Behavior Mod and the Managed Society, by Robert L. Geiser, Boston: Beacon, 1976, 175 pp., $9.95
The Myth of the Hyperactive Child (and Other Means of Child Control), by Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky, New York: Pantheon, 1975, 285 pp., $10/ $2.25
The Tomorrow File, by Lawrence Sanders, New York: G.P. Putnam, Berkley Medallion, 1976, 551 pp., $1.95 (paper)
Science fiction is defined as "fiction of a highly imaginative or fantastic kind typically involving some actual or projected scientific phenomenon. (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1970).
Nowadays it's frequently hard to tell where reality ends and science fiction begins, a fact underscored by three recent books. The first two are about today's society, the third is science fiction, and the similarities are devastating.
In Behavior Mod and the Managed Society, Robert L. Geiser, chief psychologist in a Massachusetts child study center, tackles B.F. Skinner and his apostles with the charge that their motivation, whether they acknowledge it or not, is actually to control others.
With an extensive array of evidence, Geiser backs his contention that behavior mod is being practiced in prisons, mental hospitals, and schools. He argues that these controlled environments are being used as a laboratory for experiments aimed at perfecting procedures to be foisted on all of society in the future. He questions, as have others, the morality of tinkering with another's psychology, even for a "good cause." While not explicitly demolishing the logical errors of determinism, Geiser does observe that most behavior modders (his term) discount the role of cognition (man's mind) in learning and in behavior changes.
He acknowledges that a few do, indeed, utilize cognitive ability in changing behavior, but such strategies are limited to voluntary programs—those to help people to quit smoking or drinking or to lose weight, for example. Inside institutions, current theorists and handlers treat people as if their minds are, if not nonexistent, at least unnecessary. Prisoners, school children, and mental patients are subjected to all sorts of evils in the name of science. Most of the subject institutions, by the way, are financed and their programs are approved by government, local and federal.
The "treatments" provided to their charges include:
• Psychosurgery (not frontal lobotomies any more, but other, "more sophisticated," surgeries)
• Drugs (a large variety, including one that paralyzes prisoners until they panic for their lives—"aversion therapy")
• Electric shock (via electrified cattle prods, which "motivate" retarded and learning-disabled children to move)
• Tokens and goodies (M&M's, smiles, pats, and kind words, used to reward some behavior in a process known as operant conditioning)
The alleged purpose of the described therapies is to get people to exhibit acceptable behaviors, with "acceptable" defined as that which causes no trouble for those in charge: guards in prisons, teachers in schools, caretakers in mental hospitals.
Behavior Mod and the Managed Society is an incredible book to read because it describes and documents procedures that are happening here, now. One thinks such savagery could only be imposed in countries where dictatorships tolerate no differences of opinion or personality. Since Geiser notices that the behavior-mod communes/societies (patterned after Skinner's Walden Two) have not worked well, he concludes that it's unlikely that behavior modders actually will be able to manage society.
But, that's the one poorly documented conclusion in his book. And the second book discloses yet another strategy that potential dictators have at hand—the conditioning of very young children.
In The Myth of the Hyperactive Child, Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky examine the rapidly spreading notion that many behavior problems are but symptoms of minimal brain dysfunction—which can and must be caught early and "treated." The authors emphasize that the "treatments" they describe are not those used with authentically handicapped children such as the severely retarded, the blind, the deaf, or the autistic. Rather, they are prescribed for children such as yours and mine—kids of average or above-average intelligence with their limbs and sensory organs intact—who deviate, however slightly, from an established norm. Their so-called problems range from not being able to sit still in school, to "predelinquency," as determined by teachers, social workers, or law-enforcement officers, often ill-qualified. (But even if they were highly qualified, the term "predelinquent" has no specific meaning and is, in itself, nonsense.)
