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George Nelson discusses industrial design and the effects on people; part 4

BROADCAST: Jan. 16, 1962 | DURATION: 00:26:14


George Nelson discusses the importance of education, teachers, and how we learn as society changes.


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Studs Terkel And yet, as you say, as you said earlier several times that nature works in a strange way. And nature in human societies, strange way out of one thing another form evolved-

George Nelson Well, if we had real vision we could already see the outlines of the new society, which will undoubtedly be a world society, one would imagine growing out of this thing. In other words, I use words like crack up and all that because you read them in the papers and the magazines. But what I am always seeing a picture of is actually a transformation. You go from one kind of thing that's used itself up and it's run out of gas and it should not be replaced by some other outlook, some other set of values, which will then allow people to gain enthusiasm and steam and go off and make some new mistakes.

Studs Terkel Though the picture you paint George Nelson of the immediate future as such, the picture of a society may be a bleak one. Yet, I know that you yourself speak in in terms of affirmation. This may sound like a paradox. There's something you had said before we went on about rejection itself is a form of affirmation: rejection of values that are phony. Would you mind expanding on this a bit?

George Nelson Well, this is pretty old stuff. I think they told us in Sunday school that Christ got nailed up on a cross because he indulged in some rejection. And history has decided that these rejections were an affirmation. And if I'm not mistaken the same thing happened to Socrates. You know, he was doing a little bit too much questioning, which looked to his fellow citizens in Athens like rejection. And he was, he's come to be seen as a rather affirmative man too. And I think there are points in time when the most affirmative thing a man can do is to reject. In what we call our American way of life which is always given a blanket endorsement by the news-the magazine editors or the political speechmakers. There are all sorts of elements that we would do very well to reject: the growing disregard for people, the bad planning, the ugliness of the housing developments, the lack of joy, which seems to be getting built into every area of living, the kind of transforming of men into mice that goes on in all of the big corporations. And these are all things which, if you do reject them as an individual, turn out to be a very powerful affirmation and at moments it gets kind of risky.

Studs Terkel And what specifically, yeah this, in other words, you're a no-sayer, at times, when at a time so many yea-sayers some were

George Nelson Well, when there are a lot of things around that a guy should say 'no' to he damn well ought to say

Studs Terkel But there-are there thing though, what are the things to say 'yes' to if I may? Perhaps in in nature of the, I I might I might just suggest this for you because you may not say this of yourself. You you have recognized the technological advances made in this world. You yourself in a number of articles about you by you yourself have used some of these new techniques and fields hitherto in which they were not used in in education, for example. Wasn't there a project that you and and Eames sponsored at the University of Georgia Athens called Art X?

George Nelson Art X was the name we gave to a a kind of elaborate lecture in an art course that didn't exist, so it didn't have a number in the college catalogue. And I don't know whether you would call this affirmation or rejection but our, my notion was that the process of education is becoming too cumbersome and too expensive because it's a handicraft process. And in an industrial society handicraft production gets very expensive. And what I mean by this is that if you give a class of 10 20 50 students to one teacher this is a kind of handicraft operation. And I began to dream about what might happen if you took the greatest teacher in a given subject. Call it Elementary Physics 1. This is a course that's probably given in a thousand colleges and universities. Suppose you gave this man all the money in the world. All the technical assistance in the world. And you said 'design the best course in Elementary Physics that you can possibly conceive of.' And then this course was given in a mechanized form: this would be a film or some sort of TV thing or whatever in a thousand schools. Well, the cry goes up immediately that you are putting the dead hand of conformity and uniformity on a physics course and you're also putting a thousand individual teachers out of work, you know. But the fact of the matter is that the real reason the teacher's associations objected to this proposal, and I used to go and speak before them about this and they didn't like it. The main reason they objected to the proposal I think was that they were very much afraid that they would be shown up by what a what a really great teacher could do with these subjects most of them were butchering. So that we saw the application of technology to certain processes in education as a real way of lifting the level of it. Well, this would be an example of grabbing a technology and saying we are gonna use this in a constructive way for people. This isn't always the way technology is used.

Studs Terkel 'Course the question raised immediately, this is one I'm sure that you've encountered. When you raise this point of technology being used to educate. What happens? We often speak of the teacher and the student, the personal, the rapport between them, the matter of the human relationship.

