General Semantics Methodology in College English Teaching: Report of Results in a Freshman English Course at Syracuse University

Article excerpt

General Context of the Experiment

AT SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY during the academic year 1940-1941, we have based the course in English for freshmen upon introductory training in general semantics. In this report, I will attempt to formulate some of the 'results' of this experiment, and to report some of the techniques employed to train students to analyze language in its context and to become aware of word-fact relationships. Our experiment involved approximately fourteen hundred freshmen and twenty instructors, and hence represents a rather large scale application of methods suggested by general semantics, under the classroom conditions of a large university.

In such a large scale preliminary experiment, of course, there are too many uncontrolled factors for us to state that we have 'proved' any one definite hypothesis, nor indeed did we set out to do so. However, in the working out of the course we planned, some very interesting results occurred. We believe that some of the changes in the 'attitudes' and orientations of the students are definite and important enough to be reported to this Congress.

At Syracuse, English I is a course 'required' of all freshmen in the University. The course is taught, in sections of thirty students each, by about twenty instructors. The selection of texts and a generalized statement of course content and 'aim' is made by a committee representing the department. However, in teaching practice each section is independent of the others and instructors have freedom and authority to select methods and to plan the actual content of the class hours to implement the general 'purpose' of the course. In the sections, students from all colleges and departments come together, and normally each section stays together all year--i.e. the freshman has the same instructor for both semesters. The sectioning is not done on any special basis of 'intelligence' or 'ability' in the first semester, so that sections generally form rather representative samplings of the University's Freshman class.

In the Syracuse University curriculum, English I is considered a 'tool subject' rather than a 'content' course. In other words, our staff is supposed to teach the freshmen to read and write. Like most other college English departments, we have in the past used a variety of methods and of textbooks, and our instructors have differed about what the English course 'ought' to be. Very generally, our practice has been to concentrate on the study of language and on reading and writing problems in the first semester, and on the study of 'modern literature' during the second.

In this course, we wanted a method which would be more efficient than the traditional techniques of instruction in grammar and usage and the traditional 'literary analysis' of essays, poems, etc., for helping students attain a 'balanced mental outlook,' a method of proper evaluation of situations, the 'cultured' and 'educated' liberality and efficiency which higher education is by some people supposed automatically to confer. These desired characteristics have been perhaps more frequently the 'ideals' rather than the 'results' of education as practiced by the humanities divisions of universities, partly, we felt, because traditional methods and content did not force the student to uncover and take account of the basic assumptions and identifications which he brought to situations. The work of Korzybski and others convinced us that a very hopeful suggestion for improving this unfortunate situation lay in teaching the student a general scientific attitude toward the language in which he formulates his problems.

For student difficulties in English are only partly a matter of 'bad grammar' and 'inadequate vocabulary.' Many students have a fluent verbal skill, and yet betray mis-evaluations and a complete lack of awareness of verbal traps. For some of them, their linguistic habits, semantic reactions, patterns of behavior and 'thought' prevent a satisfactory adjustment to their new college environment. …