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Lyle: The Origins of Truth

The Origins of Truth


Editor's note:  The essay following here was written by a former ALSG employee, Linda Lyle, as part of a dissertation submitted in 1998 to the University of Tennessee in satisfaction for her PhD in Communications.  The dissertation (clickable here in its entirety) deals with non-verbal channels of communications within, and across, business entities, it being her thesis that trend-setting contributions in one company can reverberate across an industry, affecting other companies in the same field sometimes imperceptibly, but powerfully nevertheless. The company she took as her model was the seminal American student travel company, ALSG, pictured here at a 1977 company reunion which took place only months before certain important ALSG employees would leave the company to form a competing but very similar organization, ACIS.
   Markle, the founder of ALSG, and of the rock 'n' roll countryside recording studio Long View Farm, was just about to depart for a trip to India.
    Linda Lyle's words are republished here with her permission. The archive photographs have been added by the editor, and do not necessarily identify any personalities treated by nearby text.

..."Historical" truth was one of the more interesting concepts uncovered and was described by one informant as those values, modes of operation, and ways of thinking and behaving that were "present at the creation." That "creation" — whether informants view it as largely positive, largely negative, or relatively neutral — is consistently identified as having occurred in the company ALSG and more specifically, is "credited" to ALSG's founder, Dr. Gilbert Markle (and in part to its co-founder, Dr. Theodore Voelkel). This is somewhat a curious phenomenon, especially considering the fact that ALSG was not the first or even second company to engage in "student" travel. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, informants refer to ALSG when they talk about their own history, and few make reference to the companies who came before ALSG. Typical descriptions of the ALSG/Markle-Voelkel culture include the following:

    [Gil and Ted] worked miracles in the beginning. We still do some things the way they originally envisioned them, or at least go in that direction. They taught me most of what I started out knowing about this business, maybe all of it.
    [H]ere you had this infant industry, nobody was doing it the way Gil did it. It emerged in these strange midwestern pockets of principals and superintendents sending kids and teachers to study language in Europe in long programs. There was an early period of these long programs [before ALSG] where students spent 4-5-6 weeks abroad, not traveling much, just being there. Then Gil . . . took this groovy approach to travel, you know? I mean, he had some campus stays like AIFS and FSL, but there was a lot of travel as well, between the campuses. And there were lectures that were right on, contemporary kinds of things, plus the art and all the rest. And the cassettes and the book that Ted wrote . . . they were brilliant . . . really, really brilliant.
    I think that what Gil did at the beginning stages, when he created the industry, was a breakthrough. He established an industry that was, that could have been this small niche but turned out to be a viable 120,000-plus-passenger-a-year industry . . . which is tremendous for all parties involved. . . . He created the [industry] really, and he created it pretty much in his own image. And it works.
    [The industry] is generally based, rooted if you will, in the academy, and that's directly attributable, at least in my estimation, to ALSG's contributions. ALSG's unique niche in the industry was to spread out the concept of learning, of educational travel, the academic trappings . . . over the . . . whirlwind package tour. That was beginning . . . . ALSG shifted the focus away from language to culture in a broader sense to a larger, cultural focus . . . .In short, ALSG stood for the romance of travel and more to the point, the romance of learning.
    Gil . . . was the star everyone and everything revolved around . . . . The star system is really an artifact of the academy, it seems to me. We've all known star professors who have their retinue, their entourage. ALSG was much the same. What this . . . does is to make for a zeal other companies couldn't emulate . . . .the founder or founders knew no other way of doing it. They were academics, for heavens' sake. And [the] model . . . was Gil.

Discussions of "historical truth" are layered in complexity, however, as a result of most informants' strong feelings with regard to Markle himself: some talk about him as if he were a god-like figure and some as if he were just the opposite. The most striking performances are those that describe both extremes, within specific temporal frames (e.g. "historical" vs. "contemporary" or "then" vs. "now").

    ALSG was nothing if not a personality cult. By that, I mean to say that a few key personalities had a positive impact when the company was first starting. Gil, of course, was the shaman [who] . . . attracted postulants. Postulants! No one could accurately have called them employees! They were attracted by the sheer magnetism of Gil's vision . . . . Gil was the god-like presence, a shaman behind it all. He was the star that everyone and everything revolved around.

However, the same informant also opined that

    Gil Markle was a very demanding, very temperamental individual. He could be explosive, he could be intolerant, he could be sarcastic. He was always devious. And that to me was a negative factor. He was also charming, charismatic . . . so there was a plus and a minus there, and the minus could really take its toll.

To extend the root metaphor, these performances — and others like them — describe Markle in language that suggest the eternal paradox, the embodiment of both truth and apostasy, a Miltonian view of good and evil, as it were. In fact, the very existence of these antithetical performances is reminiscent of Nietzsche's circulus vitiosus deus, of the buddic and astral planes, of heaven and hell, and of similar embodiments of the "eternal struggle" between opposing forces.

