For this the first in The Michigan Daily’s series of viewpoints written by faculty members, I would like to recall an incident that I consider one of the most important of my undergraduate experience.

During the early 1960s I was a cub reporter for the student newspaper at the University of California at Los Angeles, The Daily Bruin. One day, I got the assignment to interview the famous psychologist and sociologist B. F. Skinner, who was visiting campus to deliver an endowed lecture.

Skinner’s utopian novel “Walden Two” had been assigned reading in one of my courses, and I was impressed with its ingenuity and argumentative rigor. It imagines a community founded and entirely controlled by a behavioral psychologist named Frazier, who adjusts a system of rewards so cunningly that the residents never suffer the disappointments and emotional turmoil that trouble the rest of the world. Peace of mind is the ultimate goal of this experimental community. The social engineering applied by its philosopher-king guarantees that the pastoral ethics associated with Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” – simplicity, productive work and natural piety – keep each citizen contented and virtuous.

Skinner and I dueled – if that’s the word – about the most controversial portion of the book: The denial of free will as a principle of conduct. He had heard my arguments on behalf of freedom hundreds of times and in fact made the debate over free will a central part of his novel. But then I hazarded a question he didn’t expect. I noted that the residents at one point are staging a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s dark play “Hedda Gabler” and on another occasion Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B Minor.” How, I asked him, could people who had spent their lives being shielded from negative emotions possibly appreciate these works full of anguish and tribulation?

He surprised me by falling silent, brooding for a bit, and then saying, “You’re right, the people of ‘Walden Two’ couldn’t possibly understand such works of art. I must change that in the next edition.” (He never did, which raises another set of questions.)

I was flabbergasted. It was as if Albert Einstein had told me that he was revising his theory of relativity because of a question I’d posed.

This was a moment that reverberated throughout my graduate school and teaching career. What it suggested to me was that authority could not be absolute, and that the viability of education, of social progress itself, depended on the give and take, the push and pull, of younger and older minds. Skinner’s willingness to acknowledge his error demonstrated that learning occurs on both sides of what can seem to be an unequal dialogue.

Students sometimes believe that professors do not want to be disputed, that they want students to “parrot back” or (less politely) “regurgitate” the exact content of lectures in their exams and papers. Although there may be the occasional benighted professor who punishes students for disagreeing with him on even the most trivial point, the vast majority of instructors enjoy being challenged by well-informed, well-articulated objections or alternative readings of the evidence.

It may be that instructors need to use some positive reinforcement on this matter. Students are naturally cautious in the classroom, fearing the kind of withering retorts made famous in films like “The Paper Chase,” not to mention peer responses of a negative kind. Welcoming tough questions as well as sustained disagreement in written assignments without ceding so much authority that chaos ensues provides a model of how learning occurs.

The comfort zone for critical thinking is likely to vary from class to class and discipline to discipline. Literary study puts a premium on ambiguity and invites revisionism, even as it insists on mastering a long tradition in order to figure out what evidence is useful for a persuasive interpretation of the text at hand. Students need a nimble intuitive sense to situate themselves in a new class and a new field of study, but in all cases, they should settle into a stimulating and productive rapport with the instructor, who has, or ought to have, their best interests at heart.

“What is love,” asked B. F. Skinner, “except another name for the use of positive reinforcement?” Well, I still don’t agree with him about love, and I still champion the agency of free will. But he taught me something about intellectual curiosity. I tip my hat to him at 45 years’ distance for subverting the mystique of invulnerable authority, and I thank him for a vital lesson in education – my chosen profession since that sophomore year.

Laurence Goldstein is editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review and a professor of English at the University.

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