On an attempt to fix modernism with more modernism

I just finished reading Punished by Rewards by education writer Alfie Kohn. My wife informs me that this book was all the rage in education programs at the university during the mid-1990s. I was asked to read it as part of a book discussion group and figured I should write down a few thoughts. This is a book review of sorts, though it is an opportunity to talk about some larger issues.

First of all, I’ve been spoiled by reading so much N.T. Wright, David Bently Hart, C.S. Lewis and other people that are careful writers and thinkers and who define their words up front. In contrast, THIS book was full of mushy thinking, self-undermining arguments and a disingenuous use of language. Chief among these was the use of the term “reward”, of which the title refers. At various points the word is used to refer to golden stars handed out to elementary students, candy used as bribes for good behavior, all academic grades in general, salary and money paid for work of any kind, verbal praise, lighter punishments, intangible situations in the afterlife and sometimes something as general as any reciprocal social interaction or exchange. Again and again the context changed but the thing being critiqued was supposed to somehow, in the abstract, be mostly the same thing and treated as such with few qualifications.

That’s not to say all the ideas presented in the book are terrible. Some of them seem pretty sound, but it was a very mixed bag. I felt that at the end it mostly served to muddy the waters. I thought he book was going to be long on diagnosis, short on cure, but to his credit, Kohn really does have three fairly substantial chapters of suggestions at the end of the work. The problem is that almost none of them are likely to work – ironically, for the same reasons what he is critiquing doesn’t work. At the end of the day, the author is firmly stuck in the land of Modernism. He correctly identifies problems caused by Modernism, but all he has in his belt are the same old tools used to dig us in the hole in the first place. He has no answers but more of the same in a different form. I’ll get into some specifics in a bit.

The first chapter is a critique of B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist psychology and its dehumanizing effects. I was cheering enthusiastically through all of this. Wendel Berry would have approved.

Freedom is just another word for something left to learn: it is the way we refer to the ever-diminishing set of phenomena for which science has yet to specify the causes.

p.6, Summarizing B.F. Skinner’s definition of “freedom”

It was refreshing to hear a secularist critique scientism. I was optimistic at this point.

It is no accident that behaviorism is the [United States’] major contribution to the field of psychology, or that the only philosophical movement native to the U.S. is pragmatism. We are a nation that prefers acting to thinking, and practice to theory; we are suspicious of intellectuals, worshipful of technology, and fixated on the bottom line. We define ourselves by numbers – take-home pay and cholesterol counts, percentiles (how much does your baby weight?) and standardized test scores (how much does your child know?). By contrast, we are uneasy with intangibles and unscientific abstractions such as a sense of well-being or an intrinsic motivation to learn.


Things start to go south though in chapter two where he quotes a passage from Luke (the only scripture reference in the book) and reveals to even the half-witted reader than he has absolutely no grasp on the nature of the gospel. From there the talk runs the gamut of topics from Karma to Marx. With regards to parenting, he is always saying, “Ask the child, ask the child, ask the child.” I wanted to shout, “DUDE! They don’t know! Congratulations – you get to tell them.”

Lots of things we to today are terrible. Like what? Grades are bad, they are a distraction from actual learning. Spanking is bad it just causes resentment. Rewards are bad, they numb the receiver to real passion for the subject. Financial incentives are bad because then people won’t love what they do but only the money that comes from it. Bonuses are bad because they create bad vibes among coworkers. Bribes are unethical (where do these ethics come from anyway?). Competition is bad as it makes kids fight each other. Annual job evals are worthless because only regular continuous feedback is helpful. Giving people outside incentives is manipulation and therefore immoral because… just because.

And how does the author back up all these claims? “Recent research”, “Recent research”, “recent research”. This phrase appears literally hundreds of times throughout this book. It is used to justify virtually every assertion the author makes. Doing X is bad. Why? Recent research. Doing Y is good! Why? Recent research. Why did the chicken cross the road? Recent research. Good grief. Again, no sense of history, no imagination for pre-modern man, etc. The bibliography is practically wall-to-wall psych research from the 1970s. He seems ignorant of virtually all other disciplines as well as the last couple thousand years of human history. Aristotle had some really good things to say about education you know. But screw that, let’s just quote John Dewey some more. Bleh.

At the same time, some of his criticism was right on.

Standardized tests stifle and suffocate the best teachers – the ones who are innovative and creative – while doing little to reform the bad and lazy ones.

