The Transistor and the Technique

by Robert Rickover

It was the spring of 1957 in Washington, D.C. I was in my senior year at Woodrow Wilson High School, thankful that I’d soon be leaving the city Lead Belly, the great Black American blues singer, aptly labeled a bourgeois town. “If you’re white, you’re all right, if you’re brown stick around, but if you’re black, get back” he wrote in his famous song about Washington, “Bougeois Blues”.

It was a turbulent period for the public school system in DC. Washington is a federal city, but it is also a southern city and its public schools had always been totally segregated. Yet almost immediately following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by US Supreme Court in 1954 prohibiting segregation in pubic schools, they were integrated on orders of the President. It would take over a decade of legal resistance and riots for other school systems, including some in the north, to accomplish the same thing.

My school was located in an all-white area of the city and so there were no black kids available, but a couple of black teachers were assigned to the school for appearance sake.

All of this was far from my mind when I went to an after-school meeting of the Radio Club to hear a talk by William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor. The transistor was the forerunner of the microchip, the nerve center of virtually all electronic devices today.

Schokley had just received a Nobel Prize for his work. It was already clear that his invention would totally revolutionize all aspects of electronics - including the early computers that were just starting to become available to governments and large corporations - and I was eager to hear what he had to say.

Imagine my surprise when instead of talking about transistors, Shockley launched into a vehement denunciation of the Supreme Court decision, saying it would lead to the downfall of our country. Blacks were just a couple of steps removed from the jungle, he argued, and their intelligence was far below that of whites. Bringing them into white schools would undermine educational standards and lead, more or less directly, to America’s defeat by the then dreaded Soviet Union.

A few years later, Shockley’s racist views were published in various magazine articles and he even created some sort of institute to promote them. Thankfully he never had much effect on the political debates surrounding race relations in America.

I often think about Shockley when questions about Alexander’s racism come up. I believe it’s useful to compare the practical effects of the two men’s thinking.

When I turn on my TV or use my computer, I don’t for a second worry about Shockley’s views. It would be ridiculous to think that they are somehow embedded in the the circuitry his work made possible.

But with Alexander and his Technique the situation is quite different. When I trained to become an Alexander teacher in London in the late 1970s and early 1980s, all of my teachers were themselves trained by FM or by teachers who were trained by FM. Even today, most teacher-trainees are only a few generations removed from FM’s hands.

And from his words and attitudes. The teacher training process involves very close personal association over a three-year period. It’s pretty obvious that Alexander teachers sometimes unconsciously take on some of the mannerisms and attitudes of their teachers and there’s no reason to think views on race too might not inadvertently be transferred from Alexander generation to generation.

Both Shockley and Alexander were geniuses who successfully fulfilled what I consider the primary purpose of genius - that is, to deliver something of value to the rest of us.

Like many geniuses, both had serious character flaws - Shockley’s probably far worse than Alexander’s. That doesn’t in any way detract from their valuable contributions. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t accept and honor those contributions. That would be like refusing to accept our mail because the postman is a creep!

But I also believe we are obligated to examine carefully whether we aren’t also inadvertently taking on some not-so-desireable baggage along with their valuable gifts,

I think Alexander would agree with this. Presumptuous as it is, I feel certain his own enlightened posthumous assessment of the matter would go something like this:

“As I made clear several times in my writings, my own work in this field - important as it was - is really just a beginning. I would hope that my successors would expand on my discoveries and free them from any limitations in my own intellectual development - and certainly from any limitations due to the specifics of my time and place.

“The central core of my work is about objective examinations of the conditions present and putting forth a reasoned response to those conditions. I know firsthand from my own work on myself just how difficult is is to be objective about one’s own peculiarities. And so I extend my very best wishes to those of you who seek to overcome any unfounded biases I may have let slip into my writing and teaching.”


Robert Rickover holds degrees in physics, metallurgical engineering and economics from Yale University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following a career as a research economist, he trained at the School of Alexander Studies in London from 1978-1981. He is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique web site He has been the Alexander Technique Editor for America Online and a regular content contributor for several general interest and health-oriented web sites. He is a teaching member of STAT, AmSAT and ATI.

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