Monday, April 13, 2015

Chapter 56 - Time To Try New Things: Part 3 - Some Students

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.

Three first-time students at the seminar-workshop illustrate a variety of responses to Korzybski’s work. David Harold Fink, a psychiatrist then living in Detroit, had published a book, Release From Nervous Tension in 1943. One chapter, “Words Are Triggers To Action” made generous use of general semantics although he made no mention of it or Korzybski. In writing his book, Fink seems to have been mainly influenced by Chase and Hayakawa, whose books he did mention. (He would also mention Wendell Johnson in later editions.) What he got out of the seminar-workshop seems hard to say since little changed in subsequent editions of his book and I’ve found no correspondence between him and Korzybski. (Mira did read Fink’s book and made notes about the chapter for Alfred.) Pooh-poohed by some academic psychiatric reviewers, Fink’s book would become a self-help bestseller, going through numerous editions over the next several decades and selling hundreds of thousands of copies. Fink wrote about the importance of becoming aware of words as directive maps, which entailed emotional reactions of all kinds. Human progress, social and individual, involved the process of making better, more scientific word maps. Undoubtedly, works like Fink’s, derived in part from Korzybski’s work (without directly referring to it), did much to bring a few of Korzybski’s basic notions into more common usage.

A second student, Alabama native Annie Goulding Dix, taught English and Journalism at the Richmond Professional Institute of the College of William and Mary. A fellow teacher had given her a copy of ETC., something about it grabbed her, and she immediately signed up for the 1944 summer seminar-workshop. A kindly intelligent woman with little pretense, she was willing to do the simple-sounding stuff Korzybski suggested and found it more than eye-opening. As she recounted years later in a memoir, she “found [general semantics] of more value to her students than any other subject she had taught.” It became a central part of her teaching repertoire for the remainder of her career—although she would have to learn how to deal with the reactions of some of her colleagues:
“What is new in all of this?” say some of my learned friends. “It’s all old stuff; everybody knows it. It’s too obvious.” So they will not waste their time with it. I am reminded of the story in the Bible of Naaman, the Syrian captain, who came to the prophet Elisha to be cured of his leprosy. Elisha said, “Go and bathe seven times in the River Jordan.” Naaman was insulted by such trivial treatment, and went away in a rage. His servants said to him, “If he had told you to do some big thing, you would have done it. Why not try what he says?” So he put his pride in his pocket and went back to do the thing that was so trivial that it was insulting. And, lo and behold, he was cured!
Ann felt willing to experiment with what she was learning at the seminar-workshop:
I remember the first time I consciously tested the efficacy of language usage as suggested by General Semantics. It was during my summer with Korzybski in Chicago in 1944. I was in the Loop in Chicago. It was dinner time and I was hungry. I looked at menus in the windows of restaurants. One was appealing, except that it had carrots, food that I had hated since I was a child. Korzybski had recently discussed the obvious fact that all things change. The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, put it this way: “No one can step into the same river twice.” You come nearer to communicating what you mean if you mentally date your comments. For example: myself 1944 is not myself 1914. So I consciously brought my distaste for carrots out into the open. “As a child, I didn’t like carrots. I still don’t like them.” Now to test the General Semantics suggestion, I said to myself: “Annie Goulding (as my mother called me in 1914) didn’t like carrots. Now, I am Ann (as my friends call me in 1944.) Those two persons are not the same.” So putting my distaste in my pocket (as Naaman had put his pride), I went into the restaurant and ordered the dinner with the carrots.

And, lo and behold, they were delicious.

Thus I discovered that, to speak truth in any judgment or evaluation, the tense of the verb is very important. In this case, only the past tense: “I hated” carrots or “used to hate carrots,” was true. By testing for current facts, I saw that my use of the present tense: I “hate carrots” was false. Many changes had occurred in those past thirty years. I had no current opinion. I had only been quoting the opinion of that little girl of long ago. (4)

In 1947, she would become a professor at the New Jersey State Teachers College (now Montclair State University), where she worked until her retirement in 1962. Afterwards, she continued teaching adult classes in GS. She wrote only a few articles for ETC. and the General Semantics Bulletin. But one of them, “Avoiding The Dangers Of Semantic Adolescence”, presented in 1951 as a paper at the First Conference on General Semantics at the University of Chicago, provides one of the clearest accounts of some of the dangers and challenges involved in internalizing a non-aristotelian orientation.
Beware of merely talking about general semantics without applying its principles in practice. The highly verbal individual who finds in general semantics a new and exciting philosophy is in danger of keeping it forever on the verbal level, thus increasing the very futility that its discipline hopes to correct. ...general semantics has not served its purpose until it enters into the language and evaluative habits of the individual. It is this that concerns me as a teacher,...Our beginners—be they young or old—need to be constantly reminded of what Korzybski said: that extensional orientation is a lifetime process. The exhilaration that comes with the beginning of awareness is not the end but only the beginning, and the growing or adolescent stage will not always be easy. But the maturity we seek is worth the effort. (5) 

