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B.F. SKINNER, works and life

SKINNER, college years


Fred & Eddie Skinner

At Hamilton College


From http://ww2.lafayette.edu/~allanr/college.html

{#2 of 4 chapters}



A friend of the family recommended Hamilton College, and I did not think of going anywhere else. It was then at the nadir of its long career. I took an absurd program of courses, but in some curious way I have made good use of every one of them. I majored in English and had good courses in Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer (for which I wrote a modern translation of "The Pardoner's Tale"), Shakespeare, Restoration drama, and Romantic poetry. I minored in Romance languages. Hamilton was proud of its reputation for public speaking, and I had 4 thin compulsory years of that. I elected biology as my freshman science and went on to advanced courses in embryology and cat anatomy.

The most important thing that happened to me at Hamilton was getting to know the Saunders family. They were abroad during my freshman year, recovering from the tragic death of their elder son, a brilliant student who had been killed in a hazing accident the year before. All the Saunders children were prepared for college at home; and when the family returned, they asked my mathematics professor to suggest a tutor for their younger son. I agreed to serve.

Percy Saunders was then dean. Hamilton College students called him "Stink" because he taught chemistry, but his great love was hybrid peonies. He and his family lived in a large frame house alongside the campus. It was full of books, pictures, sculpture, musical instruments, and huge bouquets of peonies in season. Dean Saunders played the violin, and there were string quartets at least one night a week. Louise Saunders took in a few students each year to prepare them for college, among them usually a pretty girl with whom I would fall in love. We would walk through the Root Woods, returning for tea before a fire in the music room in the late afternoon. Once in a while on a clear night a telescope would be set up among the peonies, and we would look for the moons of Mars or Saturn's rings. Interesting people came to stay--writers, musicians, and artists. Beside my chair as I listened to Schubert or Beethoven I might find a copy of the avant-garde Broom or a letter from Ezra Pound. I remember a page from the score of George Antheil's Ballet Mécanique with the words COMPLETELY PERCUSSIVE printed diagonally across it. Percy and Louise Saunders made an art of living, something I had not known was possible.

I never fitted into student life at Hamilton. I joined a fraternity without knowing what it was all about. I was not good at sports and suffered acutely as my shins were cracked in ice hockey or better players bounced basketballs off my cranium-- all in the name of what was ironically called "physical education." In a paper I wrote at the end of my freshman year, I complained that the college was pushing me around with unnecessary requirements (one of them daily chapel) and that almost no intellectual interest was shown by most of the students. By my senior year I was in open revolt.

John K. Hutchens and I began that year with a hoax. Our professor of English composition, Paul Fancher, was a great name-dropper in the field of the theater. Hutchens and I had posters printed reading, in part: "Charles Chaplin, the famous cinema comedian, will deliver his lecture 'Moving Pictures as a Career' in the Hamilton College Chapel on Friday, October 9." The lecture was said to be under Fancher's auspices. In the early, hours of October 9 we went down to the village, plastered the posters on store windows and telephone poles, threw a few into lobbies of apartment houses, and went back to bed. That morning Hutchens called the afternoon paper in Utica, the nearest city, and told them that the president had announced the lecture at morning chapel. By noon the thing was completely out of hand. The paper ran Chaplin's picture on the front page and even guessed at the time he would arrive at Union Station, which, I am ashamed to say, was swarming with children at the appointed hour. In spite of police roadblocks it was estimated that 400 cars got through to the campus. A football pep meeting was mistaken for a Chaplin rally, and a great throng began to mill around the gymnasium. The editorial which appeared next day in the college paper ("No man with the slightest regard for his alma mater would have done it") was one of the best things Hutchens ever wrote.

As a nihilistic gesture, the hoax was only the beginning. Through the student publications we began to attack the faculty and various local sacred cows. I published a parody of the bumbling manner in which the professor of public speaking would review student performances at the end of a class. I wrote an editorial attacking Phi Beta Kappa. At commencement time I was in charge of Class Day exercises, which were held in the gymnasium, and with the help of another student (Alf Evers, later a well-known illustrator) I covered the walls with bitter caricatures of the faculty.

