Pavlov's Dogs and American Education: For the Past Century, Behavioral Psychology and Revolutionary Socialism Have Combined to Wreak Educational and Social Havoc

By Blumenfeld, Samuel L. | The New American, September 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Pavlov's Dogs and American Education: For the Past Century, Behavioral Psychology and Revolutionary Socialism Have Combined to Wreak Educational and Social Havoc


Blumenfeld, Samuel L., The New American


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You might ask, what have Pavlov's dogs got to do with educating American children? More than you think.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, the Russian experimental psychologist, was born in 1849 in the town of Rayazan. His father was a priest, and he was raised in the Russian Orthodox tradition. He was attracted to the study of science, and in 1870 entered St. Petersburg University. In 1875, he got his degree in Natural Sciences. He then went on to study medicine, after which he entered the Veterinary Institute where he stayed for 10 years doing research on digestion.

After a visit to Germany, where he studied at the laboratories of Rudolf Heidenhain in Breslau and Karl Ludwig in Leipzig, he returned to Russia and decided to focus his attention on the study of glandular secretions--saliva and gastric juices. He selected the dog as his experimental animal and devised surgical techniques which made it possible to establish "permanent fistulas (tubes)" in connection with the principal organs of digestion (salivary glands, stomach, liver, pancreas, parts of the intestine).

His experiments were difficult to carry out while keeping the dogs not only alive but healthy. It took the sacrifice of 30 dogs before he could get the surgical procedure right. How did Pavlov get his dogs? He relates: "At that time dogs were collected with the help of street thieves, who used to steal those with collars as well as those without. No doubt we shared the onus of the sin with the thieves."

In 1895, Pavlov was appointed to a chair in physiology at the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, and in 1904 was awarded the Nobel Prize. Pavlov had discovered that in every case, glandular secretion was determined by one or more reflex actions.

Actually, Pavlov recognized that there are two types of reflexes: unconditioned and conditioned. An unconditioned reflex is an innate response to stimuli that occurs naturally, without any learning involved. For example, when you are driving a car and enter a dark tunnel in daylight, your eyes automatically adjust to the change in light. However, a conditioned reflex is a learned response, as when you see a red light, you automatically put your foot on the brake. You have acquired an automatic response to stimuli--a conditioned or learned reflex, a habit.

Rejecting his religious upbringing in favor of the materialist worldview, Pavlov came to believe that science had to free itself from religious dogma concerning the soul. The soul had no place in science, he concluded, and the mind was simply the monitor and transmitter of signal-stimuli from the external world on the one hand, and the organism's responses on the other. Pavlov disliked any talk of "freedom of choice." To him such talk was an offense against scientific rigor.

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Although the communists took control of Russia in 1917, Pavlov was able to continue his work unhindered in what became the State Institute of Experimental Psychology supported by government funding. Since Pavlov was both a Darwinist and a behaviorist, there was no ideological conflict between him and the new Marxist-Leninist government, which denied God and viewed man as nothing more than an animal whose behavior could be shaped by the State.

In 1920, Pavlov and his colleagues embarked on a long-term experimental investigation. The aim of the experiments was to learn how to artificially create human disorganization for the purpose of controlling and reorienting human behavior. In The Nature of Human Conflicts (1932), influential Soviet psychologist Dr. A.L. Luria gives us a full account of the experiments and what they revealed. "The chief problems of the author," Luria wrote in his Preface, "were an objective and materialistic description of the mechanisms lying at the basis of the disorganization of human behavior and an experimental approach to the laws of its regulation. …

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