Why Stop Asking?

Walden Two is a novel about an intentional society, or what we’d call a commune, based on scientific principles.

Its writer, B.F. Skinner, supposed that people could thrive while living communally. He wrote this book in an attempt to rewrite all our current social rules about work, love, and play.

I was at the dinner table last night discussing it with my folks and my fiancee. It was a good discussion.

What surprised me was that my folks knew about Walden Two. Though the book was written in the fifties, it really found its footing in the late sixties and early seventies, when they were growing up. There was a lot of talk about experimental ways of living during that time. People knew there was something wrong with society and sought new ways of living. They experimented. They asked the question “How is it that we should live?”

Something stuck in my craw during that conversation.

My ma had said:

“Oh, those big questions, we used to talk about that stuff all the time in college.”

College is an interesting time in a person’s life. It’s a time of exploration, a time where you can toy with ideas. Afterwards it’s time to get down to business, get that job, climb that ladder.

What’s weird about this, though, is that the more we grow as people, the better we are at answering these big existential questions.

When you’re young, your life experience is limited. You’ve laid a foundation, but that’s all you’ve done. It’s simply not possible that you’ve engaged with life’s questions in a meaningful way yet. Further, you feel most confident about the ideas you do find, because it’s easier to think that a single book can change all society when you haven’t read that many.

And that’s for those students that are motivated to explore. Most don’t. They go through college, they get the grades, maybe an internship or two, but they don’t really explore either. Exploration of ideas is hard, and it takes time.

I know because that was me in college. My own reading then was sadly lacking. I was on the doorstep of one of the greatest libraries in the world, and I rarely went in just to explore its stacks. Things that didn’t have a grade attached, the real opportunities for development, I either ignored or stumbled into through luck.

With Walden Two I made the classic college student mistake: I started to think this was a viable model of living for everyone within one reading. I wondered why more people didn’t do it.

“We could all live off the land! Work only a few hours a week! Raise our children communally!”

The difference, though, was my further reading.

It turns out Walden Two was not a good answer to the question of how we should live. The experimental communities tried. Most failed outright, or threw off Skinner’s ideas.

I could only understand this because I have a decade’s worth of experience on top of my college education. I better understand how to research and judge an idea.

Working in a library, of course, helps. But there are still those sad librarians that do not have time to read, just like there are sad college students that don’t either.

If I had stopped my reading in college, I never would’ve found Walden Two. I never would’ve found the lessons it taught me, or John Steinbeck, or Rachel Carson, or Raymond Chandler, or any of those great writers that hit you at just the right time to teach you something.

And there are lessons in Walden Two to be had; they’re just not the ones that Skinner intended.

The lessons you learn in college should be a setup for a long life of learning. It can be if you keep asking those questions, doing those things that college students are supposed to do: that is, exploring ideas.

It is my hope that you don’t give that up. It is my hope that you continue keep building the foundation that you set.

Even if you don’t work in a library.

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