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Paying Children To Learn
As it turned out, my own period of behaviorist training came back to haunt me thirty years later as garlic sausage eaten after midnight returns the next afternoon to avenge being chewed. In 1989, to my delight, I secured a substantial cash grant from a small foundation to pay kids for what heretofore they had been doing in my class for free. Does that sound like a good idea to you? I guess it did to me, Im ashamed to say.
Wouldnt you imagine that after twenty-eight years of increasingly successful classroom practice I might have known better? But then if we were perfect, who would eat garlic sausage after midnight? The great irony is that after a long teaching career, I always made it a major point of instruction to actively teach disrespect for bribes and grades. I never gave gold stars. I never gave overt praise, because I believe without question that learning is its own reward. Nothing ever happened in my experience with kids to change my mind about that. Soaping kids, as street children called it then, always struck me as a nasty, self-serving tactic. Addicting people to praise as a motivator puts them on a slippery slope toward a lifetime of fear and exploitation, always looking for some expert to approve of them.
Let me set the stage for the abandonment of my own principles. Take a large sum of money, which for dramatic purposes, I converted into fifty and one hundred dollar bills. Add the money to a limited number of kids, many of them dirt poor, some having never eaten off a tablecloth, one who was living on the street in an abandoned car. None of the victims had much experience with pocket money beyond a dollar or two. Is this the classic capitalist tension out of which a sawbuck or a C-note should produce beautiful music?
Now overlook my supercilious characterization. See the kids beneath their shabby clothing and rude manners as quick, intelligent beings, more aware of connections than any child development theory knows how to explain. Here were kids already doing prodigies of real intellectual work, not what the curriculum manual called for, of course, but what I, in my willful, outlaw way had set out for them. The board of education saw a roomful of ghetto kids, but I knew better, having decided years before that the bell curve was an instrument of deceit, one rich with subleties, some of them unfathomable, but propaganda all the same.
So there I was with all this money, accountable to nobody for its use but myself. Plenty for everyone. How to spend it? Using all the lore acquired long ago at Columbias Psychology Department, I set up reinforcement schedules to hook the kids to cash, beginning continuouslypaying off at every trythen changing to periodic schedules after the victim was in the net, and finally shifting to aperiodic reinforcements so the learning would dig deep and last. >From thorough personal familiarity with each kid and a data bank to boot, I had no doubt that the activities I selected would be intrinsically interesting anyway, so the financial incentives would only intensify student interest. What a surprise I got!
Instead of becoming a model experiment proving the power of market incentives, disaster occurred. Quality in work dropped noticeably, interest lessened markedly. In everything but the money, that is. And yet even enthusiasm for that tailed off after the first few payments; greed remained but delight disappeared.
All this performance loss was accompanied by the growth of disturbing personal behaviorkids who once liked each other now tried to sabotage each others work. The only rational reason I could conceive for this was an unconscious attempt to keep the pool of available cash as large as possible. Nor was that the end of the strange behavior the addition of cash incentives caused in my classes. Now kids began to do as little as possible to achieve a payout where once they had striven for a standard of excellence. Large zones of deceptive practice appeared, to the degree I could no longer trust data presented, because it so frequently was made out of whole cloth.
Like Margaret Meads South Sea sexual fantasies, E.L. Burtts fabulous imaginary twin data, Dr. Kinseys bogus sexual statistics, or Sigmund Freuds counterfeit narratives of hysteria and dream,14 like the amazing discovery of the mysterious bone which led to the "proof" of Piltdown Man having been discovered by none other than Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who, after the fraud was exploded, refused to discuss his lucky find ever again),15 my children, it seemed, were able to discern how the academic game is played or, perhaps more accurately, they figured out the professional game which is about fame and fortune much more than any service to mankind. The little entrepreneurs were telling me what they thought I wanted to hear!
In other unnerving trends, losers began to peach on winners, reporting their friends had cheated through falsification of data or otherwise had unfairly acquired prizes. Suddenly I was faced with an epidemic of kids ratting on each other. One day I just got sick of it. I confessed to following an animal-training program in launching the incentives. Then I inventoried the remaining money, still thousands of dollars, and passed it out in equal shares at the top of the second floor stairs facing Amsterdam Avenue. I instructed the kids to sneak out the back door one at a time to avoid detection, then run like the wind with their loot until they got home.
How they spent their unearned money was no business of mine, I told them, but from that day forward there would be no rewards as long as I was their teacher. And so ended my own brief romance with empty-child pedagogy.
14When you come to understand the absolute necessity of scientific fraud, whether unintentional or deliberate, to the social and economic orders we have allowed to invest out lives, it is not so surprising to find the long catalogue of deceits, dishonesties, and outright fantasies which infect the worlds of science and their intersection with the worlds of politics, commerce, and social class. The management of our society requires a stupefying succession of miracles to retain its grip on things, whether real miracles or bogus ones is utterly immaterial. To Mead, Burtt, Kinsey, Freud, and de Chardin, might be added the recent Nobel laureate James Watson, double-helix co-discoverer. Watsons fraud lies in his presumption that having solved one of the infinite puzzles of nature, he is qualified to give expert opinion on its uses. As The Nation magazine reported on April 7, 2003, Watson is an energetic advocate of re-engineering the human genetic germline. In a British documentary film, Watson is shown declaring that genetic expertise should be used to rid the world of "stupid" children. And "ugly" girls! It is only necessary to recall the time when corporate science presented the world with DDT as a way to rid the world of stupid and ugly bugs, and the horrifying aftermath of that exercise in problem-solving, to reflect that we might be better off ridding the world of Watsons and keeping our stupid kids and ugly girls.
15One of the most amazing deceptive practices relating to science has been the successful concealment, by
the managers of science and science teaching, of the strong religious component shared by many of the greatest names in science: Copernicus, Galileo, Boyle, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin and many more. Even Galileo had no doubt about his faith in God, only in the established churchs interpretation of His will. Newtons Principia is unambiguous on this matter, saying "He must be blind who...cannot see the infinite wisdom and goodness of [the] Almighty Creator and he must be mad, or senseless, who refused to acknowledge [Him].
A.P. French quotes Albert Einstein in his Einstein: A Centenary Volume (1979) on the matter this way:
You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a religious feeling....,rapturous amazement of the natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work. It is beyond questions closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.
But neither Newton or Einstein cut the mustard, where their spirituality might raise embarrassing questions among shoolchildren. School science is almost purely about lifeless mechanics. In the next chapter we'll see why that happened.
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