One of the most sacred of Hamilton institutions was the Clark Prize Oration. Students submitted written orations, six of which were selected to be spoken in an evening contest, from which a winner was chosen by a committee of judges. Four of us decided to wreck the institution. We submitted orations which we thought would be selected but which were potentially so bombastic that we could convert the evening into an uproarious farce. We misjudged the judges, however. Only mine was selected. I found myself on the program with five serious speakers. I decided there was nothing for it but to go through with the joke alone, hoping that my friends would understand. Very few did. We also made a shambles of the commencement ceremonies, and at intermission the president warned us sternly that we would not get our degrees if we did not settle down.



My Hamilton College activities seemed to be pointing toward a career as a writer. As a child I had had an old typewriter and a small printing press, and during my grade school years I wrote poems and stories and typed or printed them "artistically." I started a novel or two -- sentimental stuff on the model of James Oliver Curwood: Pierre, an old trapper, lived in the woods of colonial Pennsylvania with his lovely daughter, Marie (how they got down from Quebec I never thought it necessary to explain). In high school I worked for the local Transcript. In the morning before school I would crib national and international news from the Binghamton papers which had come in on the morning train. Occasionally I did a feature story or published a poem in the manner of Edgar Guest. When I got to college I contributed serious poems to the Hamilton Literary Magazine. Free verse was coming in, and I tried my hand at it. Here is a sample:


An old man, sowing in a field,

Walks with a slow, uneasy rhythm.

He tears handfuls of seed from his vitals,

Caressing the wind with the sweep of this hand.

At night he stops, breathless,

Murmuring to his earthly consort,

"Love exhausts me!"


And I had not yet heard of Freud. Once, when in love, I wrote five or six rather derivative Shakespearean sonnets and enjoyed the strange excitement of emitting whole lines ready-made, properly scanned and rhymed.


The summer before my senior year I attended the Middlebury School of English at Breadloaf, Vermont. I took a course with Sidney Cox, who one day invited me to have lunch with Robert Frost. Frost asked me to send him some of my work, and I sent him three short stories. His comments came the following April. The letter is printed in the Selected Letters of Robert Frost, edited by Lawrence Thompson. (2) It was encouraging, and on the strength of it I definitely decided that I would be a writer. My father had always hoped that I would study law and come into his office. My birth had been announced in the local paper in that vein: "The town has a new law firm: William A. Skinner & Son." I had taken a course in political science my senior year just in case I might indeed go into law. My father was naturally unhappy that I had decided against it. He thought I should prepare myself to earn a living -- say, as a lawyer -- and then try my hand at writing. He eventually agreed, however, that I should live at home (in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to which my family had moved) and write for a year or two. I built a small study in the attic and set to work. The results were disastrous. I frittered away my time. I read aimlessly, built model ships, played the piano, listened to the newly invented radio, contributed to the humorous column of a local paper but wrote almost nothing else, and thought about seeing a psychiatrist.


Before the year was out, I rescued myself and my self-respect by taking on a hack job. The FBI has occasionally expressed interest in that 2-year gap in my educational history, but I was not writing for the Daily Worker. On the contrary, I was way out on the right wing. In 1904, after a bitter coal strike, President Theodore Roosevelt had set up a Board of Conciliation to settle grievances brought by unions and companies. The decisions which had since been handed down were increasingly cited as precedents, and the coal companies wanted them digested so that their lawyers could prepare cases more effectively. I read and abstracted thousands of decisions and classified them for ready reference. My book was privately printed under the title A Digest of Decisions of the Anthracite Board of Conciliation. (My father was listed as coauthor, but for prestige only.) The book was intended to give the coal companies an advantage, but the lawyer who prepared all the union cases had a copy within the year.


After I had finished the book, I went to New York for 6 months of bohemian living in Greenwich Village, then to Europe for the summer, and on to Harvard in the fall to begin the study of psychology. In New York I worked in a book shop, dined at Chumley's, and drank hot rum Punchinos at Jimmy's, a speakeasy on Barrow Street. My friends were liberal and even intellectual. On Saturday nights 8 or 10 of us would somehow manage to have an all-night party on 1 quart of prohibition gin. That summer Paris, was full of literary expatriates and I met some of them, but a violent reaction against all things literary was setting in.


