Learning from Skinner’s Teaching Machine

| August 10, 2013

This video is creepy largely because of its own obliviousness to its own creepiness—a disconcerting feedback loop. But isn’t it also because we so well know this dream still today? It’s not simply the dream of modern technology saving us from the backwardness of school. We should be equally careful not to wax nostalgic for the good old days, the Luddite preference for familiar technologies. In other words, its not the newness of the technology that should strike us, but the way in which the new is simply articulating a particular aspect that already exists. Education is a technology through and through. In that sense, education has long been doing something that Skinner’s machine simply teases out and gives form, allowing us to see how it continues to play out today.

Take, for example, the seemingly innocuous claim:

“The student quickly learns to be right.”

A claim to efficiency, no doubt. And who would claim that schools couldn’t use more efficiency? Oh, the time we expertly and diabolically waste! But it is telling in a way that is hard for us to see, as used to this strange logic as we are. It’s not that students quickly learn information, or even a skill. What they are expediently learning is rather to be right. A slip of the tongue perhaps. What he meant was “the right answer.” But in truth don’t we know this to be the other way around? One needs to know the right answer precisely in order to be right. And since anything can be made to appear in the boxes, run through the machine, what we learn is that it hardly matters what it is, only that we perform rightness. The being of being right is just that, not some ontological condition but a performance task, quick, fleeting, ongoing. We learn to be quick about it, to not hesitate. Isn’t this the eerie truth of the video, that education has long been a privileged technology for practicing this act?