Skinner's Utopia

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3m 6sec

B. F. Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia and Experimental Communities.
By Hilke Kuhlmann.
Univ. of Illinois Press. 245 pp. $35

The author of this interesting but oddly structured book set out to find an experimental community that embodied the model depicted in B. F. Skinner’s novel Walden Two (1948). What she found were several mostly rural communities that tried, with every good intention and in a variety of ways, to institute a behaviorist way of life. But most failed. Even if they managed to survive, their success was almost a measure of the distance they had traveled from Skinner’s initial blueprint.

Skinner, a longtime professor of psychology at Harvard University, developed his theory of behaviorism—the teaching and conditioning of human behavior through positive reinforcement—starting in the late 1930s, while at Indiana University. In Walden Two, he imagined a society founded on his theory of behavioral psychology. Although the theory’s outlines were clearest in the fictional Walden’s schools, which used positive reinforcement as an incentive to learn, the entire community was organized to stimulate the most cooperative and socially useful behavior.

Hilke Kuhlmann, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, opens with a critical exploration of Skinner’s novel and his later book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). She reprises many familiar criticisms of behavioral psychology, but also adds some compelling notions about characters in Walden Two. She goes on to suggest that Skinner himself is to blame for the failure of many of the Walden Two–inspired experiments, in part because he never addressed such matters as the basically undemocratic nature of his planning system. Kuhlmann depicts Skinner as a social philosopher fascinated by the theory of community founding but uninterested in the reality. What she doesn’t explain is his novel’s odd reception: Published in 1948, it became popular only in the 1960s.

Kuhlmann talked with participants from a number of so-called intentional communities, primarily in the United States, and includes several of the interviews verbatim in an appendix that constitutes almost a third of the book. She provides capsule histories of many of the communities, recording their proximity to or drift from Skinner’s ideal. In the case of Los Horcones, a successful community in Mexico founded in 1973, she concludes that strong, charismatic leadership accounts for its longevity. Yet, in a curious footnote, she relates that her own hostility toward behaviorism prompted residents there to “break off all communication.” So her information remains incomplete.

The community given the most attention here is Twin Oaks, founded in 1968 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The history of Twin Oaks—the most successful and long-lived of the Walden Two com­mun­ities—suggests that many of the novel’s proposals are simply unworkable, including the behaviorist educational system and the elaborate work-credit arrangement. Kuhlmann asserts that Twin Oaks succeeded partly because its founders were willing to move away from Skinner’s model, and partly because it developed a profitable business making hammocks. Most important, as the author discovered, the survival of Twin Oaks depends upon a consistently large turnover of members, which main­tains newcomer enthusiasm for the communal experiment while preventing the institu­tion­alization of discontent.

As an exploration of Skinnerian intentional communities, this account is a moderate success. The discussion of actual and defunct communities is informative, although more research on Los Horcones would have been welcome because it might have challenged the author’s thesis that such experiments are virtually doomed to failure. Kuhlmann may be right in arguing that Skinner invented an unachievable Utopia. But that doesn’t explain why we, as a society, continue to aspire to remote, planned communities that exist on the edges of Somewhere.

—James Gilbert

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