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Matthew Israel Interviewed by Jennifer Gonnerman

From sugar-coated lollipops to electric shocks, the road to discipline. Jennifer Gonnerman talks with the Rotenberg Center's founder Matthew Israel.

Mon Aug. 20, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

JG: How did you first meet Dr. Skinner?

MI: I was a freshman in college. It was 1950, at Harvard College, and I had a social conscience, I think, and I wanted to do some good with my life. And I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, and I thought I might go into government or something, Foreign Service or…and Harvard at that time had a science requirement. And I thought I'd get it out of the way my first year so I took first semester in astronomy. I needed another half year of science and I saw they had some courses that were open to freshman in the rubric of natural science and one was called "Human Behavior," by someone named Skinner. And the description sounded good, and I took it, and I liked very much his approach because he was trying to bring the methods of natural science to the study of behavior. A lot of the study of behavior is with the methods of social science. They're less rigorous; they're the methods of political psychology, which at that time there wasn't really data on it, and I thought it was a very fascinating notion.

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I got angry at myself at one point because I didn't seem to be reading anything except what professors were putting on their lists of books you're supposed to read. So I said, "Let's pick up some books that aren't assigned to me." And Skinner had written a utopian novel called Walden Two, and that really captivated me because what he said in that book was in something I alluded to yesterday: He said that a lot of the issues in the world have to do with what we understand to be the nature of man.

Is he a free, rational person able to choose between good and evil, between truth and falsehood? And if so, John Mills and the democratic approach to government make a lot of sense. If he is primarily motivated by sexual issues, then the Freudian makes a lot of sense. If he is primarily motivated by his position in the economic class struggle, then Marxism, communism makes sense. Prior to taking this course I was feeling that way. How do you know who's right? What combination of theories is correct? Then along comes this little book that says it isn't one way or the other way; our best understanding is that each individual person is what he's made by his genetics and his conditioning history. He's not good or bad, or primarily this way or that way, but the way to find out is through the methods of experimental science.

Which was, he called it—[experimental science] came to be called behavioral psychology, and he said therefore the way to find out how people really should be organized and how society really should be governed is through experimenting and we need an experimental community. So he described this utopian community where it was essentially an experiment in living—and it captivated me. I thought, "My God, that's a wonderful solution, because people don't have to pretend to know the answers. You only have to say, 'Well, I'll find the answers.'" And that was, I decided that my mission was to start a, that, utopian community.

JG: And about how old were you at this point? Twenty?

MI: I was 17 or 18, a freshman in college.

JG: So you decided at 17 or 18 that you wanted to start a utopian community?

MI: Absolutely. I was very serious about it; I didn't think my life would have any real…I wanted my life to have some meaning but I didn't know how to do that. First I went in and told him he should assign that book because he wasn't assigning it to his own classes. And he told me some story, some joke, about professors assigning their own books, and I said, "Well, you should," and he did assign it the next year, as well as 1984.

JG: He assigned 1984 too?

MI: Yeah, because he wanted to give all sides of the issue.

He then began to. . .a lot of people. . .he wrote the book right after World War II, it was kind of something he was offering in return to veterans as a way of hope for a better world, and a number of people wrote to him and asked, "Where is this place?" It was described as being in Canton—I assumed it was Canton, Ohio—and Skinner would give me the letters people wrote into him asking where this place was and I started a little newsletter to people interested in it.

I started to major in psychology, but found the other courses were very boring. He was writing a book called Science and Human Behavior and in it analyzed all of society with these same basic principles. He shows how religion, politics, economics, education— they're all agencies using behavior to mold the individual. Then he also put forth the idea in this book, as well as in Walden Two, of determinism, that ultimately all behavior is lawful and that although that seems pessimistic at first thought it's actually optimistic because it means you can—by changing the environment and conditioning history that people have—make a better life.

JG: So is that why [the JRC is] in Canton today?

MI: That's an accident, but that's why the students. . .I didn't know how to start, how to go about this. I don't want to make this story too long. What happened was that I became discouraged; I thought maybe everybody when they're young they have these ideas that they want to do good and that real life is something different. My father was a lawyer and I thought maybe that's what I was going to have to do, and I didn't want to go to Army because the Korean War was on, so I went to law school for two years and got headaches and I didn't think that was for me.

Decided to go back to graduate school and study under Skinner, which was what I then did, and at that time he was working on "program instruction" teaching machines. My first approach was to start a business to make program instruction teaching machines in early 1960s, and that didn't work out. I was hoping it would be so successful it would support the utopian community. My next approach was I started two communal houses, hoping they would grow into a community. That didn't work out well.

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