Response to Dr. Baker's Review of "Building Character and Culture" (Westport, CT: Praeger), 1999.

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon

(This was published in The Journal of Philosophy and Education, Fall 2001, pp. 464-8.)

Any author sufficiently fortunate to have a new book reported on by as conscientious and knowledgeable a reader as Dr. Gordon Baker would be gratified, and I will begin by expressing my appreciation for the in-depth and balanced nature of his review. As he has so clearly explained, "Building Character and Culture" is an attempt to spell out a radically new conceptual framework for the social-scientific foundations of education – and to suggest some implications of the model for the total socialization process. I initiated the project in the full expectation that most readers would hone in on either the theoretical or the practical level. Dr. Baker has taken thoughtful account of both. His recognition of the importance of bringing an evolutionary-systems perspective to the educational enterprise – and to its foundational disciplines in the social sciences – renews my confidence that this book will make a difference, if not in my lifetime then sometime in the future.

As would be expected, Dr. Baker has not always agreed with what I identified as the practical implications of the model for specific education-based solutions of today's prevailing social problems. Nor could he possibly deal with every major topic in the book. It would seem, therefore, that I can most fruitfully respond to his excellent review by focussing on our (relatively minor) differences, as well as on a few key concepts that limitations of time and space prevented him from covering.

Dr. Baker expresses some reservations regarding my descriptions of "the culture of affluence" and "the culture of poverty". He also questions certain of the implications drawn from these concepts concerning prospects for workable public policy aimed at the re-socialization of individuals in later life: policy based on the principle of feedback from the immediate surroundings. This is not surprising, as these ideas are probably the most politically sensitive in the entire book. They involve two powerful complexes of cultural pressures which I consider to be unanticipated by-products of contemporary industrialized society. One exerts a major influence on the "winners" in industrialized societies, while the other tends to have its greatest impact on the "losers". On the one hand we have the contradictory and corrupting messages of an increasingly global "culture of affluence". On the other are the pressures shaping the behaviours and values of those members of the underclass who feel that they have no stake in a socioeconomic system that has not worked for them -- even though their own subversive "culture of poverty" actually communicates a reverse mirroring of that society's dominant icons and ideals.

The powerful and all-pervasive images of "the culture of affluence" have been spread by Hollywood and the electronic media for decades. Their message that human worth is measured in items consumed, and that the universal right to unlimited consumption is somehow guaranteed in the nature of things, is rooted in the culture's defining, incompatible myths of absolute freedom and absolute equality. The concept of either public or private indebtedness is rendered meaningless in "the culture of affluence", for the incurring of debt is seen merely as the universally available accessing of a bottomless well of mysteriously created government- or bank- funds, none of which are understood to have any connection to real productive endeavour on the part of anyone. This produces an "evolutionarily unstable" situation, one result of which is a cumulative erosion of the general public commitment to honesty and responsibility as virtues.

In the case of the underclass with its governing "culture of poverty", this cavalier attitude toward the means of acquiring and maintaining culturally celebrated life styles takes the form of a ready acceptance of outright property theft as an eminently viable alternative both to unattainable private borrowing and the (inevitably limited) public trough. Virtually absent in both cultures is a sense of responsibility for the effects of one's behaviours on the environment; or upon the social group with whom one interacts; or for the lives of those who follow after. This is because such concerns require the deferring of instant gratification on the part of individuals and the recognition that all of one's freedoms and entitlements are necessarily limited by the rights and entitlements of others and the resources produced by the total group – capacities and understandings noticeably lacking in the roles modelled and values communicated by the advertising industry and entertainment media.

Meaningful education becomes next to impossible in such a situation, because the major objective of education is in direct conflict with the dominant cultural imperatives. As I noted in Chapter 4 on the specifics of the learning process and its relationship to education: "In general terms, the educational goal is to bring long-term consequences into the learner's purview. It is to utilize the child's developing empathy, imagination and reason to make the prospect of distant "goods" function as reinforcements, in place of immediate rewards.... Ultimately, education is about the capacity to defer instant gratification and to make wise choices by applying time-tested ethical principles to the predictable future effects of current actions – for society as well as oneself."

