Phyllis Beveridge Nissila
Back in 1969-70 I was assigned a student work-study position through the University of Oregon at Pearl Buck Center, a local facility serving physically and mentally challenged individuals. This was before “mainstreaming;” , our clients included individuals ranging from then-defined “mild” to “severe,” mentally and/or physically “retarded/handicapped”.
I was part of an initial group of work-study students and faculty members who were participants in something called “Precision Teaching,” a behavior modification model of education via a system of “rewarding desirable behavior” and “extinguishing undesirable behavior”. It was based on “observable” actions only and was deemed innovative in that outcomes were not just based on competency but also on speed and recurrence.
Precision Teaching incorporated some of the work of B.F. Skinner, one of the so-called pioneers of modern behaviorism* who, after having rejected the idea of free will, or a soul, developed his own theory of the how and why humans behave the way they do–by responding primarily to environmental cues.
At the conclusion of my training and subsequent work assignments in Precision Teaching, I received a “certificate” citing me as the 9th recipient of same. I thought little of it, however, although I kept it for resume purposes, if it would bear any weight, for a future teaching career that began in special education. It is now somewhere in my work archives and listed on my early teaching resumes. But I think of it now for different purposes.
But Wait a Minute…Observable Behavior Only?
One of those purposes is something I deduced very early on in my PT training: “environmental factors” are not the only causes of behavior. I once asked my trainer what if a student who, say, because of a “hidden” visual impairment might not see a “straight line” in a geometric shape as “straight,” but “crooked” (say, if the person had early stages of macular degeneration)? Thus, for that student, the “crooked line” was seen as “correct” and he or she would have to modify his/her behavior to report what was observably “incorrect” in order to be “rewarded” (M&Ms were popular “rewards” for “right answers,” at least in one of our programs)?
But such questions were written off as not part of the analysis according to this model. And, of course, being a lowly college sophomore, what did I know?
But I wasn’t the only one who had some misgivings–more specifically, some “work arounds.” I recall very vividly two clients who had it figured out, too, in each, their own ways, regardless of their “handicap labels”.
What Lily and Kenny Knew, Too
The first who always comes to mind was “Lily,” I will call her. Lily was a “moderately retarded” young woman who possessed a gentle, sweet disposition. However, shortly after the institution of Precision Teaching–and its reward system for “goal behavior” (mostly the M&Ms)–she began to swear like a sailor, as the expression goes. When asked why (before any “modification efforts” began to change her back) she said “I want some candy, too.”
A fellow classmate of hers, who was on a behavior mod program for a mouth even fouler than hers was fast becoming, had been receiving quite a few M&Ms for reducing his output and, despite her “retardation level,” Lily had figured it out. I knew I blew the data, but she got some M&Ms anyway.
Another student, “Kenny,” referenced here, remains on my mind for a very different reason.
Kenny hollered, out of the blue, one day, in the van on the way to swimming lessons: “You people plant us in the soil you want so we grow the way you want us to.” His “label” was a combination of mental and developmental issues that included random, violent outbursts. His “reaction,” as I think of it, on the behavior modification program he was “on” at the moment (to stop the outbursts) spoke volumes to me, and became one of my guiding principles as an instructor. More importantly, one of my guiding principles as a fellow human being.
So I did not long stay in the camp of “observable data only” when it came to both learning–and teaching–behavior.
So what does all that have to do with what I call “meme control”?
Memes, which I view as, in part, a more modern form of behavior modification–for good or for ill–via graphics and/or graphics and word combos, to me are akin to the old Precision Teaching pedagogy of long ago in that they both rely upon not only accuracy of “goal behavior” (be it correct or like the student with visual impairment, technically incorrect) but also speed.
PT and memes are also alike in that neither regard “successful behavior” as a one-off or outlier event, relying, rather, on the core component of repetition. But with memes, any “modification”–for good, bad, manipulation, or control–can be done far faster what with the power of slide-by news on iPhones, iPads, and other such gadgets. On how this kind of control occurs, and its potency, see related commentary here and here.
Thus, I would upgrade a lot of “mind control” these days to “meme control,” which is far more efficient, faster, and easier to replicate–and modify as needed.
And, to the focal point of this discussion, I believe memes are playing a big part in political extremism, just now, keeping emotions on edge, tempers inflamed, and citizens dangerously divided–barely able to communicate, anymore, amid the rancor, and just when it is so essential to do so.
But just as there are lowly college sophomores educated to date with little more than common sense and basic logic and others who also possess, from regions somewhere in the mind, emotions, or, gasp, the soul (sorry, B. F.), there will always be questions.
And it is good to have–and to explore–questions.
However, with regard to the “long view,” the eternal view, that is, I believe it is essential to pray for discernment and strength to avoid the temptation to become mired in the mud of vitriol that shuts out the “soul” that was such anathema to Skinner, but that is so necessary for the survival of civilizations and–more importantly–the people who comprise them, no matter their age, status, or political affiliation.
*From the Wiki citations: “Skinner considered free will an illusion and human action dependent on consequences of previous actions. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger. Skinner called this the principle of reinforcement. ”
Skinner was also the author of Walden II a Utopian tale that bred some controversy “because its characters speak of a rejection of free will, including a rejection of the proposition that human behavior is controlled by a non-corporeal entity, such as a spirit or a soul. … (It) embraces the proposition that the behavior of organisms, including humans, is determined by environmental variables, and that systematically altering environmental variables can generate a sociocultural system that very closely approximates utopia.” (Wiki)
In other words, according to B.F. and the Precision Teaching innovators, if you can’t see it or measure it, it doesn’t exist–because there might be too much “ambiguity” of analysis including, I would assume, that which over arches all, emanating from a certain Spirit that, like the wind, “blows where it wishes. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going,” the same (Holy) Spirit that exists far from the madding machinations of mankind that quests for control, leaving broken minds, hearts, and relationships in their wake.