    I never think of Abraham as one of the children of Israel; he was the font; [likewise Gil] was the fountain of it all . . . . Now, there's a minus to that . . . in transcending his progeny, he kind of climbed up to a status that was between sort of human and whatever the next one is up, you know? . . . And we've seen there are plenty of plusses and minuses to that.

Other informants describe ALSG/Markle as the source and/or scourge of truth in somewhat more pragmatic language, that nonetheless retains religious overtones of the root metaphor:

    Gil created a miracle in the beginning, a real miracle and he knew it. I guess it was hard not to rest on your laurels or whatever, or maybe let go of the vision you originally had.
    You know, I learned a lot from Gil. I'm a big admirer of Gil's — and of Ted's . . . they are incredibly talented people, incredibly gifted by the gods. They started this industry moving in the right direction . . . and they worked miracles in the beginning . . . .But the industry, the people, the entire process . . . became deeper than any one person. I guess you could say that the child Gil created just grew up and left him . . . or perhaps he didn't adjust. Sometimes that's hard, as any parent knows.

Another informant is more explicit in using the deity-image:

    Remember Gil in those days? . . . He was untouchable, like a god. . . . Gil had this charisma that was just uncanny . . . and it was great while it lasted, but then things started to change . . . . The original ALSG identity . . . just didn't work . . . and Gil wouldn't really face it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, "younger" informants (in terms of their companies' ages) tend to dwell upon the "dark side" of ALSG/Markle. Moreover, informants from all companies tend to describe their own "truths" and practices as exemplary of the "new testament" to truth or "new covenant" (as opposed to ALSG/Markle's "old covenant") with the client, using language that suggests a "redemption" motif; i.e., that they have "redeemed" themselves from ALSG's shortcomings.

    You know how at ALSG you were afraid to break the rules? Gil might get mad and there'd be hell to pay. And I'm not picking on Gil, just whoever. But you couldn't break the rules. Instead, here we have a flexible attitude. [When we left ALSG], we almost wanted to right a wrong.
    Our company's first assumptions were anti-ALSG . . . we just didn't want everything to be done the way it had always been done
    Something we all learned at ALSG [was that] something was always looming around the corner, that we [ALSG] were gonna getcha [the client]. So I think [clients] absolutely appreciate that in contrast, we shoot straight from the hip.
    At [ALSG] I had no control over . . . the registration procedures . . . and the payment procedures were just crazily complicated, needlessly complicated, and were just purposely set up to bilk the poor old client so that they would miss out on this deadline or the other deadline [and] that would allow the company to swoop in and impose some kind of surcharge. So [we] don't have any deadlines of the sort where you're penalized . . . [we] just did away with all that because it just made for bad feelings.
    Gil had built a good organization at ALSG, but we had the opportunity to build a new and more efficient organization.

Thus, each company tends to see itself as the most valid source of truth, per se, or to put it another way, as a model of contemporary business practice in this industry. One observer has labeled this attitude as illustrative of a tendency towards "self-delusion" on the part of industry executives; regardless, it is a theme that occurs throughout the data.

Finally, there are those who simply dismiss Markle's influence altogether:

    Gil Markle likes to say that he's the "father" of the industry, but I can assure you that he has nothing to do with the companies that have not evolved from ALSG.

While this perception is valid for those who hold it, the fact is that at least one of the non-genetic companies hired one of ALSG's former executives to — in the executive's words — "show them [the non-genetic company] how to market this student travel concept." Thus, bedrock cultural assumptions endemic to the ALSG culture may have been "adopted" by a non-genetic entity. At the very least, it is clear that the former ALSG executive had an opportunity to transmit ALSG's "special way of doing things," along with its "special way of talking about" (Pacanowsky & O'Donnell-Trujillo, 1983, 124) what it did, to a non-genetic entrant into the industry. A content analysis of this entity's early marketing documents suggests that if this is not the case, then another explanation must be found for the obvious and striking similarities found in the language used by this entity and by the rest of the industry at that time — all of which reflect the language used in contemporaneous ALSG documents.

In any case, the concept of historical truth leads inevitably to the concept of "contemporary truth" — commencing with the founding of any post-ALSG entity. In examining the data surrounding this issue, one is confronted once again with the notion of "improvisation" or "management by high-wire-ism" as a bedrock source of truth for most industry informants. In fact, one informant remarked, "I've always felt that there were those who went to Harvard Business School and then there are those of us who actually do what those guys sit around talking about" (X, 1-3).