Because I consider Chapter 4 on "How Children Learn" to be the core of my proposed evolutionary-systems theory of human socialization, and because I suspect that it will prove to be of particular interest to educators, I will devote the remainder of my response to this particular chapter. My objective here was to contribute to a developing synthesis of the most enduring and well-supported structures associated with the major models of learning in use today, in conjunction with recent findings in neuroscience. I felt that only by this means could we begin to build a candidate for paradigm status in this area of study. My proposed model is then elaborated and explained under such subtitles as the following: "children as primitive scientists", "children as geographers in a foreign land", "children as primitive artists" and "children as recapitulators of cultural evolution". The book's remaining chapters demonstrate how this theoretical perspective can be employed in dealing with major social problems directly affecting socialization today: problems such as the impact of media violence on human development, bureaucratization and its effect on the potential for rational and empirically based social change, social inequality, the re-emergence of tribalism and the anti-educational consequences of our rapidly growing "culture of fantasy".

Four fundamental features of learning are discussed. First there are the techniques employed by learners in attempts to satiate hard-wired needs for sustenance, security, acceptance and control of the surroundings. These all-important tools for accessing and attributing meaning to the environment as experienced are identified as imitation and trial and error – both of which come into play immediately upon birth. To a large extent the learner's thrusts into the environment are fuelled by curiosity, which operates in response to a sensation of disjunction or lack of fit between current inputs and those previously assimilated and accommodated within the internal "mapping" or integrating system.

Next we have the specific processes or cause-and-effect regularities that serve to initiate, extend and reinforce what is assimilated by means of imitation and trial and error . The first of these is classical conditioning, which results in the substitution for original organic stimuli of simultaneous occurrences in the surroundings – as when the baby begins to gurgle with pleasure at the sight of the mother's breast, or at any other regular prelude to feeding. This is critical because it has the immediate effect of transforming the environment into a rich source of selective forces on behaviour. The second key process is operant conditioning. It allows for the actual selection of the most workable and rewarding responses as a direct consequence of environmental feedback in the form of positive or negative reinforcement.

The third feature of learning is its systematic nature. This makes possible a continuously increasing accommodation or integration of environmental inputs as new stimulus-response regularities and reflected images are embedded in the mental circuitry. These increasingly integrated systems of meaning (sometimes described as "maps" for making sense out of the surroundings) lead to a corresponding increase in complexity of mental organization and in the reliability of the regularities in experience that are retained, much as in the case of science at the cultural level. All this, in turn, explains the developmental nature of learning. Each system of neural connections or synapses builds upon the previous one, in an incremental, and occasionally stage-like, fashion that appears to parallel cultural evolution in the species as a whole.

The evolutionary-systems perspective enables us to view the learning individual and the evolving species as complex adaptive systems undergoing change by means of similar feedback mechanisms. In both instances we can recognize a three-way interactive process among genetic inheritance, culture and physical environment – what I call the "Triple Helix". In the case of individual development, feedback in the form of the approbation or ignoring or punishment of significant others – or increased power to make sense of (or control) the surroundings – functions to reinforce and thereby select certain behaviours, attitudes and beliefs in the repertoire of the learning individual, and to cause others to fade away and disappear. In the case of the evolution of species, environmental feedback results in the selection of those individuals with traits that allow them to adapt readily to new environmental challenges over those not so fortunately endowed by their genes or cultures.

To sum up with an oversimplification: for the learning individual, as with evolution, it is consequences that count. Whether we think of the anorexic child responding perversely to the attentions of the anxious parent; or the little renegade responding ever more disruptively to the teacher's exclusive focus on his behaviour; or the bureaucrat firing the whistle blower and hiring the less knowledgeable and independent; we can be sure that we get more of the attitudes and behaviours that we, in some sense, reward by our responses.

Perhaps a fitting conclusion to this discussion might be the following paragraph from the closing section of the book. "The previous chapters have demonstrated how the character of the individual and the culture of the group are inextricably intertwined and interdependent. There is thus no issue of either/or; of whether we should begin with the individual or with the content of the culture of society at large. The battle to rebuild both character and culture must be engaged on all fronts – and with whatever influence we can muster. The evolutionary-systems model implies that we must ask of every social program and every physical setting: 'What have been the consequences of people's actions here, regardless of what was originally intended?' and "What values and behaviours are actually being reinforced?' and finally, 'How can we alter the established ways of rewarding behaviour so as to achieve more fulfilling and constructive ends for all concerned?'"