Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Learned Helplessness and Operant Conditioning

This deserves its own post.

I'm going to state something very harsh and controversial here.

My entire generation, Generation Y, is fucked up.

Every generation before us fucked us up, and we fucked ourselves up.

I can state this with complete certainty for one simple reason: I know exactly how it happened.

A little background though, because it's necessary.

I am the very bleeding edge of Gen Y. My husband is a Gen Xer and not much older than I am. All 3 of my brothers are Gen X, they are 7, 8, and 10 years older than I am. My brothers and I stayed in the same school system for our educations and the same school district. I attended the same high school as two of my brothers.

We grew up in Mesa, AZ while Mesa grew so rapidly it became the fastest-growing city in the US. The elementary school my brothers attended (and I attended for exactly one year) was less than 10 years old when they attended. I never attended a school that was older than 10, ever. I went to 3 different elementary schools without ever moving because every time a new school was built the boundary line would change. I attended 2 elementaries in brand new buildings on brand new grounds.

Mesa grew so fast that the school district had no choice but to hire teachers straight out of the teaching colleges. Some more experienced teachers were around, sure, but they needed to fill the teaching slots somehow.

My youngest brother Tim is 7 years older than I am. He attended high school between 1989 and 1992. I attended the same high school from 1996 to 1999.

We only ever had one teacher in common, Dr. Bernstein. Dr. Bernstein retired from the school system my sophomore year out of disgust. The only other favorite teacher I had retired the next year for the same reason.

The walls in my childhood home were covered with plaques and trophies and certificates that my brothers had earned. By the time I got there, even doing the same activities (we were all band kids), nobody did plaques or trophies anymore. Hell, nobody did competitions anymore. Conservatives often talk about the "participation trophy" culture like it's new. There was an in-between stage where no one got anything or any recognition whatsoever.

But I digress. Point is, in the space of 7 years everything changed. My mother, til the day she died, just could not understand how it happened that she kept me in the same district and the same high school as my brothers and they got a much better education.

It's simple. The teachers, the administration, and the culture of the school system.

Due to the circumstances of the district I grew up in, and my age, I'm the leading edge of the generation where personal accomplishments were politically incorrect and competition was banned. These ideas filtered in with the new teachers; for this reason rapidly growing districts and the inner cities (where only young teachers without seniority could be found to work) were the first to undergo the transformation.

Wouldn't want to make the not-as-smart kids feel bad about themselves, would you? And you're so smart, you have a high IQ so we'll make it clear you "owe" it to society to use it in a way that benefits society. Oh, and we'll ban any kind of competition that makes it clear that hard work and perseverance will make a difference.

Educational Precept #1: what you have is what you're born with which is all you can possibly have. You can not make yourself smarter, or make yourself learn better, or improve your mental faculties in any way. If you attempt to do so, we will make it clear you're hurting someone else.

Then we'll put you in classrooms for 7 hours a day, surrounded by peers "at your level" (i.e. dumb kids with dumb kids, normals with normals, honors with honors). Then since you're not allowed to have personal accomplishments outside of grades (which are highly variable) we'll take away the carrot of winning or possibly winning or even recognition and replace it with a stick. The stick of what will happen if you don't follow the rules, or make the teacher happy.

Educational Precept #2: the goal is to turn out productive, obedient laborers for the system who listen when they're told what their position is and how they're to serve society. We do this by diminishing the individual and replacing their personal aims and goals and replacing them with the society's goals. If you step out of line, we'll make it clear how selfish you are.

Oh wait, there's another phrase that encapsulates these two precepts very well:
From each according to their abilities...

Now we just need to convince them that everyone deserves according to their needs... but they hadn't gotten that far with my cohort. I've heard they've made great strides towards that end since then.

So where does learned helplessness come in?
In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape.
Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.
Finally, when opportunities to escape are presented, this learned helplessness prevents any action. The only coping mechanism the animal uses is to be stoical and put up with the discomfort, not expending energy getting worked up about the adverse stimulus.
So take a bunch of children. Tell them they MUST be in a place or else bad things happen and they MUST show up every day. Tell them they MUST obey the teacher or else bad things happen. Then teach them that they are powerless over their own intelligence and own abilities and the only rewards they can possibly get are from being a good little cog in the system.

Then put them in the real world and be utterly shocked that they don't take control over their own lives.

Gen Y, Generation "Why Bother", Boomerang Generation, Peter Pan Generation (because we won't grow up)... think those might have anything to do with the operant conditioning we were forced through as kids? When you're told that you have no control over yourself or your situation and that the big teacher in the sky doles out what is fair and what you deserve... why in the hell would you try at all?

The entitlement mentality that so many decry? What did you expect when every one of us was taught that if we just followed the rules good things would happen? That someone out there would take care of our needs if we just did what we were told?

That Obama would pay our mortgage? After all, if they behave they'll be taken care of.

They're following the rules. Where's the good stuff they were promised? They made a deal with the educational system and that's how life is supposed to work.

The deal doesn't exist, but no one taught them it doesn't exist.

No one taught them how much power they have over themselves. In fact, 2 decades of their lives were spent telling them how little power they have as individuals and that only as a group can they make a change.

Occupy Wall Street anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

But I did say that it's not only the fault of the generations that made the school system and left us there to be conditioned and experimented on.

It's also our generation's fault for BELIEVING the BULLSHIT we were fed.

Impressionable? Yes, all kids are impressionable. Yes, we're hard-wired to believe our elders.

That doesn't mean we can't fix ourselves, that we can't learn better and teach ourselves better. We all have that ability as long as we live.

All we need is to see that we do have control over our beliefs and we can change how we interact with the world. We already know this in small ways.

If you've ever tut-tutted over a young man obsessed with video games take a second and look at their scores. They're not obsessed with the games. They're obsessed with being able to see the direct consequences of the time and attention they've put into the game. They're obsessed with the feeling of accomplishment, of getting better and doing better.

This is the cure what ails Gen Y. Directs actions = direct, measurable consequences. But that's incredibly difficult to do without conscious though.

What would be awesome though, and incredibly helpful, is if everyone who's so busy bitching about entitled children would take one person and give them a chance to do what they never could as a child.

Take one young person and teach them that their efforts + their work = their accomplishment and their victory.

Take one young person hurting for money, hand them a lawn-mower or a hammer, and get some useful work out of them. Pay them directly. Find something to praise about the work, and find something that can be improved. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

We met a young man and his girlfriend this weekend purely by chance. Our trailer was stored next to their trailer home (our neighbor owns the storage and trailer park). Both his parents are out of work but this young man is DESPERATE for something to do that holds meaning and gives him a sense of self. His girlfriend is just as bad off as she's currently living with him and his parents (separate rooms though, she's proud to say). They kept trying to help us with moving our trailer.

They're coming over this weekend to help me with the yard. They need to work and feel as if they've done something useful.

There's so many kids (and I say kids, even though I'm 31, because most haven't had a chance to grow up) that are so desperate for meaning and sense of accomplishment and personal power.

Give them a chance. Impart what you know to be true, that each person has control over their situation. Let them make their own real, visual proof, then reward them.

Let them own the fruits of their labor and feel that power. Re-condition them with reality. That's the best, and only, way to break the hold of learned helplessness