This week we finished a unit on consciousness and began one on learning—not so much how we learn to read or write or study, but how we learn prejudice, fear, anxiety, even how we learn to salivate—that’s right, we spent a lot of time on drooling. Remember Pavlov?
We started discussing the famous behaviorists in psychology, such as John Watson and B.F. Skinner, who believed that the environment completely rules behavior and that free will is an illusion. Most students, upon hearing these extreme views, will contend that those guys were crazy, which spurs lively discussion. But by the end of the unit, most students will admit that, well, maybe they possess less free will than they first imagined. The revelation can be deflating.
These discussions remind me of a dream I’ve always had: to team teach a class that combines literature and psychology. Right now we would be reading Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” or Brave New World or 1984 or some modern dystopia. Or maybe we’d read the newspaper.
Even without the interdisciplinary combo, I should at least dip into literature. Because we learn more about human nature through literature than through science, I think. But we don’t have time. We’re hamsters, peddling our little hamster wheels, and if we stop, my students won’t be ready for the big AP test in May, which, if they do well, may help them gain entry into the next bigger and better hamster cage. Although better may be an illusion.