29 October 2009


By Andy Weddington
Friday, 30 October 2009

In 1978 he had a head full of black hair worn slicked down and straight back. He sported black horn-rimmed specs (aka: "Buddy Holly's")--eyewear that denotes nerd or hepcat status; depending on the decade. They were not cool in the '70s but seemed to suit him. He had a mischievous glint in his eye, was quick-witted, had an infectious, hearty laugh and always wore a coat and tie when working. He was unassuming, humbly brilliant, and, most importantly, knew what he was talking about.

One of the first evenings of the semester he strolled in the classroom and began his lecture by telling a tale he remembered from when he was six--today that would be about 73 years ago. He told a great story--using animation, humor, subtlety, pauses, and his own laughter to pull in the audience. He recalled, with much flair and detail, a morning he boarded the school bus and took a seat. In the chipping paint on the back of the seat in front of him was scratched a four-letter, one-syllable word that started in "F" and ended in "K"--a fairly simple word even a first-grader could sound out. He said he spoke the word aloud and was quickly chastised by children sitting near him who said it was a "bad" word and he shouldn't say it. He said he remembered thinking about it all day and wondering how a word could be "bad." When he stepped off the bus a block from home that afternoon and saw his father--a Baptist minister--mowing the lawn he started to run and shout something to the extent, "Hey, Dad, is (repeating the word loudly) a bad word?" When home and in the house he said father "taught" him in no uncertain terms it was indeed a "bad" word and one not appropriate to use; especially in public.

It was obviously a fond memory for him--one of those 'not funny at the time' but quite funny years and years later. We all have one or two like it from our childhood. Anyway, following that story, he picked up a piece of chalk and wrote the word "DUCK" on the blackboard then faced the class. With a sheepish expression somewhere between a smile and a smirk he asked the class, "So, tell me, is seventy-five percent of that word obscene?" His question triggered a bit of chair wriggling--the uncomfortable kind--and soft mumbling and throat clearing but no one answered. He had everyone's attention.

And every Tuesday evening thereafter, for three hours, throughout the semester--just as he had done with classes for semesters through decades before--he enthralled his students; keeping them anticipating and thinking. His pupils never knew what he would do or say to reinforce his lessons--some complex--so they could learn to apply what he was teaching to the real world. He was challenging to set aside embedded paradigms and look at the world from a completely new perspective. Practical application abound in the real world. The chore was to pause and think and figure out how.

Dr. Thomas Lee Tedford, a Speech and Communications expert and authority on freedom of speech, taught at a handful of institutions of higher learning during his distinguished career--for more than two decades at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He authored or co-authored seven books to include the 1985 tome, "Freedom of Speech in the United States"--a work, now in its sixth edition, that garnered him and his co-author, Dale A. Herbeck, national and international praise from colleagues and prestigious awards. Dr. Tedford also authored sundry publications on freedom of speech mostly for discipline-specific audiences.

His professional writing aside, Dr. Tedford was the consummate college professor. During Spring Semester 1978 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro I had the privilege and pleasure of being among a small class of less than thirty upper-classmen enrolled in a course titled, "General Semantics." The survey course was a tough one to get in---it was only offered Spring Semester and demand for a seat was huge. The professor--none other than the esteemed Dr. Tedford--enjoyed one whale of a reputation as a superb lecturer and entertainer--while offering an interesting and challenging course. To this day, I am not sure how or why I was fortunate to secure a seat. But I was and continue to reap dividends.

Delving into the particulars of "General Semantics" is not the purpose of today's Commentary. But a taste is good medicine--for everyone. So, bear with me.

Suffice to say "General Semantics" is the study of language and how language influences human behavior. It is not merely the study of language. There is a big difference. So, when someone, during a discussion or disagreement, makes the remark, "It's a matter of semantics"--it may be but most likely it is much more and so enters the field of "General Semantics."

Dr. Tedford's instruction was based on Count Alfred Korzybski's (1877-1950) "Science and Sanity--An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics," a sometimes difficult to read and understand book. So, his primary text for the course was the synthesized and understandable "Semantics and Communication" by John C. Condon. Augmenting Condon he used S. I. Hayakawa's (1906-1992), "Language in Thought and Action."

