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Irving J. Lee (1909-1955) as remembered by Harry Weinberg Department of Speech, Temple University - General Semantics Bulletin, Numbers 18 & 19, 1955

I think I learned from Irving Lee, more than from any other source, the significance and importance of the obvious, and techniques which are 'obvious', for teaching this [general semantics, G S] to others. I remember how often Korzybski used to say that the principles of general semantics are 'baby stuff.' But how can you get intelligent and educated people to listen to and apply this 'baby stuff?' The answer is simple -- concreteness, use of description instead of definition.


This was one of the secrets of Lee's great success as a lecturer. He would take one principle and illustrate it with dozens of examples. Sometimes, as his graduate assistant, when listening to his lectures I would become impatient and say to myself, 'Why doesn't he move faster, give them more theory, more of the philosophical implications and ramifications? No wonder some of the other faculty members look down their noses at G S as being simple, obvious, old stuff.'


My first appreciation of the effectiveness of his method began with an incident during my first year with him. I was asked to give a lecture on 'What is General Semantics?' before a group of adults, having all of twenty minutes to do it. I did it in fifteen. I was quite proud of this feat and told Lee about it the next morning as I trotted after him, expecting words of praise. He slowed down to a canter, turned his eye on me, took his pipe out of his mouth and said, with rising inflection, 'Oh?' -- and walked on.


Lee was famous, and infamous, among his graduate students for that 'Oh?' We came to him expecting answers and the 'Oh?' forced us to find them for ourselves, made us realize that there is always more to be said about any situation and that the most important part of a problem is the formulation of the question. Off and on for many months I pondered that particular 'Oh?' Then I forgot about the incident 'till one day, about six years later, I heard Lee give a lecture at an I G S [Institute of General Semantics] Seminar at Bard College. His concluding sentence I shaIl never forget: 'Teaching and learning that lead to no significant change in behavior are practically worthless.' At that moment that 'Oh?' and its significance flashed through my mind. In attempting to tell 'all' about G S in fifteen minutes, I had told them nothing.

March 4, 2023 | Permalink


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