Academic Insights from Literature

Professor B.F. Skinner. Photo: By-SA

I use the website Goodreads to set annual ‘reading for leisure’ goals and to write reflections and reviews of the various works I read. I aim to read a book each week. This week, I completed Aldous Huxley’s (1957) Brave New World Revisited.

I thought I might share some reflections on my ‘reading for leisure’ program and how that influences my view of the academic life. Huxley’s companion to Brave New World (1932), reflects on his predictions 25 years after the fact. My review on Goodreads is reproduced below:
Huxley writes about the world in 1957, 25 years after his most famous novel, Brave New World. This is more or less an academic work where Huxley considers numerous scholars of the period (in particular, psychologists and behaviourists) and comments on propaganda, marketing, and social engineering of the day (noting John Dewey and B.F. Skinner a few times). I took the time to write down all the names and works that appear in the book, as much of Huxley's commentary is lost to earlier memories. Nevertheless, his companion book to his major work of fiction is no less prophetic. I couldn't help but wonder first, how Brave New World could have such predictive power in 1932, and second, that he could do the same again in 1957. I suppose this particular work is somewhat lost because it is not a work of fiction. But it has opened my eyes to how the issues of the present are rooted in the past.
After following up on the late Professor B.F. Skinner of Harvard, I discovered that he had written a novel, Walden Two (1948), a utopian work based on his research findings in psychology. (Walden is a famous work from 1854 by Henry David Thoreau, a transcendentalist. Huxley focused on mysticism in his later writing. By way of explaining the numerous ‘connections’ that fascinate me in literature, I am currently reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confessions. Tolstoy, too, had his own moral crisis after labelling his 1877 work Anna Karenina ‘an abomination’, and then went on to found the basis for non-violent resistance as practiced by Gandhi and later Martin Luther King.) Skinner’s work extended that of Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist who focused on ‘classical’ or ‘respondent’ conditioning, which was to become the foundation for ‘behaviourism’ which is something some members of the School of Government and Policy at the University of Canberra have been interested in of late.

What struck me about Skinner was that he lost credibility with his colleagues after publishing Walden Two. While he went on to contribute significantly to what we now know as behaviourism, Noam Chomsky remains one of his most exhaustive critics (see ‘A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior’. In Jakobovits, L.A. and Miron M.S. eds. 1967. Readings in the Psychology of Language. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall: 142-143)

The above has led me to ask my colleagues the following questions: Do you read literature and connect it to your research? If so, how? And, does the writing of a novel reduce one’s academic credibility? How?

If you are interested in connecting via Goodreads, my profile is here: madepercy.