Friday, March 16, 2012

Prelude to the dance

here goes nothing...
As a relatively recent convert to the usefulness of a behaviorist perspective in descriptions of learning, I don't feel strongly wedded to the concepts or vocabulary that Skinner proposed so long ago, as resilient as they've proven to be. My appreciation for them is almost exclusively pragmatic: as long as the behaviorist lens serves my aim of unfolding my own latent strengths, making the best of my weaknesses, and helping other creatures to do the same, I'll hold it happily to my eye. But the moment it threatens to obscure the view, I'll toss it.

I'm fickle that way. When I was a theatre scholar (a role I never wore all that convincingly), I loved the idea of "interdisciplinary" study, and I delighted in conversations that spontaneously transgressed the many boundaries - essential, methodological, temperamental - dividing scientific from literary culture (to borrow C.P. Snow's categories). But formal efforts to close the gap seemed almost invariably to encourage the contempt for "fantasy" that's endemic among scientists and academic fantasists (i.e. literary types). Humanities departments are rife with relevance envy, and many of their faculty are eager to prostrate themselves before every promise of effectuality: you mean I might finally say something, do something that touches the world? Wow, hey. Some expunge the embarrassment of being mere doodlers and dreamers by becoming utterly prosaic (and untrained) scientists. Others eventually take up dog training. Ha.

I mean to say that I'm not immune. I caught the neuroscience bug early, and I got excited a few years ago when the contagion spread among my theatrical cohorts. But nothing quashed my enthusiasm like hearing the moderator of a conference seminar sternly remind us that the terms in play were technical, highly specific, and not to be fooled with in any loosey-goosey metaphorical way. Or hearing a director marvel about how wonderful it would be when she could attach electrodes to her actors' heads and discover what a sense memory really was.

Who's going to speak up for the reality of subjective experience if not for the dreamers and fantasists? What can scientists learn from us - why should they suppose we have anything to teach - if we surrender the stage before the play begins? Loose, sloppy, idle, playful, inexact - these are just some of the many strengths of literary culture. We cavort under the banner of "Not Quite." We spill ambiguity and uncertainty in our messy wake. That's our job, and it matters. Big time.

All this because I want to insist that science (generally) and Skinner (specifically) should not have the last word in every conversation about direct physical pressure in training. Next time!

No comments:

Post a Comment