Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chapter 2 - Young Alfred: Part 6 - School Days

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

The summer vacation at Rudnik provided a lively break from Alfred’s studies at the realschule (high school) which he attended in Warsaw the remainder of the year. (The family stayed in Warsaw during the winter, leaving the maintenance of Rudnik in the hands of a manager and the resident peasants.) The school routine kept him busy.
[G]oing to school meant getting out of the house at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Having some hasty breakfast, putting on my uniform, go to school, and in school I stayed up to three, four o’clock every day. And when I came home I was supposed to do three, four hours of home study of lessons. (21) 

‘Supposed to’ indeed. As the incident in the German class illustrates, Alfred did not do well with preparing his lessons. So he was by no means the best school student. He simply ‘got by’ on his examinations. Nonetheless he had become an excellent and eager learner by the time he left the realschule.

Alfred’s education had begun at home. From infancy, besides Polish and Russian, he had learned French and German from nurses and governesses. As a young child, he learned to read and write in those four languages and to do simple arithmetic. (He also may have had a rudimentary reading knowlege of English.) These early experiences with multiple languages (which he came to see as including mathematics) provided literal training in the notion which his work later helped to popularize—“the word is not the thing.” His ability to communicate in many tongues also made him conscious of the effects and importance of translation, i.e., finding different forms of representation and expression. His facility for learning languages also allowed him in later life to make himself at home wherever he lived.

Once Alfred knew how to read, he consumed books omnivorously. “The moment I began to read, I was reading whatever I could and then [inspired by] the training that my father had given me in physico-mathematical method. …I was personally indulging in scientific training, reading, reading, reading."(22)

One book he read quite early gave him a phrase which epitomized what seemed to him (even as a child) like an ideal attitude, that he later described in terms of delaying automatic reactions towards difficulties (not allowing them to unduly disturb him). In the book, an adventure story, the characters had gotten shipwrecked and were paddling away on some sort of flimsly raft surrounded by sharks. A shark went for the leg of one character, a British lord. To divert the shark the other passengers poked at the creature, who happily took a bite out of one of their paddles instead. Upon seeing the bitten-off paddle the lord exclaimed “Oh, how extraordinary!” Even as a young boy, Alfred found the attitude of ironic acceptance represented by this statement worth cultivating. For example, once at Rudnik a horse he was attempting to break to saddle threw him onto a pile of rocks. He felt considerable pain. Alfred recalled the phrase as he sat on the stones checking himself for broken bones (he had none)—“Oh, how extraordinary!” Korzybski applied the phrase to numerous ‘bitten-off paddles’ he encountered throughout his life. He recommended the phrase to his students as a salutary reminder.

After his formal schooling had begun, Alfred had spent several years at what he described as a “high-grade” private school where “we got less mathematics and physics, but we had a lot, too much, Latin and Greek”(23) (which he did not like or ever master). Then, his parents entered him in the realschule through what would roughly equal his middle school and high school years. The curriculum did not include Latin or Greek but rather focused on mathematics, physics, modern languages, and literature.

Alfred’s involvement with his own program of reading left him with little time for class preparation. In the course of his personal studies, he had evolved a system for approaching any subject. This approach helped him to keep up in class and get by on examinations. (The schools in Russian Poland gave out numerical marks and Alfred maintained the numerical equivalent of a C average.) In class during lectures he would sit in the first or second row. There he would scribble notes while closely attending to the teacher. “I listened like the dickens, trying to figure out what we are doing something for."(24) Generally, his teachers seemed to like him although some of them may have felt intimidated at times as Alfred sat there watching them with his serious furled brow and intent gaze. He was trying to find "the general principle…[the] general method” behind what they were presenting. (25) The principle of “grasping the whole”, and the methods he developed to do it, served as the basis for his later ability to understand different and difficult areas of scientific and mathematical knowledge (to the satisfaction of specialists) when developing his theory. He later recommended this approach, which included a method of reading and marking books, to his seminar students.