George Nelson Oh boy. The number of times this was told to me-

Studs Terkel What's your answer to

George Nelson that? The greatest university in the world would be Mark Hopkins and a student sitting on a log. And, if every teacher were a Mark Hopkins, this would indeed be quite marvelous. But the fact is that about 90 to 95 percent of the people in any business or any profession are really not much good. This can be checked out and has been checked out in an awful lot of ways. And this is the statement most people avoid making. The doctors might say it about the architects, and the architects might say it about the lawyers, but nobody likes to hear it about himself. So that one of the facts is that most of the teachers in the whole pool of teachers are not very good teachers. So that if they were short-circuited, so to speak, by the few very good or great teachers we have, there would be a certain excitement that would come into education.

Studs Terkel And they're not really put out of work, are they? According to your plan is to follow, they're following out on the pattern that is advanced by the-

Studs Terkel Well, there are many many things left for people to do, and certainly, in education, the shortage of teachers is going to increase not decrease. Again, I think people get emotional and sentimental in these areas when they ought to really look at the problem. For example, what we call education is not a single thing. It's it's actually a mix of a lot of things. Let's say that a kid is studying mathematics. Well, a good bit of mathematics is drill: he has to memorize certain things. He has to learn about the relationships of the sides of a triangle or he has to learn formulas or he has to learn something else. Well, these days to use a human being to drill a lot of kids is a waste of time. You can put this on a machine and the drilling comes out just as well as it can. On the other hand, I once had a math teacher who spent a great deal of time after class trying to get me see what he felt was the great beauty of mathematics. I'm not sure that a machine, you know, would do this quite as well as this man did. And he could have done a much better job telling his students about this subject he was absolutely wild for, had he had a few machines around to do the dirty work that he wasted most of his time doing. There are a lot of examples of this, language training is a beautiful example. Most language learning is memorizing.

Studs Terkel Well, in in in this Art X didn't you and Eames and and a third, a third colleague, you use audio-visual aid. Isn't that [youthful?] What what was the reaction? Would you mind giving an example because I know it's exciting to watch the there are certain photographs and oth-we're we're on radio now so it may be a little difficult.

George Nelson Well, this show is, this lecture was a big mix. We called it communication. So part of it was a film about what the theory of communication was. Another part of this was a film on Egypt which showed how the pyramids and the ruins of the temples were also communications that you could read like a book. And there were, well there were a whole series of slides, movies, and so on which said, in effect, the interesting things about communication. What happened with this show was sort of interesting. It was run off first at the University of Georgia because this was the institution which sponsored this experiment. And they later modified some of the courses in the art school in a very drastic way as a result of the work we did.

Studs Terkel So in a sense, it's made these courses come alive.

George Nelson Well.

Studs Terkel Make the courses come alive. Isn't that pretty much the purpose of it?

George Nelson Yeah, this was the purpose of it.

Studs Terkel To

George Nelson We took the the lecture later to the University of California in Los Angeles and we ran it off like an old vaudeville show in a big chemistry lecture hall. We had six shows: two a day for three days and announcements were put up all over the campus, and the first day about 50 students came and a few teachers. That night about 150 came and more teachers [cough] By the fifth and sixth performance students were cluttering all of the aisles, sitting on the steps, standing on each other's shoulders by the door and we had a near riot. The excitement caused by these dead machines, you know, spewing out their little lectures was really tremendous.

Studs Terkel What occurs to me is that these so-called dead machines have altered the approach of a good number of flesh and blood teachers. That's the point. And that's what made them more conscious of the

George Nelson Yeah, this could be a very constructive thing. What's now happening, of course, is that educators everywhere are turning to mechanized types of training devices and

Studs Terkel You call this tooled education, use this phrase tooled. Borrowing a phrase from industry.

George Nelson Yeah, like if you want to make let's say a refrigerator to sell for 150 dollars. One of the ways you do this is to spend a million dollars on tools which are the big dyes and forming things they put in presses and so on. Because now you can stamp out these parts and the thing comes out cheaply. You couldn't make a million refrigerators by hand. We've learned this a long time ago. What we never did was apply it to education. And I thought it was particularly interesting to do it here because in this field we're always broke. And we were able to calculate that if you could if you spent a million dollars on one common denominator course, call it Elementary Chemistry or Physics, some course that's taught everywhere, that at the end of five years the teaching of this course would be so cheap that the schools would really have some money left over for a lot of other things they need the money for.

Studs Terkel Now the same principle that you you've used to apply to schools, teaching, you apparently have applied to housing too. Yamasaki speaks of, if I just quote this phrase 'George Nelson's aluminum house is the most exciting new thinking I've seen in the field of house design. It shows for the first time positively the advantages possible to residential building for the full use of technology and prefabrication. I think it wonderful because it points a way out of our present dilemma in housing. The delight in promises through the interest and surprise inherent in its plan should mean much to our residential future.' Minoru Yamasaki. His tribute to you is a tribute to this whole new technique of yours in hou-the same principles apply here tooled housing would you say?

