Walden's Utopia

Walden's Utopia

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Walden's Utopia

In a post-World War Two era, there was much longing for improvement on current society. Burrhus F. Skinner decided to give his take on what he felt were the appropriate steps to take in order to make a true "Utopia." There have been attempts at other utopia's (which is from the Greek for "no place") and Skinner in his book took the best elements of each utopia and put them into one. However, this does not mean that this utopia he creates in his story, called Walden Two, emulating Thoreau's Walden Pond in Maine, is not without flaws. The most obvious flaws that stand out to the modern day reader are simply due to the fact that this book was published nearly 60 years ago. Values in the post-WWII era differed from modern ones, and psychology took a back seat during the war for other "real sciences." This social commentary is extensively relevant to the study of psychology, especially conditioning/behaviorism, because all consequences of all the actions of people in Walden Two directly stem from some psychological event, be it the shaping of the children to want to learn, or the way the officials (planners/managers) are appointed (and not elected).
The interesting thing about this book is the way in which it is written. The main protagonist's name is Burris, awfully close to the author and psychologist's name Burrhus, and they share nearly identical lives and professions. I believe this book basically breaks down B.F. Skinner's feelings about creating utopia's into the characters. Burris would be closest to B.F. Skinner himself, with Skinner's moderate point of view being exemplified in this character, his extremely in favor feeling exemplified in Frazier's character, and his extremely against/skeptical feeling exemplified in Augustine Castle.
In order to understand why in fact "Walden Two" is a commentary on American society, we must juxtapose relevant topics in our lives compared to that of those in Walden Two to see if they are the antithesis of one another or if they coincide perfectly. One of the most outright aspects of America and Americans is our economic system. We operate on a capitalist society, and the ideal of socialism or communism (similar to that of Walden Two) is severely looked down upon. Capitalism breeds competition, and vice versa, and competition breeds extinction. In a capitalist society, everyone is trying to "get theirs" and leave everyone else in the dust.

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The emphasis of this economic system is on the individual and big business succeeding, with no mind paid to how society as a whole is functioning and thriving (or struggling).
One of the most augmented facets of Walden is its economic system. Much of the book shuns America's competitive nature and how it is displayed in almost every aspect of life. This book does the opposite, showing how there is no need for competition, because it always leads to malicious events from feelings of jealously which they wish to be eliminated up to the grandiose event of war. The economy of Walden is based upon communal sharing. This socialistic ideal allows everyone to take what he or she needs without exact payment. Going back to agrarian roots, the people in Walden Two try to produce a surplus of food, and after a surplus is achieved, gold or money is not traded for, but equipment or supplies that Waldeans cannot produce. This allows for a greater standard of living, and is the opposite of our system. They achieve this labor not by getting paid but rather using a system of "labor credits" and "each person only needs to work a four hour day, rather than a six hour one, because the work is so efficient." (Skinner, 76) Instead of people plotting against one another for monetary gain, the Waldeans work together for the greater good and in doing so they achieve not only equality and a constant food supply, but it allows them to receive tools they would not be able to make on their own. Frazier states in that "the secret to their economic success is that we avoid the goat and loom." (Frazier, 75) By this, he means that in the past, most Utopias' have been going back and getting rid of technology, whereas in Walden Two they "look ahead, not backwards, for a better version." Waldeans avoid "uncreative and uninteresting work" and place people into jobs that they enjoy and are good at, and if a job change is needed due to lack of efficiency of a person, they will find he or she a job which is interesting to them and one which they excel at.
In America, along with many other countries in the world, school is attended by children because it is mandatory; it is forced upon them. The curiosity that is innate in them is often times sucked out by the time they reach high school. Students do not go to school for the reward of "learning." Learning is just the process that one has to go through in order to achieve that high paying job that results in a "reward" of monetary gain. Competition, which is all to prevalent in American learning, only breeds negative emotions, and things like social Darwinism combined with competition lead to things like poverty and crime, theft in particular. All of this is eliminated in Walden Two.
The ultimate goal of Waldeans is to create an efficient town that reaches a Golden Age. This is the underlying goal of the education and learning of children in Walden Two. To achieve this Golden Age the following prerequisites are stated to be needed: "an appreciative audience, an undemanding work life, and reasonable training in the arts: in short appreciation, leisure and education" (Skinner, 225). All learning in Walden Two is supposed to be useful and interesting. The education of the future generations is the "most important enterprise of the community." The children are taught, through a system of rewards and positive reinforcement, and never punishment, to enjoy things that will make the child happy and productive, and this in turn benefits the community. The success and continued success of Walden Two depends almost entirely on the educators of Walden Two being able to have the children learn the principles of the community and to maintain an atmosphere that reinforces certain kinds of positive behavior through a system of behavior modification. The children are therefore "shaped" in a sort of way. Shaping is reinforcing a tendency in the right direction, and then gradually requiring responses that are more similar to the final desired response. The gradual education system of Walden gives the kids a kickstart in the right direction, and eventually they lead themselves to the end result of a Utopian Golden Age. Frazier tells us that this sort of "behavioral engineering eliminates the need for propaganda, indoctrination, and force." (Skinner, 119).
Shaping behavior in Walden Two is almost an unconscious event in the Waldeans. They do not consciously know they are being "shaped" yet they view the consequences of it. There are obvious advantages and disadvantages to being shaped/shaping someone, the one of utmost prevalance being the idea of someone controlling someone else without their knowledge. Frazier flirts with both being almost God-like and feeling almost God-like, "like a shepard" (Skinner, 197). In essence, Frazier is behaviorally engineering and shaping the members of the town to go against what they may do naturally, except the idea of "free will" is not a term behaviorists like Skinner believe in. However, there is no doubt that Frazier is altering the course of their normal lives, and there is a thin line where his control may become too great, and freedom to think and act on one's whim is non existant. The advantages of shaping of course is that positive results are often achieved; positive results that benefit the community and drive the town closer to a Golden Age; the underlying goal of Walden Two. Shaping can also be used to reduce negative behavior like jealously or lying, again helping the community substantially. "Happiness" is effected in both cases. Since what is happiness to one person is different to another one, even in the community, it is hard to say what would make one person happy or unhappy. However, we can imagine that if someone is shaped to believe that they are happy, is that true happiness, or is it "enforced happiness?" When we do not shape someone, it is impossible to know whether they would be happier proverbially shaped or unshaped. If it is true that all members of Walden Two view happiness as success for the group, then shaping will increase happiness because more positive results of success for the town is achieved.
There is no perfect fitting definition for a utopian society, however, Walden does come remarkably close. Out of all the previous utopias, Walden is the closest to a perfect utopian society because it is a medley of the good aspects of failed others. The problem with determining whether or not Walden Two is a utopian society is that we have nothing to measure it against. And since utopias are truly "no places," an actual utopian society is, for now, a figment of one's imagination. As to whether or not I would like to live there or not, I would have to say no. I do not like the idea of being shaped and controlled; I do not see enough benefits for it in its current state to want to go to this imaginary place. Granted, there are some great aspects of socialism that fit well together, it is simply not feasable. This is, even with all the specifications of the town, a very loose plan, and that does not give me enough confidence in it. However as I sit here listening quietly to Bach's B Minor Mass (Skinner, 94), I ponder the luxurious non-luxuries that a place like Walden Two has to offer. Perhaps in a distant time can a true Utopian society be created? Might I venture to it? Only time will tell.
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