Author and educator George Leonard recently died, and the obituaries said that his 1968 book Education and Ecstasy
made him a “voice of the counterculture.”
That book was written a few decades ago, but it looks like it comes from a different world. Looking back at it may help us understand why the radical counterculture of the 1960s failed - and why it really was not radical at all.
Leonard’s premise was that programmed learning, developed by the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, would make education so much more effective that children could learn academic subjects in one-sixth the time it now takes, leaving the rest of their time for non-cognitive education.
He describes what it might be like for parents to visit a school in the year 2001, after programmed learning has been enhanced by new computer technologies that tailor learning based on everything the child has learned in the past and that also incorporate brain-wave feedback to tailor the learning to the child’s mood.
The parents drive their electric car to the underground parking lot of a school that is made up of geodesic domes and tent-like structures scattered in the woods.
They see their young daughter in the Basics Dome, where each child sits at a computer with video appearing on a large screen and stereo speakers playing. A recent enhancement of the system lets each child’s screen be affected by what is on the surrounding screens, so if a child is studying primitive hunting in Africa, a spear thrown on that child’s screen might fly across a half-dozen other screens, so it appears to travel through the room.
Their daughter is learning spelling. After she types “cat,” the computer asks her for other spellings of the word and gets her to type “kat” and “katte.” This school is based on the idea that there is not just one right answer that the teacher knows and the child should repeat.
A child at the next computer is running a program about Africa, animals from it also enter her screen, and as a result, her computer asks for several creative spellings of “leopard.” After twenty minutes of this learning, the computer suffuses her with a blue glow, brain-wave feedback showing that she is totally content, and she goes to play in the woods for the rest of the day. This school practices “free education,” and children are not compelled to learn, so twenty minutes of creative spelling is all the cognitive learning she gets today.
One young child in the Basics Dome is completely absorbed in learning calculus on his computer. He apparently is not distracted by the different sound tracks playing on the two-dozen different computers in the Basics Dome or by the images entering his computer from nearby computers.
Leonard says that his idea for the Basics Dome was inspired by what he considers some of the most educative environments in the world, the light-and sound auditoriums that hosted rock music concerts during the 1960s: “Two walls overflow with swirling, ever-changing visual images…. Images race from one end of the panorama to the other while liquid colors flow in slow eddies. …powerful ultraviolet lamps pour out black light. … From a side wall, a jarring strobe light flashes. Slowly at first, then quickening with the intensity of the music and the dancing, the flashes approach ten cycles a second, the approximate rate of the ongoing alpha waves in the brain. Some dancers surrender their brain-wave tempo to the light … and enter another realm … dreamlike, they glide above a floor that no longer seems necessarily level and fixed.” (p. 190)
Leonard tells us that he knows these shows are educative, because his own daughter used to draw very carefully, trying to keep the colors inside the lines, but her drawing became much more creative after he took her to one of these light-and-sound shows. No doubt, this anecdote proves that a similar environment provides the best way to learn calculus.
The parents also visit the other domes in the futuristic school of 2001, which are used for affective learning (unlike the Basics Dome, used for cognitive learning). In the Body Dome, physical movement is used to express emotion and alter perceptions, and body feedback is used to teach the children to consciously control their blood pressure and heart beat. In the Quiet Dome, every interior material absorbs sound so there is absolute silence that helps the children practice meditation. The Water Dome has a swimming pool filled with naked children: there are no lifeguards in this school for 3 to 10 year old children, because the older children spontaneously take care of the younger children.
Then they visit the tent-like structures where educational environments are set up temporarily. One looks like the jungles of southeast Asia, and the children there are learning the sort of dreamwork practiced by the Senoi who live in those jungles. Another looks like the nineteenth-century laboratory where Faraday made his discoveries about electricity, and the children are devising their own experiments that will let them make the same discoveries. No doubt, these 3-to-10 year olds have learned enough college-level physics in the Basics Dome to be able to devise the same experiments as one of the greatest scientists in history.
This book was very well respected in 1968, when it was published. Look magazine called it “the most influential book on education in modern times.”
Today, its flakiness is very obvious. Its technological optimism - though not as obvious - is just as pronounced.
Leonard believed that the new technology of programmed instruction, based on scientific psychology that B.F. Skinner developed by conditioning pigeons and rats, would make academic education so much more efficient that it would only take one-sixth the time it did traditionally. And multi-media computers would make programmed instruction even better.
Today, we can see that programmed instruction was a fad that just lasted briefly, but Leonard expected near miracles from that new technology.
Likewise, Leonard expected that technology would make our economy so productive that people would not have to work and would live lives of leisure. In the future (Leonard quotes a description that he says is simplified but is very true and moving) people’s main function would be “to sing, and dance, and interact.” We would no longer have to work, and “The end of the ‘job’ means the end of the eight-hour day and the beginning of the twenty-four-hour day. Lifelong learning, lifelong creative change, is an exhilarating and dangerous endeavor….” (p 131)
Leonard could already see the change happening in his own time. “The U.S. housewife drifting dreamlike along the mazes of a supermarket is example enough. No Civilized Calvinist is she, but rather a Polynesian plucking breadfruit as she wanders [in] an ample Eden.” (p. 84)
This is the premise of Leonard’s utopian vision: technology would create such abundance that people could devote their lives to indulging themselves.
But was this really a radical vision, or was it just an extreme exaggeration of the ideology of postwar America? In fact, it was very like the promise of the consumer society of the time: in 1968, most Americans believed that technology would create such abundance that life in the future would be something like wandering through a supermarket and taking what you wanted.
There were other strands of the counterculture that went in the opposite direction. Leonard was a technological optimist who believed that technological progress would provide us all with electric cars and underground garages. By contrast, Paul Goodman became a voice of the counterculture by questioning technology and calling for a ban on all cars in Manhattan.
But the consumerist self-indulgence that Leonard represents was an important strand of the counterculture of the 1960s, so it is not surprising that this cultural movement ended up accomplishing so little.(Quotations from George B. Leonard, Education and Ecstasy (New York, Dell Publishing Delta Books, paperback edition 1969, copyright 1968)