Stack ranking has been proven to be an absolutely terrible way to manage employees. A expose on the decline of Microsoft during the past decade found that every single ex-employee interviewed decried the practice as utterly insane. Once a year, every person in a unit (usually about a dozen people) were ranked in order from 1 to 10. Whoever was number 1 got a big raise and whoever was number 10 got fired, no matter what. It didn’t matter if the whole team was great and the number 10 guy was actually pretty good – he got fired. Or if the whole team was mediocre – it didn’t matter, the top guy still got a huge promotion regardless. Totally stupid right? But this went on for years and years with many people absolutely swearing it was a good idea. My friends tell me that schools in Korea do this too. From what I can tell, Ethiopian schools are the same.

Grades really do distract from the joy of learning, but they are only one element of an entire curriculum that, when applied to a large group, is going to forge ahead leaving some people in the dust and others bored on the sideline. Just about every page I read I found myself thinking, “Gee, homeschooling would automatically fix that, and that, and that.” I still think so.

At one point, Kohn talks about how he gave a lecture on all of this at a prestigious prep school. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the students had just finished a week of exams and were in the middle of applying for colleges, many of them trying to get into Harvard. Their applications were packed with extracurricular activities and club participation that was there solely to look good to the admission board – not because they cared one bit about actual activities. After talking about how grades and achievements and rewards were all not truly worth pursuing, one student stood up and asked, “Well, what else is there?” He admits that he had no answer.

I was actually a bit shocked to find he even recounted this story. He then proceeds to continue on his merry way, suggesting in passing that there is more to life than contrived achievements. But what? What!? He doesn’t have an answer. And that is because he is still trapped in modern materialism. Institutional schooling is all he knows. Hyperspecialization and scientism is the still the fallback. It’s the way he was trained. He knows something is terribly wrong, but can’t put his finger on it since his pointing finger is part of the problem. The truth is, you can’t answer any of these questions with psychology. You need philosophy and, dare I say it, theology.

Later, in one of the practical how-to chapters, he gives several suggestions about how to temper your praise of children. His points? I am not making this up:

1. Don’t praise people, only what they do.
2. Make praise as specific as possible (so again, it can be nailed down to an action or event, not a person)
3. Avoid phoney subjective praise. Evaluate performance objectively. (Yeah. Uh huh. Can anyone actually do this?)

There were some more points, but the first one blew me away. After all that talk about the perils of dehumanizing people, here we are back to being as materialist and pragmatic as possible. He needs to take his own advice from earlier in the book and not treat humans as robots. This sort of contradictory thought is everywhere in the work. I think he’s trying hard, but he just doesn’t have the right tools. His faith in science to reform itself appears unending.

At one point, he says that we need to “Decouple the task from the compensation.” You know, there is actually a word for that. It’s called LOVE.

To learn more about love though, you need to start with the fear of the creator – the one who is love itself. Eliminating competition and grades will do nothing to solve the root of our envy and violence. This is a sacred task that requires the dispensation of a supernatural agent – that of the Lord. All these things are excluded from the academy from the get-go, which is why all they have left is idle talk.

Still, to flip yet again, some of his advice was not bad. What is your child ALREADY engaged in? Start there to teach him new things. We constantly teach by example all day long. Go meta! Explain what you are doing. If you can’t get rid of grades, at least explain why they are in place and take some of the edge off them. Don’t let them remain a powerful mystery symbol. Natural consequences are best – avoid contrived situations.

Oddly enough, one of the best parts of the book was an appendix near the end where he spends about ten pages discussing the difficulties of defining what “intrinsic motivation” really is. He brings up some really good points and shows how the phrase is used in different contexts to mean different things and that when we discuss it we need to be aware of the various pieces of baggage. In my opinion, this sort of thing shouldn’t have been hidden in the back, but made front and center in the thesis of the work. If you are going to talk about something challenging, then call it out up front and do all you can to prevent your readers from getting confused or derailed. Don’t let things get muddy.

I concluded that about 80% of the advice in the book could be recovered if the context were discussed a bit more and an age qualification given. Some of Kohns ideas will only work with young adults, others only with very young children, but he almost never makes a distinction, preferring to treat everyone from babies to people in vocational colleges in the abstract. It doesn’t work. Perhaps in twenty years this author’s work has gotten more refined and nuanced. I hope so. Behaviorism is still in need of some serious push-back today.

I ended up feeling the same way about this book as I did about much of Robert Bly’s Iron John. With that work, you had a secular modernist that couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong with modernism. BUT, the only cure he could come up with was more modernism. In Bly’s case, he was forced to admit that something about modern feminism was destructive to men and so he turned to Jung and mythology to try and poetically bolster a masculine ideal. Nice try, but an imagined sacred just doesn’t cut the mustard. You need a real one. The same is true for this book. Using the most recent 20 years of ivory-tower output to trash the 20 years before it only goes so far. It’s like trying to clean up a mess with dirty rags.