Dr. Tedford introduced and spoke extensively about the elemental aspects of "General Semantics" including...

The map is not the territory--literally and figuratively. A map represents territory.

The word is not the thing. A word represents a thing.

Even if considering similar things, thing one is not thing two. Nor is thing two thing three. And, thing three is definitely not thing four, five, six, or 873. And, that similar things--even if made from the same mold--are not exactly the same. They are not--not by a long shot.

And ideas like America/1793 is not America/1955 is not America/2009. You can say that again. And America 2009 will not be America 2018 will not be America 2068 (if she still exists!).

And yet the vast majority of people, so busy and preoccupied, plow through life under the false assumption that maps are territories, things are what they are called, and time, in a sense, stands still. Such just is not the case. That is, maps and territories and words and things and moments in time are not one and the same.

Dr. Tedford spoke about the restrictiveness and limitations of language--spoken, signed, or written. He stressed over and over again how it is not possible to see all properties of anything nor describe all that we do see. And he reminded us, once describing begins seeing starts to diminish. And, oh by the way, ask two people to describe the same thing/object and, though you may get some overlap, each description will be different. In short, we all see differently--through the "filters" (e.g. ethnicity, upbringing, social class, education, religion, politics, etc.) unique to our life. And yet, generally speaking, people tend to think--to believe--to assume--they cannot only see all but describe all. And, that everyone pretty much sees the same way. Impossible. Assumptions--seeing all and describing all and all seeing the same way--are false.

A Korzybski invention called the "Structural Differential"--a visual aid to understanding "seeing" and "describing" and "levels of abstraction"--helped solidify the lesson(s). In essence, the dandy device is a "seeing machine."

Dr. Tedford went on to teach and remind that only agreement between parties, as to what things are called, leads to the conclusion there is any necessary correlation between a thing and what the thing is called. The word represents the thing--nothing more. In a most simple example--one can eat with the thing we call a "fork." But, one cannot eat with the word "fork" nor can one eat with a drawing, painting, or photograph of a "fork." That is, the word "fork" and a drawing, painting, or photograph of a "fork" represent the thing we call a "fork" but they are not "forks." And just to take things a step further, we could call a "fork" a "krof" or some other made up word and, provided we all agreed on the word, we'd know precisely what "thing" we were talking about. That's correct, foreign languages are a good example. In Swedish, the word for "fork" is "gaffel"--two words respresenting the same "thing." Proof enough the word is not the thing.

At first blush the example may seem obvious and silly--pure common sense--and be nonchalantly discounted. But, after careful consideration, the simplistic concept proves quite valuable when applying to more complicated aspects of language, communication, and living. Think about it. But be forewarned--it will make your head hurt. And it gets yet more complicated when crossing cultures and languages--especially so when words do not translate well or at all. Understanding such sure helps explain some of the world's problems.

And, by the way, in addition to eating with the thing "fork" you can also tenderize meat with it, poke holes in paper, use it as a lever, a paperweight, a weapon, etcetera. Ah yes, "Etcetera"--a most important word--a tool--to the practicing "General Semanticist." For there is always more. Always. I mention this because, for some reason, people have a tendency to get wrapped around the axle with labels. Falling into the trap of not thinking of all the other possibilities for a thing's use beyond that associated with its principle purpose. A big mistake. Iron oxide was used by cavemen to paint--to decorate their walls. In modern times, among other uses, iron oxide stores data on computers. What's next? Who knows!

Less than two years ago I wrote a book--"On 'SEEING' & Painting--An Interdisciplinary Perspective," that incorporated many of the lessons I learned from Dr. Tedford and years of serious study. Despite the title, it is not an art book per se. Rather, it is a psychology and philosophy and communications book that offers a fresh perspective on how to "see" just about anything--differently. Of course there is reference to painting but I did not write the book strictly for artists--quite the contrary, I wrote it for anyone and everyone; whether interested in the arts or not. Some of the best letters and emails I have received have come from readers who admitted to knowing nothing about the arts/painting but are now "seeing" the world much differently--not only aesthetically but from a new perspective. Exactly.

