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The Trap in Psychology and Education

Watching the Trap at this point in my life is timely on so many levels. For the obvious reasons of the way the world is right now, and also for the reason that as an individual, I am at a point where I question everything, especially what freedom and liberty mean to me.

There are so many ways in which this documentary got me thinking, and it is hard for me to choose one to talk about here. But, based on my background and what I am studying right now, the easy parallels for me to draw are to psychology and education.

The way that psychiatrists and economists reduced human beings to machines that can be analyzed and dissected by symptoms and behaviors mirrors the early behaviorist and conditioning approach in psychology as pioneered by Pavlov (you can also play a dog drooling game here!), Watson, and Skinner. It even extends to the popular cognitivist analogy which took advantage of the age of the computer to approach the workings of the mind as though it were a computer. At the time, these approaches made sense, and I believe that both situations are examples of people trying to make sense of who we are and how we work. I don’t think it is inherently wrong, but, having said that, I do believe that the eagerness with which to apply these ‘theories’ to populations with the promise of a ‘better life’ is definitely stretching it. Jerome Bruner’s article (Bruner, J. (1990). The proper study of man. In Acts of meaning. London: Harvard University Press.) talks about how computers were used as an analogy for the human mind. Howard Gardner also gives a great overview of how the landscape of psychological thought changed over time. (Gardner, H. 1985 – The Mind’s New Science, Chapter 3)

It also reminds me of the whole quantitative vs qualitative methods of research. Quantitative methods were born from the ‘hard’ sciences as they are sometimes called – chemistry, physics and other physical sciences. This being a proved method of achieving results, was forced into the social sciences and was set as a standard by which social scientists could ‘prove’ human behaviors, etc. Of course, with time, it became obvious that following a purely quantitative methodology ignored many aspects of human behavior and culture. Guba and Lincoln wrote a great article about the ‘received view’ as they called quantitative methodology and the pros and cons of these, focusing on the fact that these methods completely ignored individual differences and hence could not really be applicable to the population. (Guba, E G. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994). Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.).

There are many parallels from an educational standpoint as well. One that stands out for me and relates most to ‘revolution’ is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.Besides other wonderful ideals that were also followed by revolutionaries like Guevara, Freire talks about the ‘banking’ method of education in which an elite, knowledgeable group of people ‘deposit’ factual knowledge into learners without supporting any real ‘learning’. He espouses a reciprocal relationship between teacher and student in which the teacher is also the student and the student is also the teacher – both working together to create a learning environment in which the teacher is not a dictator but a facilitator and guide who is also learning or relearning along with the student.

Overally, I loved what Nash said towards the end that although he stood by his Game Theory, he believes that people wrongly emphasized certain aspects of it to their advantage which should not have happened.

Through the documentary, and also through history, I think that human beings, in their search for balance, take to one or another viewpoint in the belief that it will help them achieve an ‘ideal’. Of course, this ideal is planted by the media, politicians, generations before… everyone wants to be better than they are right now and each person’s definition of that ‘better’ is different. I think it’s healthy to explore what makes us work as a race and to attempt to take on certain ways of living, but I do certainly believe that government, while it has its important roles to play in some aspects of life, should not be in charge of telling us what’s good for us. Berlin said it well when he said he didn’t want to be treated like a school boy and told what to do!