Alfred’s devotion to self-study was not an anomaly in the Poland of the 1890s (although the intensity with which he pursued it may have qualified as unusual even there.) A self-education movement had sprung up among those seeking to perpetuate and peacefully advance Polish culture. For many Poles, study had become a revolutionary act as people held classes in their homes on Polish history and literature as well as in science, philosophy, etc.—in Polish. This could not be done openly at the time in the schools and universities of Russian Poland.

There was more than book-learning to Alfred’s life in Warsaw, however. Although he did not have the opportunities for physical activity that he had in the summer at Rudnik, Alfred participated enthusiastically in sports—despite, or perhaps because of, a slight congenital hip displacement. At the realschule, he had physical education classes consisting of the Russian version of Swedish gymnastics exercises which included faux-military drills and marching with sticks. Alfred didn’t actually dislike the drilling and later on expressed some appreciation for the attitude of discipline it encouraged. This may have been around the time Alfred started his solitary swims in the Vistula River, which flows through Warsaw. In what he called “competitions with myself” he would swim across and back the wide and wild waterway. Whenever he could he continued this kind of adventurous swimming, in the Vistula and elsewhere, into his adult life. (In his early years in the United States, he swam in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans when he had the opportunity.) 
It was also probably while still at the realschule that Alfred began fencing, taking lessons from a well-known Warsaw fencing teacher.

Alfred’s parents provided him with piano lessons. He learned how to play, but not well. He confessed, “I didn’t work enough to become an expert.” Nonetheless, he could read music and sing, studied the great composers, and beside Chopin, found two favorites, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. He memorized much of their work, enjoying their “sad music” most of all. (26)

Alfred also received ‘religious instruction’. His parents, nominal Roman Catholics, did not regularly go to church although his mother had wanted him to become a priest. As part of its program, the realschule required classes on Catholicism for at least an hour a week. Alfred appreciated one teacher, a seven-foot tall priest named Count Ledochowski. The class turned out to be only peripherally about Catholic religion. Rather, Ledochowski lectured on comparative religions and was in Korzybski’s words “only slightly partial toward Catholicism.” Alfred thoroughly enjoyed the class and became friendly with Ledochowski. “We saw each other privately after school for discussion of the great world movements in the field of philosophy, if you wish, dogmatism if you wish, but all of that was so extremely flexible..."(27) Later on as a teacher, Korzybski promoted the benefits of studying comparative religions. Throughout his life, he remained more or less an agnostic disdaining as he did both “rabid theism” and “active atheism”.(28)

Despite his friendship with the priest, who was rumored to be a member of the Jesuit Order (banned in Tsarist Russia), Alfred had also begun to develop a distaste for the Catholic Church and in particular the Jesuit Order, which he sometimes privately referred to in later life as the “Catholic Gestapo”.(29) Many of the old szlachta, including apparently Korzybski's family, considered themselves noblemen first before any religion. In addition, they may have felt that despite the efforts of some individual clerics, the Church had not done enough to promote the Polish cause. Some also resented what they perceived as the Church’s hostility to science. Korzybski’s negative attitude toward Catholicism as a creed and the Church as an institution reflected such views.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
21. Korzybski 1947, p. 461. 

22. Korzybski 1947, p, 416.

23. Korzybski 1947, p. 39. 

24. Korzybski 1947, p. 41. 25. Ibid. 

26. Korzybski 1947, p. 425. 

27. Korzybski 1947, pp. 447-448. 

28. Korzybski 1994 (1933), p. 140. Active atheists would probably have a problem with Korzybski’s openness on the question of “G. O. D”. When asked whether or not he believed in God, he would spell out the letters and ask his questioner, “What do you mean by ‘Gee Oh Dee’?” His late-life speculations about a ‘supreme power’ sounded like the views of a rather broad-minded agnostic: “Suppose we do discover some day an ‘almighty’...A ‘supreme power’ is there – no two two’s [buts?] about it. But we don’t know the character. We can only discover the structure, never the it.” [AK Manhood Notes of 4/17/1949 taken by Charlotte Schuchardt. “AK- Re.: We being the ‘builders of our own destinies’.” IGS Archives.] 

29. Korzybski 1947, p. 450.

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