An American Character

I read B.F. Skinner's Walden Two when I was in high school & it chilled me to the bone. (Pretty sure I also read Naked Lunch that year.) It reminded me of my own fundamentalist milieu minus the religion. My step-father actually tried to use a Skinnerian device to educate me at one point. This would have been in the mid-sixites. The thing was a beige plastic square about 18 inches across & less than an inch thick that you held on your lap. It came with hundreds of circular paper inserts that could be fitted into the device & rotated so that a question or a fact would pop into a little window (I have long forgotten the details), at which point one was to pull a lever or make a mark. . . I can't remember now what the reward was for memorizing all the facts (There's supposed to be a reward, right?), but I know the thing was soon relegated to the back of a closet. I wish we hadn't moved around so much & that I still had it -- it'd be worth a fortune on eBay. Perhaps that is why I always had such an aversion to the sort of lists of necessary knowledge published by E.D. Hirsch back during the culture wars. While at the same time yearning to be a master of all those tidbits of info. Nevertheless, I think I would have liked Katherine Kinkade, who died last week. As a rule, utopians are a layabouts with fascist tendencies; Kinkade, though, appears to have been a tireless worker & the sort of idealist who doesn't want to sacrifice human beings on the alter of ideas. A realist idealist. There is something American about that -- an all to small part of our character, alas. _____________ Note: This appears to be the prototype of the machine my step-father bought; an inside view that confirms my memory of the way the thing worked, though they had managed to shrink it down to an only an inch thick.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.