Walden Two's Bastard Child


By ex-member Nexus

Twin Oaks is not like Walden Two. While the novel was the original inspiration for the real-life community, and was largely responsible for what little cohesion the group had in its early years, all of the key Walden Two elements have since been dropped, including behavioral psychology, autocratic government, communal child-rearing, and the variable labor-credit. Why did Twin Oaks completely abandon Walden Two? Should we morn the loss of a Walden Two community that could have been? I say no. Given the circumstances of its inception, I believe that there was no way Twin Oaks ever could have achieved the Walden Two vision.

Twin Oaks Never Had A Chance to Become Like Walden Two

Insufficient Money in the Beginning

Twin Oaks was started by various kinds of people, some of whom had a deep, passionate longing for the life portrayed in Walden Two. While Walden Two lacked for nothing materially, Twin Oaks was in tight financial straits from the very beginning. If it had not been for the free, six-year lease on their land given to them by a benefactor, the community never could have happened. In fact they had to appeal to their benefactor a second time for money to construct their first building. Without that building, which was erected within 6 months of the community's founding in June of 1967, Twin Oaks probably would have folded due to lack of heated indoor living space when winter came. The cost of constructing that first building is very telling: $3,000. But Twin Oaks really splurged on its second residence building. It cost a whopping $5,000. In order to save a few hundred dollars, they laid a foundation of asphalt instead of concrete. Early Twin Oakers were each given a generous 25 cents a week for spending money. In March of 1968, the community's savings had dwindled to $110. Had Frasier ever disclosed the details of how Walden Two had been founded, I'm sure we would see that he and the other five planners had greater financial means at hand.

Unlike the academics at the 1966 Waldenwoods conference who were waiting for a Ford Foundation grant, these folks were ready to start their community with next to nothing. In many ways, early Twin Oaks was a sort of grassroots communism which sought to liberate the world from wage slavery and consumerism, and give the good life to everyone who was willing to work their quota of labor credits. It was a dedicated passion for equality, rather than shrewd planning, abundant resources, or a coherent group ideology which enabled Twin Oaks to survive.

Hippies: Salvation for Twin Oaks, Death Knell for Walden Two

Any aspirations the founders had of creating Walden Two were doomed from the start by a synergy of two factors: poverty and the need for new members. Twin Oaks had very little money, and a large debt to its benefactor. A condition of the lease on the land was that Twin Oaks had to have a continuously increasing population. Most people who joined Twin Oaks in its beginning left the community after a very short time. Even dedicated Walden Two enthusiasts found the dirt and the poverty hard to take. For the first year, the average stay of membership was 3 months. The next year, it went up to six months. Twin Oaks was in dire need of new members, not just to replace the ones that left, but also to meet the requirement of the lease for a growing population. Accepting and attempting to integrate new members at a high rate fueled interpersonal friction which contributed to members deciding to leave. Twin Oaks needed more members in order to make ends meet financially. Twin Oaks needed more members to build new residence buildings to house yet more members.

Twin Oaks hoped to attract people who believed in behaviorism as the cure to all social ills, who believed Skinner's Walden Two vision to be the best possible application of behaviorism, and who were willing to tolerate the initial rough living conditions of Twin Oaks while giving the community all their income and assets. This kind of prospective member was in surprisingly short supply. It is perhaps by coincidence that the year of Twin Oaks' founding happened to be 1967. Due to that fortuitous timing, Twin Oaks had the mixed blessing of having an ocean of people outside the gates who were ready and willing to start living an alternative lifestyle, dirt and poverty be damned. These people were the hippies: young, idealistic, alienated from mainstream society, and semi-cohesive in their beliefs. This may have seemed like a gift from heaven, except for one catch: hippie ideology differed greatly from the ideology of Walden Two. The fact that there were some areas where these two ideologies overlapped meant that these newcomers were semi-compatible with Twin Oaks. That degree of compatibility meant that Twin Oaks had to lay aside it's apprehension and accept them into the community, given how badly new members were needed. The presence, and soon dominance, of this hippie ideology assured the end of the Walden Two vision.

