B. F. Skinner: Gnostic Pneumopath or Educator Extraordinaire?

Voegelinview. http://voegelinview.com/b-f-skinner-gnostic-pneumopath-or-educator-extraordinaire/

This study pursues the questions, “What conception of human nature is presented in B. F. Skinner’s educational theory of behaviourism? Is this understanding of human nature adequate, and what are the implications of such an understanding?” The use of incentives, disincentives, and punishments has always played an important role in education. Educational theorists have long recognized that human beings are motivated a great deal by goods for their consequences. Naturally, teachers are attracted to Skinner’s theory of behaviourism, which attempts in a systematic way to demonstrate the power of positive and negative reinforcements, as well as punishment to assist in the education of students. However, Skinner’s theory of behaviourism, while recognizing that goods may be desired for their consequences, denies that goods may properly be desired for themselves apart from their consequences, or that goods may be desired both for themselves and for their consequences. These denials arise out of Skinner’s theory of human nature, which is deterministic and positivistic.

If it is found that Skinner’s behavioural theory misrepresents human nature, then what are the effects of this misrepresentation in practice? This paper endeavours to render accurately Skinner’s theory of human nature, and to evaluate its content through philosophical inquiry. It is argued that the denial of freedom in favour of complete determinism that is made explicit in Skinner’s behaviourism, if it is practically applied by teachers in the classroom, could lead to an inability to distinguish between goods or courses of action among students. Skinner’s determinism focuses upon the results of actions and the benefits or consequences of goods, but dismisses inquiry into “the good” as a “mentalistic” error. Application of an educational ideology that does not recognize freedom of thought, but sees only determinism in action can result in students learning to judge matters merely by their effects; means may be made uncritically subordinate to ends, and inquiry into the “good” of any particular means, end, or subject of inquiry, is effectively prohibited where all investigation of “substance” rather than “phenomena” is dismissed as mentalistic error. This study will be important for the practice of teachers insofar as it examines to what extent Skinner’s theory helps us understand the nature of teaching and education, and to what extent his theory serves to deceive us about the nature of teaching and education.

The argumentation in this paper follows a dialectical form. Having first rendered accurately Skinner’s theory of behaviourism, I proceed to evaluate this theory by drawing upon the insights of the political philosopher Eric Voegelin concerning gnosticism, positivism, and pneumopathology. Is Voegelin’s critique of positivism as a gnostic pneumopathology legitimately applied to Skinner’s behaviourism? Having applied Voegelin’s insights about positivism to Skinner’s behaviourism as an evaluative tool, I offer some critical judgements of Skinner’s theory and its implications for educational practice.

(My publication)Posted:Jul 01 2015, 01:00 AM by sdsteel
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