I had failed as a writer because I had had nothing important to say, but I could not accept that explanation. It was literature which must be at fault. A girl I had played tennis with in high school -- a devout Catholic who later became a nun -- had once quoted Chesterton's remark about a character of Thackeray's: "Thackeray didn't know it but she drank." I generalized the principle to all literature. A writer might portray human behavior accurately, but he did not therefore understand it. I was to remain interested in human behavior, but the literary method had failed me; I would turn to the scientific. Alf Evers, the artist, had eased the transition. "Science," he once told me, "is the art of the 20th century." The relevant science appeared to be psychology, though I had only the vaguest idea of what that meant.



Many odds and ends contributed to my decision. I had long been interested in animal behavior. We had no household pets, but I caught and kept turtles, snakes, toads, lizards, and chipmunks. I read Thornton Burgess and Ernest Thompson Seton and was interested in folk wisdom about animals. The man who kept the livery stable once explained that the cowboys in the rodeo let themselves be thrown just before "breaking the spirit" of the bucking broncos to avoid spoiling them for future performances. At a county fair I saw a troupe of performing pigeons. The scene was the facade of a building. Smoke appeared from the roof, and a presumably female pigeon poked her head out of an upper window. A team of pigeons came on stage pulling a fire engine, smoke pouring from its boiler. Other pigeons with red fire hats rode on the engine, one of them pulling a string which rang a bell. Somehow a ladder was put up against the building, and one of the firepigeons climbed it and came back down followed by the pigeon from the upper window.


Human behavior also interested me. A man in Binghamton who gave me advanced lessons on the saxophone had entertained soldiers during the war with a vaudeville act. He wrote the alphabet forward with his right hand and backward with his left while adding a column of figures and answering questions -- all at the same time. It gave him a headache. I remember being puzzled by an episode at some kind of church fair where there was a booth in which you could throw baseballs at dolls mounted on a rack. The dolls were restored to their place by pulling a rope from the front of the booth. When the woman who ran the concession was gathering balls near the dolls, some wag pulled the rope. Everyone laughed as the woman dropped to the ground in alarm. Why had she confused the sound of the rack with the sound of a ball?


Some of the things I built had a bearing on human behavior. I was not allowed to smoke, so I made a gadget incorporating an atomizer bulb with which I could "smoke" cigarettes and blow smoke rings hygienically. (There might be a demand for it today.) At one time my mother started a campaign to teach me to hang up my pajamas. Every morning while I was eating breakfast, she would go up to my room, discover that my pajamas were not hung up, and call to me to come up immediately. She continued this for weeks. When the aversive stimulation grew unbearable, I constructed a mechanical device that solved my problem. A special hook in the closet of my room was connected by a string-and-pulley system to a sign hanging above the door to the room. When my pajamas were in place on the hook, the sign was held high above the door out of the way. When the pajamas were off the hook, the sign hung squarely in the middle of the door frame. it read: "Hang up your pajamas!"


My earliest interest in psychology was philosophical. In high school I began a treatise entitled "Nova Principia Orbis Terrarum." (That sounds pretentious, but at least I got it out of my system early. Clark Hull published his Principia at the age of 59.) Two pages of this great work survive. It begins: "Our soul consists of our mind, our power of reasoning, thinking, imagining, weighing, our power to receive impressions, and stimulate action of our body; and our conscience, our inner knowledge of write (sic)." I engaged in a good deal of self-observation, and I kept notes. Once in a rather noisy street I was trying to talk to a friend in a store window. Though I strained to hear him, I could not make out what he was saying. Then I discovered that there was no glass in the window and that his voice was reaching me loud and clear. I had dismissed it as part of the ambient noise and was listening for a fainter signal.


College did little to further my interest in psychology. The only formal instruction I received lasted 10 minutes. Our professor of philosophy (who had actually studied under Wundt) once drew a pair of dividers from his desk drawer (the first Brass Instrument I had ever seen) and demonstrated the two-point limen. My term paper for a course in Shakespeare was a study, of Hamlet's madness. I read rather extensively on schizophrenia, but I should not care to have the paper published today. At Breadloaf I wrote a one-act play about a quack who changed people's personalities with endocrines, a subject which was then beginning to attract attention in the newspapers.


