Today was my last day in the archives. I had two boxes of letters to go through and three boxes of newspaper clippings. (In the week I’ve spent here, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Skinner’s papers. There are, for example, still some 23 more boxes of correspondence to go through.)

After some fairly devastating news this morning – the death of Anthony Bourdain – I was relieved to find occasion to laugh out loud (literally) at some of the headlines I found, particularly those relating to Skinner’s work with pigeons. “‘Educated’ Pigeons Work at Harvard.” “Smart Pigeons Attend Harvard.” (The irony, of course: it isn’t smart pigeons. It’s pigeons who can take advantage of legacy admissions.)

From his papers, it appears as though the pigeon work – pigeons playing ping pong – was the first time Skinner really gained national notoriety. And certainly that colored how his other work has received by the public. (It’s why, for example, there were headlines about teaching children like pigeons.)

There seemed to be waves of public attention, often tied to big media profile pieces – articles in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times and Fortune in the like. (These coincide, I’m sure if I look closely, with the floods of letters he’d receive too.) And to his credit, his work all seems incredibly timely – not just the pigeons trained for war, but animals trained for space travel. (Today I learned, for example, that Ham was trained with a teaching machine.) Teaching machines and babies in a box – both of these tapping into post-War desires for automation and gadgetry. His novel Walden Two, which seemed to find renewed popularity in the 1960s with various intentional communities.

And maybe it’s one of those “chicken and the egg” problems: what came first? The idea or the Harvard imprimatur?

I leave the archives with tons of material, but no real sense quite yet what I want to make of it. I think I have a lot of reading to do by other educators (and philosophers of education) from the 1950s and 1960s to better make sense of Skinner’s work and to understand what schools were like at the time – or how at least they were imagined by these dudes. Mostly dudes.

(If you’re interested in what I’ve I’ve discovered during my week here, here are updates from Days 1, 2, 3, and 4.)

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

Back to Archives