More specifically, this improvisational motif may be articulated in terms of current truth's being engendered by collective corporate ingenuity, emanating principally from each company's circle of elites, but with welcome contributions from "worker bees" (N, 1-25) as well; thus, for most informants, truth is procreated by individual inventiveness, as opposed to its being reposit in "experts" or "theory" or even in "traditional practices" — which is an interesting paradox, in and of itself. In this regard, one informant described the early (ALSG) culture in virtually the same kind of language that most informants used to describe contemporary practice:

    There was [in the early culture at ALSG] a kind of rank informality, the good side of which meant that it was a very libertarian business environment . . . that made for a kind of creative thing. It was easy to innovate, lots of different ideas, people would express themselves and come up with different angles on what might be done.

Note the juxtaposition to descriptions of "current" origins of truth:

      There's no cut and dried answer to this business. Everything is a judgment call. We'll sit down . . . and discuss [issues] and . . . just because you talk about it you may just come up with something . . . we all have new ideas . . . and we keep those ideas in our head and then after the season we start to work on them and next year we'll be ahead of the game again (M, 1-18, 20).
      We're grassroots, we get in there and get our hands dirty and we're not going by any formula, we're going by personalities. (O, 1-5).
      I had no one to learn from . . . operationally, and doing the ground. . I had no one to learn from, no one to tell me. Know what I did? I took these old guys I had, these old foreign guys who've been in the business I don't know how many years . . . and get a little knowledge from this one and that one . . . and just from seeing how things work and figuring out most of it myself, by the seat of my pants (P, 1-20).

      Thus, "current truth" emanates from "improvisation," which is a modus operandi that seems to be rooted in ALSG's early culture. Moreover, and more to the point, it should be noted that with striking consistency, comments about contemporary truth are normally made to contrast the younger company with ALSG/Markle, to demonstrate that the new entity is "better" than its predecessor. Thus, it may be argued that the very fact of reference itself — of using ALSG/Markle as an "anti-benchmark" — is a de facto acknowledgment of ALSG/Markle as a source of truth, both historical and contemporary, whether that truth be perceived to be valid or invalid. Indeed, when taken together, the language of these performances suggests that the "dark side" of ALSG/Markle (synonymous to some with "historical truth") is in fact a Phoenix-like source of contemporary truth, regardless of the form in which the latter is manifested.

      Finally, in discussing the application of these "contemporary truths," a few informants acknowledge the "gravity" of industry culture; that is to say, in their own company's "search for the truth," they have found it impossible to be too innovative, to stray too far from "home," because previously established industry assumptions and practices (e.g. historical truth) exert a compelling force on their own company's actions. This phenomenon implies, among other things, that some "truths" may be eternal, and that bedrock assumptions may remain basically unchanged, regardless of fluctuating perceptions, and perhaps regardless of the manner in which contemporary truth is made manifest. For example, one company tried to be very different from the rest of the industry, but it just didn't work:

        When we started here . . . we tried something that in hindsight didn't work . . . we tried to[let] everyone just do everything. Whatever it took to handle that client, everyone did, and it didn't work. . .we didn't want any of the horseplay we'd seen at ALSG, and that was another reason [our company] was formed . . . we didn't want everything to be done the way it had always been done. [But we found out, for example] that the sales person cannot be involved in the pricing . . . or bing goes your profit . . . you can't be doing that . . . so we went back to the industry model . . . .I think we had in our minds . . . that everything was wrong there [at ALSG], which it wasn't (P, 1-8).

        While discussions of this nature may well be expected to take place within genetically related companies, even non-genetic companies acknowledged antecedent origins of at least some truths, especially with regard to assumptions about the external environment, marketing, and product-related issues. Unfortunately, these companies' informants cannot be quoted here, to preserve their anonymity. However, "industry gravity" is also evident when one compares the descriptive prose in current non-genetic catalogues, not only to that of "genetic" entities, but most interestingly, to similar prose gleaned from quondam ALSG catalogues. To repeat one informant's description of these similarities:

          They [the non-genetic companies] picked up a good deal of the . . . academic conventions [ALSG] introduced into the industry. All you have to do is pick up their teacher handbook or whatever they call it . . . you'll see [ALSG's] prose and . . . topics all over the thing: the sample press release . . . the sample letter inviting parents to come to a meeting to discuss organizing a trip overseas, the letter written to a skittish school board that 's a little uncertain about . . . giving the kids permission. . . . All the things [ALSG] put into the teacher-counselor handbook . . . [the non-genetic companies] didn't have anything like that, so I know they pillaged all that from [ALSG's] various editions over the years . . . even [down to exact] phraseology.

        In sum, it seems clear that ALSG/Markle (and to some extent, Voelkel, who in fact is the author of a significant amount of ALSG's prose) are widely assumed to have originated what the industry today accepts as "truth" — even though in many cases they are not consciously credited with having done so. Moreover, the root metaphor is continued throughout these performances, in language that suggests (1) an "eternal struggle" between the "evil" of history and the "good" of the present time and place, as well as (2) "redemption" from the industry's historical transgressions, as evidenced in the younger companies' "new covenant" with their clients.

        All dissertation material copyright © Linda Gayle Lyle, 1998. All rights reserved.

         


         All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.