The hippies had much in common with Walden Two, including abandonment of consumerism and traditional notions of acceptability, an ethic of all-encompassing equality, and proud, fantastic dreams of transforming the world into a paradise within a short period of time. Walden Two, however, is also based on notions of autocratic philosopher-kings, submission to behavioral control by benevolent scientists, and reason dominant over emotion. In contrast, hippies tend to believe in democracy, extreme personal liberty, and, "love conquers all." Walden Two was about cleanliness, order, and perfection, while hippie ideology was about the hyper-casual (perhaps dirty), spontaneity, and being mellow. In Walden Two, Frasier said, "Give me the specifications, and I'll give you the man!" while hippies would counter, "Just be yourself and don't put your trips on other people, man." It is not surprising that Walden Two was left behind when hippies became the majority at Twin Oaks.

Do hippies deserve the blame for pushing Twin Oaks off of its Walden Two track? No. Hippies represented only the first of several cultural waves that swept through Twin Oaks. The Human Potential Movement, with its primal scream therapy soon followed and seemed to take hold for a while. Keep in mind that only three of the eight original founders of Twin Oaks were Walden Two enthusiasts. And the primary emotional commitment of those three was to communism, and only secondarily to behaviorism. There was no screening process for new members. It was inevitable that what Walden Two focus there was in the community would quickly become diluted, if not by hippies, then by others.

Insufficient Understanding of Behaviorism

The founders of Twin Oaks were not scientists. They had an incomplete, at best, understanding of behaviorism. They assumed that once the community was established, behavioral psychologists would be attracted to live there. Many members did not like the idea of someone else controlling their behavior. Some conducted amateur experiments on themselves to curb bad habits. They charted their progress and rewarded themselves with M&M's. But these experiments were little more than games, and only happened a few times.

The concept of positive reinforcement lives on at Twin Oaks in the form of providing treat food in certain kinds of work areas to encourage members to volunteer for particular kinds of work. These attempts at positive reinforcement have come to be called, "juicing." Fruit juice is provided in the hammock shop to encourage hammock production. When cookies are baked or coffee is brewed for the same purpose, the practice is still referred to as, "juicing," the workers. When someone says a particular kind of work is intrinsically rewarding, they say the work is, "juicy." Is this behaviorism? Since there was not the collective will to restrict the coffee and juice to hammock workers only, now the norm is that treats are available to all, regardless of work performed. What once was a reward is now viewed as an entitlement.

Where Were the Psychologists When They Were Needed?

Behavioral psychologists never flocked to join Twin Oaks. Perhaps they intuited that Twin Oaks was only ostensibly behaviorist. Maybe they could not tolerate the early poverty of the community. Or perhaps moving into a commune with an uncertain future was not viewed as a promising career move. In any case, it was unlikely that Twin Oaks could have successfully emulated Walden Two without professional psychological help.

Twin Oaks: Experiment or Accident?

Twin Oaks is called an intentional community, but it is remarkable how little rational planning was done in the founding of the community. It is equally remarkable that the community evolved its current high level of organization given its shaky beginning.

Kat Kinkade writes in A Walden Two Experiment about the founding of Twin Oaks, "we wanted community and we wanted it right then, money or no money, psychologists or no psychologists, planning or no planning." Community is what they got. Money and planning came later, but the behavioral psychologists never came. Twin Oaks had no idea how it would support itself financially. When the community nearly went broke, members resorted to commuting to jobs in the city of Richmond. Twin Oaks had no idea how it would govern itself. On the day of its founding, Twin Oaks adopted the hyper-democratic (and very un-Walden Two-like) governmental form of consensus, but then hastily abandoned it when it became clear that the group would not accept the concept of one dissenter being able to block a popular decision. There was no membership screening at all for the first four years. Some people who were accepted for membership turned out to be lazy, incompetent, rude, or psychologically disturbed. When a selection process was finally instituted, decisions were based on the likeabilty of each applicant, and not on applicant's dedication to the Walden Two vision. Twin Oaks originally had a vague mission to create, "the good life," as imagined by B.F. Skinner, but there was no strategy for how to go about it. For instance, the community invested an enormous amount of effort into farming despite the fact that it was not profitable and drained available labor from other needed areas. The founders were simply enamored of the mystique of farm life, rather than pursuing a rational plan.