After college my literary interests carried me steadily toward psychology. Proust's A La Recherche du tems perdu was just being translated. I read all that was available in English and then carried on in French. (I bought part VIII, Le Temps retrouve, in Algiers in 1928. The uncut pages indicate that I abandoned literature on page 96.) Proust intensified my habit of self observation and of noting and recording many tricks of perception and memory. Before going to Harvard I bought Parson's book on perception, and I suppose it was only my extraordinary luck which kept me from becoming a Gestalt or (so help me) a cognitive psychologist.


The competing theme which saved me was suggested by "Bugsy" Morrell, my biology teacher at Hamilton. He had called my attention to Jacques Loeb's Physiology of the Brain and Comparative Psychology, (3) and later he showed me Pavlov's Conditioned Reflexes. (4) I bought Pavlov's book and read it while living in Greenwich Village, The literary magazine called The Dial, to which I subscribed, was publishing articles by Bertrand Russell, and they led me to Russell's book, Philosophy, published in 1925, (5) in which he devoted a good deal of time to John B. Watson's Behaviorism, (6) emphasizing its epistemological implications. I got hold of Watson's Behaviorism (but not his Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist), (7) and in the bookstore in New York I read the store's copy of his Psychological Care of Infant and Child (8) between customers.


The Department of Psychology at Harvard did not strengthen any particular part of this hodgepodge of interests, but two graduate students did. Fred S. Keller, who was teaching part time at Tufts, was a sophisticated behaviorist in every sense of the word. I had seen the regal name of Charles K. Trueblood spread across the pages of The Dial, for which he wrote many reviews. Now I found Trueblood himself, in white coat and gumshoes, moving silently through the corridors of Emerson Hall carrying cages of rats, the performances of which he was studying in a rotated maze. I welcomed the support of another renegade from literature.


At Harvard I entered upon the first strict regimen of my life. I had done what was expected of me in high school and college but had seldom worked hard. Aware that I was far behind in a new field, I now set up a rigorous schedule and maintained it for almost 2 years. I would rise at six, study until breakfast, go to classes, laboratories, and libraries with no more than 15 minutes unscheduled during the day, study until exactly 9:00 at night, and go to bed. I saw no movies or plays, seldom went to concerts, had scarcely any dates, and read nothing but psychology and physiology. (9)


My program in the department was not heavy. Boring was on leave, writing his history. Troland gave a course, but I found it unbearably dull and withdrew after the first day. Carroll Pratt taught psychophysical methods and was always available for discussions. I took Harry Murray's course in Abnormal Psychology the first year he gave it. I could read French but needed German as well, so I took an intensive course which met 5 days a week. To pass statistics I simply read G. Udney Yule's An Introduction to the Theory of Statistics. (10) His use of Greek letters to refer to the absence of attributes explains my symbols SD and SD, the awkwardness of which has plagued many psychologists since.


The intellectual life around the department was of a high order. A weekly colloquium, loosely structured, was always exciting and challenging. We argued with Pratt, Beebe-Center, and Murray on even terms. The informality is shown by a letter which I wrote to Harry Murray, of which he recently reminded me. He had given a colloquium on his theory of "regnancy." I wrote to tell him that there were some things about himself I felt he ought to know. When he was a child, he had obviously been led to believe that it was urine which entered the female in sexual intercourse. This had wreaked havoc in his scientific thinking, and he was still trying to separate p from pregnancy.


A joint reception for new students in philosophy and psychology was held each year at Professor Hocking's. My first year I turned up at the appointed hour, which was, of course, too early. A little old man with a shiny bald head and deep-set eyes soon arrived and came straight toward me in the friendliest way. He wore a wing collar and ascot tie. He stammered slightly, and spoke with an English accent. I sized him up as a clergyman -- perhaps an imported preacher in one of the better Boston churches. He asked me where I had gone to college and what philosophy I had studied. He had never heard the name of my professor and was only puzzled when I tried to help by explaining that he was an Edwardian (meaning a disciple of Jonathan Edwards). He told me that a young psychologist should keep an eye on philosophy, and I told him, fresh from my contact with Bertrand Russell, that it was quite the other way around: We needed a psychological epistemology. This went on for 15 or 20 minutes, as the room filled up. Others began to speak to my new friend. Finally a student edged in beside me, explaining that he wanted to get as close to the professor as possible. "Professor who?" I asked. "Professor Wbitehead," he said.