George Nelson The idea was exactly the same but the purpose, you must realize, was not the standard purpose. The standard purpose is to make money. And as a result, things are done badly and foolishly and not in the interests of people because the object really, you know, is to play safe, get something that everybody will buy, which means he must not do anything new. And then you sell it to a lot of people and you make a lot of money. Our attempt was to build a house that people could live in with and with a great deal more enjoyment than the houses they live in now. The houses people live in now are pretty deadly and I don't think that a house is the most important thing in the world. When you realize that Buddha, who is a rather influential guy, spent most of his time either living under a tree or in a cave, or Einstein was living in a beat-up old house in Princeton, New Jersey, or Picasso lives in these sort of ancient shacks in various parts of France so that he could afford anything he wanted. You realize that when you hit top-level people and highly creative people the styling of their houses and the ornaments they put out on the front lawn aren't very important to them because they realize that living has to do, you know, with more than the shell. But since we do have these shells around us to keep out Chicago weather and things like that, it would be very nice if these could also be tooled to a very very high standard and then put together at reasonably low cost and provide a good framework within which people would now be free to live rich and full lives or dull and stupid lives. The house won't do this for them, but at least it would be a more appropriate kind of shelter than a lot of the stuff that's going up now.

Studs Terkel You mentioned weather. Buckminster Fuller when on the program, I think was more than inferring, saying that weather eventually would be controllable. That is the element of weather itself. Do you-

George Nelson Well, this seems fairly evident.

Studs Terkel You worked with I know Mr. Fuller.

George Nelson I've worked with Fuller but I've never worked on the weather. I submit to the weather. But this seems to-or a lot of people are talking about weather control and I gather at some point we'll do this.

Studs Terkel So here we come to the question of man overcoming the universe. Physically mastering it and yet feeling so much so helpless man so potent. And you point out and perhaps this may summarize if if if the credo of George Nelson can be summarized in in a few moments. You point out in your essay "The Enlargement of Vision." You say 'the fear of sudden annihilation of all of us have carried since Hiroshima is not entirely new. Mankind in its short history has lived out most of its days in jeopardy. And jeopardy, if you are exposed to it, or think you are, feels total, regardless of its specific nature. But today's fear is different in one sense. We created it. The Black Death, which destroyed something between one quarter and three-quarters of the population, where it struck, had no known cause or cure in the medical science of the fourteenth century. The bomb was programmed, designed, built, and exploded by people who presumably knew exactly what they were doing. It is I think this new sense of intellectual mastery over the physical world that is making us so acutely and happily aware of the world over which, seemingly, we have no mastery at all.' And so here are you, an individual, a highly creative one. True, there are not too many George Nelsons, but the fact is what you are doing is maintaining your sense of being alive. Is this pretty much your your?

George Nelson Yeah, it's a pretty old idea. Where did they tell us that it doesn't profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Well,

Studs Terkel The good book itself I

George Nelson It was it was quite a good book as I recall. Lots of nice stories in it and everything. But statements like this, which are sort of symbolic, because nobody knows what his soul is exactly, at the moment are quite applicable. Because the reason we're living in such fear is because the purposes to which we're putting technology, not just with bombs, this also applies to electric shavers and automobiles and a lot of other stuff. The purposes to which we're putting this technology are anti-human. Well, if a human society invents things that are anti-human, this beg-this becomes behavior approaching lunatic behavior, at which point everybody is quite justified in getting rather nervous. Lunatics are unpredictable, you don't know what they're going to do to somebody next. And this is the spot we're in now.

Studs Terkel So then the the, I was looking for a particular particular paragraph here that dealt with this this matter of enlargement of vision that you were speaking of. Vision equating if we may with sanity. In other words, at the moment or the values the dominant values of the world of the key powers, perhaps of all the powers at the moment, is a form of insanity is what you're saying. Since we have mastered the world physically [George Nelson coughs] yet we're we're we're we're we're we're we're we're seem to be monitoring it toward the destruction of us all.

George Nelson Well, it depends on how you define insanity. But if if this means an inability to cope with reality in a con-in a, you know, a productive way, then we're certainly doing this. I spent part of a summer in Russia a couple of years ago and the Russians are just as nervous about what's going on as we are. Well, here we are supposedly in opposition to each other, but we have this great thing in common, which is fear. But what are we afraid of? We're afraid of them they're afraid of us. In a way that's saying we're really afraid of ourselves because we're both doing the same thing. This hardly seems like a very sensible way for the world to live out its life.

Studs Terkel You use the phrase atomistic thinking I believe. Is that a phrase you use atomistic thinking?

