George Kelly was teaching physiological psychology at Fort Hays Kansas State College in 1931. It was the time of the dust bowl and the Depression. Recognizing the pains and sorrows of the farming families of this part of west-central Kansas, he decided to do something a little more humanitarian with his life: He decided to develop a rural clinical service.
Mind you, this was hardly a money-making operation. Many of his clients had no money. Some couldnt come to him, and so he and his students would travel, sometimes for hours, to them.
At first, Kelly used the standard Freudian training that every psychology Ph.D. received in those days. He had these folks lie down on a couch, free associate, and tell him their dreams. When he saw resistances or symbols of sexual and aggressive needs, he would patiently convey his impressions to them. It was surprising, he thought, how readily these relatively unsophisticated people took to these explanations of their problems. Surely, given their culture, the standard Freudian interpretations should seem terribly bizarre? Apparently, they placed their faith in him, the professional.
Kelly himself, however, wasnt so sure about these standard Freudian explanations. He found them a bit far-fetched at times, not quite appropriate to the lives of Kansan farm families. So, as time went by, he noticed that his interpretations of dreams and such were becoming increasingly unorthodox. In fact, he began "making up" explanations! His clients listened as carefully as before, believed in him as much as ever, and improved at the same slow but steady pace.
It began to occur to him that what truly mattered to these people was that they had an explanation of their difficulties, that they had a way of understanding them. What mattered was that the "chaos" of their lives developed some order. And he discovered that, while just about any order and understanding that came from an authority was accepted gladly, order and understanding that came out of their own lives, their own culture, was even better.
Out of these insights, Kelly developed his theory and philosophy. The theory well get to in a while. The philosophy he called constructive alternativism. Constructive alternativism is the idea that, while there is only one true reality, reality is always experienced from one or another perspective, or alternative construction. I have a construction, you have one, a person on the other side of the planet has one, someone living long ago had one, a primitive person has one, a modern scientist has one, every child has one, even someone who is seriously mentally ill has one.
Some constructions are better than others. Mine, I hope, is better than that of someone who is seriously mentally ill. My physicians construction of my ills is better, I trust, than the construction of the local faith healer. Yet no-ones construction is ever complete -- the world is just too complicated, too big, for anyone to have the perfect perspective. And no-ones perspective is ever to be completely ignored. Each perspective is, in fact, a perspective on the ultimate reality, and has some value to that person in that time and place.
In fact, Kelly says, there are an infinite number of alternative constructions one may take towards the world, and if ours is not doing a very good job, we can take another!
George Kelly was born on April 28, 1905, on a farm near Perth, Kansas. He was the only child of Theodore and Elfleda Kelly. His father was originally a presbyterian minister who had taken up farming on his doctors advice. His mother was a former school teacher.
Georges schooling was erratic at best. His family moved, by covered wagon, to Colorado when George was young, but they were forced to return to Kansas when water became scarce. From then on, George attended mostly one room schools. Fortunately, both his parents took part in his education. When he was thirteen, he was finally sent off to boarding school in Wichita.
After high school, Kelly was a good example of someone who was both interested in everything and basically directionless. He received a bachelors degree in 1926 in physics and math from Park College, followed with a masters in sociology from the University of Kansas. Moving to Minnesota, he taught public speaking to labor organizers and bankers and citizenship classes to immigrants.
Then, during the depression, he worked at Fort Hays Kansas State College, where he developed his theory and clinical techniques. During World War II, Kelly served as an aviation psychologist with the Navy, followed by a stint at the University of Maryland.
In 1946, he left for Ohio State University, the year after Carl Rogers left, and became the director of its clinical program.
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