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.