A few years after her seminar with Korzybski, Ann would move to New York City and marry another student of Korzybski, Adlerian psychiatrist Joseph Immanuel Meiers—a Jewish refugee from Latvia. Both Ann and Joseph Meiers exemplified the quiet maturity and good humor of Korzybski’s best students. They didn’t become famous, but as relatively uncelebrated leaders they positively affected many people’s lives. (The couple became life-long friends of Charlotte Schuchardt Read and Allen Walker Read, living a few blocks from them on the upper Westside of Manhattan near Columbia University.)

A third notable student at this first IGS seminar-workshop was a twenty-three year old ‘firecracker’ from Miami, Florida named Ken Keyes, Jr. He had joined the Navy in the summer of 1941. As he had hoped by enlisting early, he was able to live at home while ‘sailing a desk’ in a Naval Intelligence censorship unit in Miami. By 1944, he was serving as chief petty officer in a Naval Intelligence photo lab on the ‘U.S.S. DuPont’, his name for the building in downtown Miami where he had his office. Ken and his wife, Roberta Rymer Keyes, already the parents of two, had become very enthusiastic about general semantics and its possibilities for reforming childhood education.

They (mainly Ken) began corresponding with the Institute in 1943 on the stationary of an organization they had just founded, “The Society for Educational Research—a non-profit group devoted to the formulation and dissemination of objectives and methods for 20th Century education”. With considerable financial resources (both Ken and Roberta had wealthy parents) they had already in 1944 bought 45 acres of property south of Miami for a non-aristotelian educational experiment they planned. Using general semantics as the core they were “hoping to set up and run a demonstration project in which five orphans from each race of humankind could grow up in loving harmony together.”(6) Life eventually prevented the project from happening.

Although Korzybski and Kendig provided encouragement, there seems more than a whiff of utopianism in Keyes’ letters. His ‘semantic adolescence’ seems clear from a note he wrote to Korzybski at the seminar: he had not prepared a personal history for his interview because “there are no personal problems of personality maladjustment, relations with people, etc., that I am aware of at the present time.”(7) (Years later, Keyes would write extensively about his own personality problems after he did become aware of them.) In his interview, he wanted to talk with Korzybski about the work he and his wife were planning. It seems likely that Korzybski indulged him. Without question Keyes could get things done. He had already demonstrated talents as a businessman, inventor, and photographer, among other things. He had access, probably through his work, to people with graphic design and printing skills. Although he wasn’t able to stay until the end of the workshop, he had agreed to prepare for seminar participants a professional-looking print handout of Korzybski’s blackboard diagrams—which he did. Korzybski and Kendig greatly appreciated his work.

The young man seemed very serious about changing the world with general semantics. Soon after the seminar-workshop in September 1944 he changed the name of his organization to “The Institute for Non-Aristotelian Research and Education”. Over the next year and a half, he continued to correspond with Korzybski and Kendig about the organization’s projects. He formed a study group in Miami, gave seminars; and sent professional-looking graphic mockups to Korzybski with cartoons and illustrations for a handbook he was producing, as well as for a journal for an association of GS teachers he wanted to establish.

In June 1945, Korzybski wrote to him, bluntly advising him to ‘put on the brakes’:
Your experience in teaching GS is not long enough or good enough...I am not trying to discourage you. Your ambitions are praiseworthy, but certainly for success you have to slow down and give yourself more time to digest the whole thing in your organism more. (8) 

After leaving the Navy, Keyes with Roberta and their two children, would put aside his institute and its long-term educational projects for the more immediate business of making a living. Then in 1946, their institute got permanently shelved after he contracted polio. But, despite becoming significantly disabled, he—and Roberta—would help Korzybski afterwards in a most important way.

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. 
4. Annie Dix Meirs 1995, pp. 61-62. 

5. Ann Dix Meiers 1952, p. 277. 

6. Keyes 1989, p. 16. 

7. Ken Keyes, Jr. to AK, nd. I.G.S Archives.

8. AK to Ken Keyes, 6/21/1945 qtd. in letter of Ken Keyes, Jr. to AK, 7/5/1945. IGS Archives.

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