Shortly after printing, I sent a long overdue thank you letter along with an inscribed copy of the book to Dr. Tedford. I wanted him to know--in addition to being cited in the Acknowledgments--what an impact his teaching had on me nearly 30 years earlier. And though in declining health, he took time to promptly send a couple of hand-written thank you and congratulatory notes. Those pieces of paper now treasures for me.

At my tender age of twenty-one, Dr. Tedford and his teaching of "General Semantics" fundamentally changed how I saw/see the world. He opened my eyes (and brain) to question and analyze views that had long been accepted as "given" starting points--ones not open to challenge. His lessons turned everything upside down and inside out--all for the good; the greater good.

Soon thereafter I discovered Chaos and Complexity Theories and the world of Non-linearity. Those intriguing fields of study fit nicely with "General Semantics" and art/painting--with creating. And, ironically, all of this madness fit perfectly in the "regimented" world of the Marine Corps. Perhaps someday I will write a Commentary to explain that last sentence which must have many, at this very moment, scratching their head and saying, "Huh?" In the meantime, trust me, contrary to popular belief the Marine Corps, despite its reputation as a rigid and disciplined outfit, is the most adaptive, inventive, and non-linear of the branches of the U. S. armed forces. And that observation is offered setting aside my bias having served a few years in the Corps.

As a personal reminder and for reinforcement, for the past thirty-one years I have read Condon's book at least once annually. I regularly pick up Hayakawa's book. And occasionally, when I want to be humbled, I thumb through Korzybski's and tackle small sections at a time--struggling to digest genius and thought-provoking ideas he attempted to transcribe into words. Sometimes he succeeded. Other times he failed--or so I think--miserably. I believe I mentioned the limitations of language earlier. I am still learning.

Last year around Christmas while visiting relatives in Greensboro I learned, by sheer chance, that my aunt and uncle's home was just around the corner from where the Tedford family lived. I don't recall why I mentioned his name but my uncle surprisingly chimed in that a few years back, before Dr. Tedford's health declined, he walked with him in the neighborhood several mornings a week. I had no idea they knew each other much less chatted regularly. Small world.

Less than a week ago I received an email from my aunt that on Sunday morning, 18 October 2009, Dr. Thomas Lee Tedford--superb educator and author extraordinaire--having celebrated his 79th birthday only ten days earlier died in his North Carolina home. According to his obituary, he passed away peacefully. I hope so. For those not familiar with Dr. Tedford his death would, understandably, have gone unnoticed. To all who knew and learned from him--a giant died.

It was not until reading Dr. Tedford's obituary that I learned during his high school and college days he traveled and performed as a semi-professional ventriloquist and magician--something I am sure he never shared with our class; that I would have remembered. Now, finally, his complete command of the classroom "stage"--to include memorable antics--makes perfect sense to me. He was a showman and knew how to hold an audience--whether entertaining or teaching. And the older I get the less difference I see between the two.

In the 1980s I taught at the University of Mississippi--doing my best to balance entertaining and teaching while preparing Midshipmen for the sobering duties they would soon inherit as Navy ensigns and Marine second lieutenants. I am convinced the world of academia would be a far better place if professors saw themselves more as entertainers than educators--without question they'd be more effective in the classroom.

Dr. Tedford, the son of a preacher, "preached" the lessons of "General Semantics." And through his "sermons" he undoubtedly changed many a life. Though he no longer walks amongst us, there are hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of his disciples--across the country and globe--passing along the lessons he taught. Lessons invaluable for leading a truly sane and successful life. Honored to be counted among them, I aim to continue living by and teaching the ideas of "General Semantics," if never using those words to avoid frightening the innocent, for the rest of my life.

Rest In Peace, Dr. Tedford. Thank you!

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

A simply captivating read and fitting tribute to Dr. Thomas Lee Tedford.

Thank you for helping us to "see" the man you have described as a "superb educator and author extraordinaire"...and the indelibly lasting impression he has obviously left on so many young minds.