Monday, October 02, 2006

Of Pigeons and Parades

He stared at the bar and placed his beak upon it. Tap, Tap. Out came a pellet. Tap. A pellet. Tap, tap, tap, another pellet. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, a pellet. Tap. A pellet. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, finally, a pellet.

Vicarious reinforcement. B.F. Skinner knew in his experiments that a pigeon randomly reinforced, would repeatedly attempt to perform a task multiple times as long as a reward was thought possible. The poor pigeon didn’t want to do anything else.

Isn’t this like education today? Our kids have learned to “press the bar” to assure admission to colleges and medical schools. But on the way, are these kids really the people we want caring for us?

Justin Pope of the Associated Press recently interviewed Marilee Jones, the MIT dean of admissions.
The quest for perfection “is making our children sick,” she told a recent gathering of college admissions professionals in Boston. She means it literally, snapping off statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia.
And I see it, too. Kids are no longer permitted the luxury of summer camp canoeing or camping – no, it seems they have to now attend scouting camps for sports, summertime science camps, “gifted kid camps” instead on the faint hope that they might make next years’ team. And some will, but many more will not. It’s the “tap, tap, tap” of the bar that keeps our kids trying. Unfortunately, anxieties mount as tensions rise.
Jones grew increasingly worried about the applications that crossed her desk. The students were remarkably accomplished, but she worried the resume rat race had quashed creativity. MIT faculty told her that the students just weren’t much fun to teach. The issue of perfectionism had been brought to the fore at MIT by a series of student suicides.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

These issues were brought to light for me this past weekend as I attended my 30th high school reunion. One of our activities as the Class of 1976 was to ride a float in the Homecoming parade. The entire town had come out to support the high school there. Sure it was a bit like Mayberry RFD, but it remained a concrete demonstration of the community’s support of their children.

Unfortunately, such an event does not occur here on the North Shore of Chicago at my kids’ high school, New Trier High School, in the posh Winnetka, IL suburb of Chicago. There is no community-sponsored parade, pep rally, or bon fire. Oh, there’s a polite dance for the kids carefully scrutinized by chaperones, but a day-time pep rally or parade involving “down-time” for just fun and community spirit, well that doesn’t exist in our town. It seems the kids are too busy learning or participating in their important college-application-building activities. Such activities used to exist. Why don’t they any longer? Probably because of an accident once during a pep rally eighteen years ago – it might be too dangerous!

Well it might be too dangerous NOT to have them either.

Many of our kids do not get eight hours of sleep a night, or eat three meals a day. Few spend time staring into space and dreaming. As Jones says:
”We’re raising a generation of kids trained to please adults. Every day kids should have time when they’re not being judged. That’s the big difference with this generation. They’re being judged and graded and analyzed and assessed at every turn. It’s too much pressure for them.”
And time spent stuffing tissue into chicken wire to make a float? Not productive enough – hard to chart a career path out of that one.

Hopefully, we’ll all see the light. Kids really do need non-judgmental time and space. Community reinforcement and support for all they’re trying to accomplish during these formative years seems like a good idea, too. Just think of the benefits: less pressure might mean less anxiety disorders, fewer teen suicides, cuttings, and sports injuries.

And I really don’t want a determined pigeon-like creature caring for me when I get older.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.


1 comment:

Dr. A said...

Pavlov - Does that ring a bell?