A General Semantics Approach to Reducing Student Alienation

By Levinson, Martin H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

A General Semantics Approach to Reducing Student Alienation


Levinson, Martin H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Martin H. Levinson (*)

THE DECADE OF THE 1970s is perhaps best remembered for the resignation of an American president and the ending of an unpopular war. But it was also a period of historically high levels of youthful drug abuse. One explanation offered for such massive drug taking by the young was that they were alienated from the society around them. An article in the September 1972 issue of the Journal of Drug Education stated, "One frame of reference is to view adolescent drug abuse in the broader context of alienation. The 'casualties' of our educational system find little relevance in the values and institutions of society." (1)

To address the problem of student alienation, in 1979, as part of a doctoral dissertation in the School of Education at New York University, I devised and administered a research study that hypothesized instruction in general semantics would significantly reduce alienation among junior high school "problem" students. The results of that study, which were published in ETC in 1980, showed general semantics could significantly reduce student alienation. (2) But news of those findings did not make their way to a large public or to professionals in the drug prevention field.

In 1992, an important article appeared that did receive a great deal of attention in the drug prevention field. Titled "Risk and Protective Factors for Alcohol and Other Drug Problems in Adolescence and Early Adulthood: Implications for Substance Abuse Prevention," it identified and listed seventeen risk factors for adolescent drug abuse. (3) "Alienation and rebelliousness" was among the risk factors listed in the article and next to it two studies were cited that had attempted to reduce it. Of the two studies, only one had even partial success in decreasing alienation. There was no mention of the study that I had conducted on alienation reduction. That study, "The Effect of General Semantics Instruction on Three Dimensions of Alienation Among Eighth and Ninth Grade Problem Students," will be examined here.

A General Semantics Approach to Reducing Student Alienation

The alienation reduction study that I carried Out took place in a New York City junior high school over a 19 week period, from December 1978 to April 1979. Eighth and ninth grade students were chosen to be the subjects for the study because the literature indicated that middle school is a time of transition when children face greater challenges and pressures in learning to get along with others, and it is a time when drug use begins to escalate.

The students selected for the study had all been referred to school-based drug prevention counseling for exhibiting maladaptive attitudes and behaviors such as verbally abusing others, frequently disrupting the class, involvement in dysfunctional relationships, poor academic achievement, being withdrawn and shy, regularly attending late or not attending class, physically abusing teachers or peers, and experimenting with drugs. It seemed to me these maladaptive attitudes and behaviors were indicators of student "alienation."

Alienation -- Research Definitions and Reduction Rationale

In common parlance the term "alienation" is used to describe the condition of being estranged or detached from one's self, others, or society in general. But alienation as a research concept is more complex since it can be approached from a variety of different disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, and social psychology) and can take on a variety of different meanings -- anomie, loss of self, despair, apathy, loneliness, rootlessness, powerlessness, isolation, pessimism, etc.

The general semantics study I undertook considered alienation from a socio-psychological perspective using a research model developed by Seeman that contains six researchable dimensions of alienation. (4) Three of those dimensions, powerlessness (a state characterized by feelings of helplessness about not being able to influence situations); self-estrangement (a state characterized by feelings of detachment toward situations); and cultural estrangement (a state characterized by rebelliousness toward the goals and priorities of the institutions in which one must live, work, or study) were picked as variables for analysis. …

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