My thesis had only the vaguest of Harvard connections. Through a friend who had come to Harvard to study under Percy Bridgman I got to know the Logic of Modern Physics. (11) I read Poincaré and Mach. I began to spend a good deal of time in the Boston Medical library and in the summer of 1930 wrote a paper on the concept of the reflex, adopting the semihistorical method from Mach's Science of Mechanics.(12) Early that fall I was discussing my future with Beebe-Center. I outlined the work I intended to cover in my thesis. His comment was typical: "Who do you think you are? Helmholtz?" He encouraged me to get a thesis in at once. I was already well along in my work on changes in rate of eating and had written two short papers on drive and reflex strength. I combined these with my paper on the reflex and submitted them as a thesis to Professor Boring, who was now back in residence. I still have his long reply. He was bothered by my selective use of history. A thesis on the history of the reflex should be quite different. He suggested an alternative outline. I felt that he had missed my point, and I resubmitted the thesis without change. Suspecting that he was bothered by my behavioristic leanings, I attached a quotation from Thomas Hood:

Owning her weakness,

Her evil behavior,

And leaving, with meekness,

Her sins to her Savior.


Boring accepted the role of Savior. He appointed a thesis committee of which he himself was not a member; the thesis, was approved, and I passed my orals at the end of the fall term of 1930-31. I stayed in my laboratory, supported by the balance of a Harvard Fellowship, until June.


Meanwhile I had come into close contact with W.J. Crozier and Hudson Hoagland. Hoagland had taken his Ph.D. in psychology but was teaching in Crozier's Department of General Physiology. It was felt, I think, that Crozier was stealing students from psychology. He certainly offered enthusiastic encouragement, and after I got my degree he put me up for National Research Council Fellowships for 2 years, but I was never under any pressure to adopt his principles or move into his field. During my first postdoctoral year I spent every other day working on the central nervous system at the medical school under Alexander Forbes and Hallowell Davis. For the rest of my time Crozier offered me a subterranean laboratory in the new biology building. I moved my animal equipment into it and worked there for 5 years, the last 3 as a junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows.


I have traced the development of my research in detail elsewhere. Russell and Watson had given me no glimpse of experimental method, but Pavlov had: Control the environment and you will see order in behavior. In a course with Hoagland I discovered Sherrington and Magnus. I read Körperstellung (13) and proposed to do a translation (fortunately I failed to find a publisher). I felt that my thesis had exercised the physiological ghosts from Sherrington's (l4) synapse, and I could therefore maintain contact with these earlier workers. In writing The Behavior of Organisms (1938) I held doggedly to the term "reflex." Certain characteristics of operant behavior were, however, becoming clear. My first papers were challenged by two Polish physiologists, Konorski and Miller. It was in my answer to them that I first used the word "operant." Its function, then as now, was to identify behavior traceable to reinforcing contingencies rather than to eliciting stimuli.




Autobiographical  by Skinner


Particulars of My Life (1976, Knopf)


The shaping of a Behaviorist (1979, Knopf)


Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978, Prentice-Hall)


A Matter of Consequences, (1984, Knopf)


Enjoying Old Age (with Vaughan, 1983, Knopf)


Upon Further Reflections (1987, Prentice-Hall)



Popular works:


Beyond Freedom and Dignity, (Knopf, 1972)


About Behaviorism (1974, Knopf)


Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior (1987, Merrill)



Recommended works:


Science and Human Behavior (1954, McMillan)*


B.F. Skinner, A Reappraisal, by Marc N. Richelle, (1993, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates)


B.F. Skinner, A Life, by Daniel W. Bjork, (1993, Basic Books)



*  Jk recommends for those who would enjoy a philosophical work arguing the logical necessity for behaviors that you read his 1954 work Science and Human Behavior.  Skinner has a strong academic background in philosophy, and as a consequence this work has been included for some years in the course readings by professors of philosophy in their courses.  It was this work, which jk read while a graduate student in philosophy—not part of course material—that demonstrated to him the superiority of behaviorism.


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