Schrag and Divoky are concerned with the rampant labeling, drugging, and shaping of and compiling of dossiers on fairly normal kids. While acknowledging that a minuscule percentage of children actually do have brain dysfunction problems that should be helped, they counter that the indiscriminate application of a diagnosis such as "hyperkinetic" or "hyperactive" (which refer to specific problems) is a cruel and incompetent travesty. But it's happening every day. Such an appellation has been attached to an autistic three-year-old who got nervous when visiting his pediatrician, to a child who fell behind his peer group in learning to speak, to a kindergartner who found it difficult to sit still in class, even to a four-year-old whose nervous behavior was later found to be a reaction to food allergies. In each of these cases, the last three at the referral of a "lay counsellor," a pediatrician prescribed Ritalin or another amphetamine for the children.
Drugging, of course, does not get to the problem itself. The child still has a problem. But now he's drugged and peaceable, so the parent or the teacher or the social worker or the law-enforcement official doesn't have the problem anymore. That the child is likely to be depressed and miserable, his normal development impaired—let alone the risk of his becoming addicted—is seen as a small price to pay for quiet in the home, the classroom, or the society.
One of the most alarming aspects of the thrust toward child control is the designation of normal kids as "predelinquents." Schrag and Divoky report that mostly these are children who have run away from home, smoked a joint, or drunk a beer—and been caught. Typically, they are coerced into behavior-mod classes or therapy by the Catch-22 threat that, if they don't, they'll be prosecuted and "get a record." But, in order to justify treatment, the kids are booked into a substructure of police records that in many places are computerized and circulated even more freely than court records. That police record, along with school records, forms a dossier available to almost everyone. Whether it's right or wrong, whether or not the child is cleared of any charges, it's there in black and white, available to all other governmental agencies and often to colleges and prospective employers. The parents and the child, however, usually can't even see the dossier unless they sue. Getting it changed is impossible—the only recourse, even through extensive court action, is to add to the existing dossier a "statement" of dissension.
The book starts by quoting a 1969 memo from then-President Nixon to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare asking advice on a proposal by one Dr. Arnold A. Hutschnecker that advocated the virtual takeover of children by state and federal governments. Although much too heavy-handed ever to be swallowed whole by the American public, it came hard on the heels of the Great Societies of Kennedy and Johnson and has become the tacit premise upon which today's social workers, teachers, and school administrators act. Having provided excellent documentation, the book ends with a restatement of individual rights and a serious warning about their demise.
Both The Myth of the Hyperactive Child and Behavior Mod and the Managed Society are nonfiction, written to disclose what's happening so that individuals may take action. And if we don't.…
The Tomorrow File projects a culture where all the evils delineated by the first two books are built into the value system of the people. Set in 1998, The Tomorrow File presents an almost totally controlled populace from the point of view of the protagonist, Nicholas Bennington Flair. Flair is brilliant, with his high native intelligence aided by drugs, and has attained a top bureaucratic post in the hierarchy of the State.
Lawrence Sanders, the author, lets language disclose the history of what has gone before. People are now "objects." Dissenters are "obsos" who haven't been shaped by behavior mod, drugs, or genetic tinkering. What happens to individuals and their minds under these conditions constitutes the plot. Sanders does not pronounce moral judgment, although he leads the reader right to that door. His method makes the book exceptionally chilling; true horror is present in the events by their telling.
Sanders, who has also written a couple of other good mysteries (The Anderson Tapes, The First Deadly Sin, and The Second Deadly Sin), has structured this book as another who-done-it. It's well written, but I can't say it's entertaining. Rather, I'd describe it as being frighteningly significant. The reader is challenged to identify it all and tie it to today's happenings. For instance, a speech given by one of the "bad guys" defending the latest proposed attack on individual rights sounds very close to Senator Edward Kennedy defending gun control or proposing reforms of the criminal justice system.
If you still need a warning of what can happen to a society if the increased manipulation of people's psyches is not stopped, read The Tomorrow File. And if you still think that The Tomorrow File can't happen here, read the other two books.
In our march toward 1984, science fiction is well along the way to becoming science fact.
Ms. Baldridge, a public school and Montessori teacher, is currently researching a book on contemporary educational practices.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Behavior Mod and the Managed Society; The Myth of the Hyperactive Child (and Other Means of Child Control); The Tomorrow File".