George Nelson Well, it's a phrase people use sure. It means thinking that's all split up and doesn't deal with things as a whole. For instance, sometimes a woman will buy a house because she likes the color of the bathroom fixtures or a man might [clanking noise] buy this house because it has a fireplace in it that works. The fact that a house has to provide more services than the color of fixtures or something else escapes these people and you could call this atomistic buying. They're not looking at the house, they're looking at a couple of things that have attracted their attention.

Studs Terkel Missing the overall concept the overall design. This again-

George Nelson Perhaps. Perhaps.

Studs Terkel -is the way you in a sense and look at this world, the overall vision

George Nelson You try. It's quite important because then the little things look little and not big. And you don't get all messed up when we have these silly discussions about fallout shelters and who's going to shoot whom and all of that

Studs Terkel Perhaps one one last question and not challenge really because you you create your own challenges and meet them as a creative being. The the comment throughout pervades. You speak of you being alive the sense you have to do this for your own sake of aliveness. Yet you are not disconnected with the rest of the world. Throughout you speak of the world being small and how one truck driver depends upon the the good driving the other truck driver. How how so much the fate of all of us depend upon one man and his fate depends upon the next man. No man is an island if you will.

George Nelson No man is an island in the modern world. This gets to be particularly true. One morning I took a cab from my apartment to get down to my office which was about 40 blocks. And I don't know what puts thoughts in one's head, but I got to thinking on this ride, or wondering how many people it took to get me to my office that morning. And you thought of the guys who'd pave the streets, had built the taxi, and the man who was driving you. You know, and the people who'd figured out the stop and go lights and, you know, by the time I got to the office it looked to me as if it had taken like 200,000 people to get me there. And this is a kind of silly way of saying that we are indeed connected, and let anything stop, you know, and we really realize how enormously dependent we are on each other. Although in a sense, none of us is working for each other, we're working for ourselves.

Studs Terkel For ourselves.

George Nelson But one of the curious things about modern society is that this is the most cooperative society in the history of existence. Everything is being done by millions of people for millions of other people they don't know. And yet, along with this fact of cooperation, there's this fantasy that we're all disconnected, and you can carry this pretty far. Even the Russians, who are supposed to be our enemies, have done us a tremendous amount of good. When Conant and other people came back from Russia and said they're doing a much better job of education than we are. Wow, what a boon this was to American educators-

Studs Terkel Kind of a sad commentary though. It has to be a negative impulse something from the outside that compels people to become more of an educated

George Nelson Look, the human animal is kind of conservative and he's lazy. You, me, you know, everybody and you really don't like to change. We always like the way things are, even if it's an uncomfortable way because to change it you've got to face a series of new situations and who knows what this is going to be all about. So that mostly we get things done by getting goosed. And if the Russians did it for us in this matter of education we should be grateful to them. We've done the same thing to them. It's a political necessity for them to up their standard of living so they can say their system is better than ours. Well, this isn't gonna hurt the Russian people if they get better housing and better clothing as a result of a political conflict. So that-

Studs Terkel So it's strange enough, paradox again at work out of conflict, because conflict, being the essence of life, I suppose in a way too.

George Nelson Yeah, and you could say that, you know, that at a certain level we're apparently in a very dangerous conflict with the Russians. It's possible that historians are gonna look on this as a very unwilling kind of collaboration between two groups who thought they were enemies. Even this race to get out into space now, which supposedly has something to do with national prestige and military considerations is actually opening up a new period in which the race is gonna have all kinds of terribly interesting and exciting adventures.

Studs Terkel Those. Sorry.

George Nelson But it's being, the thing that's being prodded by the most desperate groups of scared men on both sides of the curtain. Well, who cares how it-

Studs Terkel ,With atomistic thinking again.

George Nelson Well, maybe but, you know, there's another little phrase about the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this situation, with the Russians, nobody has good intentions, but there's a fair amount of good coming out of

Studs Terkel Here's a craz-here's a crazy twist on that one. The road to paradise on earth, if you will, paved with ill intentions in this case.

George Nelson Well, this is quite possible, but what I'm saying is that the consequences of action and attitudes are not necessarily the ones you intend. And this is one of the things that makes life terribly interesting and life at the present time absolutely enthralling because there have never been such tremendous changes going on at such a rapid rate of speed.

Studs Terkel And so to a creative man, to George Nelson, the challenges of today encompass involve the very joy of living, being alive. And this must come from the nature of the man himself, the work he does, and the end products of his work as he sees it. And again I may use the phrase of Arthur Drexler in speaking of George Nelson: he is his own best design. A man. Thank you very much, George Nelson.

George Nelson Thank you Studs.