses experiments performed on apes in 1917. In one experiment to determine mental capacity, food is withheld from an ape named Sultan, a bunch of bananas are hung on a wire three meters above the ground in Sultan's pen, and three wooden crates are brought into the pen.
'Sultan knows: Now one is supposed to think. That is what the bananas up there are about. The bananas are there to make one think, to spur one to the limits of one's thinking. But what must one think? One thinks: Why is he starving me? One thinks: What have I done? Why has he stopped liking me? One thinks: Why does he not want these crates any more? But none of these is the right thought. Even a more complicated thought -- for instance: What is wrong with him, what misconception does he have of me, that leads him to believe it is easier for me to reach a banana hanging from a wire than to pick up a banana from the floor? -- is wrong. The right thought to think is: How does one use the crates to reach the bananas?' ....

'At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied....' (p. 72-73)
Such a poignant vision of what behaviorism looks like to its subjects as they must limit and reduce their thoughts to meet the low and limited expectations of their trainers! The account of Sultan's first "wrong" thoughts reminds me of one of my mom's methods of punishing misbehavior: we were told to "go to your room and think about it," and we later joked as a family that of course what we thought about during the brief banishment was anything but our actual transgression. Thoughts are wayward.

The experiment on Sultan is not meant to be a punishment; it is meant to measure what he knows, his powers of thinking. But he experiences it as punishment (What have I done?), as a withdrawal of affection (Why has he stopped liking me?), as a profound misunderstanding of his nature (What misconception does he have of me?). Given this account of the experience of behaviorism, I was so saddened by the recent light article in the New York Times about parents who apply Dog Whisperer tactics to their children as if they are merely animals to control. I don't know a thing about dogs, but I suspect Elizabeth Costello would find the use of such tactics on both dogs and children unjust.

I want both in my university classes and in my parenting not to create situations in which there is a single "right" thought or response, but to foster "the purity of speculation." Just as Elizabeth Costello calls for us to sympathize with Sultan, I want to sympathize with my students and with my son, to be open to all their ways of thinking.


Lucinda said...

I found that NY Times article disheartening, too! It reminded me of how a lot of my former teacher colleagues conditioned their students by praising when they did the "right" thing and withdrawing when they did the "wrong" thing. It's hard to break that pattern when most of us grew up in that type of environment, and many people went through that type of school environment, too. It seems like you all are your way to figuring it out.

P.S. Hooray for the unschool!

Fanny Harville said...

Lucinda -- yes, exactly! Thanks for commenting!!