If the founders of Twin Oaks had planned ahead, perhaps they would have planned a labor system and government before acquiring land. They could have outlined a reasonable strategy for achieving Walden Two. They could have solicited donations, or worked extra jobs to accrue enough capital to build an adequate physical infrastructure on their land before inviting others to join. They could have made sure only the right kinds of people joined, especially when the community was young and vulnerable. They could have gotten at least one behavioral psychologist to be in the group of founders. They could have held off on farming until it could be determined that farming was likely to earn a profit, or at least save them money over buying food.

Twin Oaks as Field of Dreams

In the movie Field of Dreams, the main character is builds a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield, because he is prompted by an inner voice which promises, "if you build it, they will come." Against all logic, the protagonist heeds his inner voice, and his baseball field attracts not only the ghosts of famous deceased baseball players, but also thousands of real live people who aren't quite sure what drew them there.

Similarly, Twin Oaks was started by a few people with a blind faith that if they started a commune, many others would come and join it. The commune did not summon the ghosts of 19th century utopians, but it did attract hundreds of people from many nations, some of whom were not quite sure what drew them there.

Twin Oaks as Fantasy Island

One reason contributing to the ongoing success of Twin Oaks might be the very fact that it is not based on one single vision, such as Walden Two. The vagueness of Twin Oaks enables newcomers to project their own utopian dreams onto the community. Many members have ambitions of changing the community to better fit their own personal goals and beliefs. As long as members believe that there is hope for the kind of reforms they desire at Twin Oaks, they will remain in the community. Members who leave usually do so because they have abandoned hope that they can pursue their dreams while staying at Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks still needs additional members to replace the ones who leave. It is likely that many of those who join will believe that Twin Oaks is the place where their dreams can come true.

If Walden Two were built right next to Twin Oaks, which community would fare better? Walden Two seems to have everything going for it: planning, organization, an advanced science of human behavior, a symphony orchestra, and a perfectly contented populace. But Twin Oaks has the advantage of having a more vague mission. Walden Two members who feel constrained by behaviorist dogma might leave to join Twin Oaks where they believe they can more directly exercise their will in the political arena. Walden Two could soon find itself having a dearth of members.

Walden Two Is Impossible; That's Why It Was Written As Fiction

If B.F. Skinner was at all confident about his Walden Two vision, he would have written it as a nonfiction how-to guide, and then he probably would have proceeded to start his own Walden Two community. It should not be surprising that it was difficult to base a real community on a highly theoretical novel.

Looking Backward for a Better Model

At least half the ideas in Walden Two are derived from the 1887 utopian novel, Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. I think Twin Oaks would have done better to base itself on this book instead. Why was Walden Two chosen? I think because it was wrapped in the mystique of science, while Looking Backward was a dusty relic of proto-socialism.

Twin Oaks Today Superficially Resembles Walden Two

Land

Farm

Pond

Buildings: Food storage underground, adjacent to the dining hall.

Industries: Walden Two had a wool-weaving shop and a furniture-making business. Twin Oaks has a hammock-weaving shop and a casual furniture business.

Self-sufficiency. Like Walden Two, Twin Oaks is partially self-sufficient.

Food: Meals are served communally at Twin Oaks from a self-service steam table, just like in Walden Two.

Medical Care:

"Industrialized Housewifery"

Social: It's not unlikely to find

Political Apathy: In Walden Two, Frasier said that he could fit every member who was interested in world politics, "in one corner of one room." At Twin Oaks, there is a political activism committee open to all. Their monthly meetings have an average attendance of 5.

These characteristics, more than behaviorism, are largely what Inspired the founders. If we judge the community by the intent of its founders, rather than juxtaposing it to Walden Two, we can conclude that Twin Oaks is a resounding success.