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Article from the Summer 1997 Issue of Holistic Education Review Volume 10(2): 41-49
1997 by Holistic Education Press


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Heritage education is making personal connections with one's surroundings; it is a community paying attention to itself by paying attention to its children.

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Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days
Local Studies Projects Change the Relationship Between Schools and Communities

Michael Umphrey

The recovery of historical consciousness is not merely an intellectual matter, a matter of rereading the great books and reemphasizing the roots of American order.… It is also a very concrete matter, a matter of taking stock of the way we live, of what our pastimes and pleasures, our families and our marriages, our habits and our aspirations all say about our sense of connection to the past — and, therefore, about ourselves.
—Wilfred M. McClay

It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child is and what a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they are born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.
—Alasdair MacIntyre

To establish a personal connection with the work she was asking them to do, English teacher Marta Brooks took her high school students on a walk through town, looking at various places, encouraging reverie. As they walked, she asked them to remember things that they knew had happened in those places. This led to each student researching a topic related to the town's history. They were to include citations from both texts and interviews. By the end of the nine-week project, each student had a resource file and a 10-page research paper, and the community had the beginnings of a historical archives. They had practiced a host of traditional academic skills: library research, note- taking, interviewing, and writing — all of which are important.

However, other things were happening as well. On the night the students were to present their research findings back to the community, winter storm warnings forced some agency representatives from the state capital to cancel their plans to attend. Marta worried that the frigid weather would keep people at home. As it turned out, the high school library was warm and bright and crowded to standing room only. People who had not been in the school for decades showed up. In the formal presentations, but also informally in the halls, the community's stories moved from teller to listener. A neighborhood's memory lives only when its stories are being told, and it achieves continuity only in the association of the old with the young. Many people mentioned that the evening was not only educational, it was downright entertaining. The mood was one of celebration. At its simplest level, heritage education is a community paying attention to itself by paying attention to its children.

The elders in the community were moved that their stories had been honored by being carefully researched and recorded. The young people found themselves a little surprised by the way their work had moved the community. When the community itself, how it came to be and how it works, becomes the subject of study, all the adults in town are transformed, to one extent or another, into authorities. And when young people come asking to understand, the reservations that some adults have about young people these days are relaxed. They become collaborators.

One boy who had resisted the project when Marta suggested it, came to class with tears in his eyes a few days after the community presentation. He had just heard that one of the men he had interviewed had died. The boy had the old man's stories on tape; the last recordings of his voice. Through the project, several students become keenly aware that they weren't just recording history, they were making it. The conversations they had were themselves historical events which often turned out to have personal importance, and many events — talks between youth and their elders, between daughters and fathers, between teenagers and grandparents — would never have happened without the catalyst of the school assignment. Student Angela Posivio noted that several elders told her, "These projects evoked the memories that had been set aside and forgotten." In dozens of ways, students heard from the adults in their world that the work they were doing was real and that it mattered. The students seemed to believe it.

A good life, a good school year, and a good lesson have this in common with a good community: They are made of and they make good stories. All complex lores, such as teaching, farming, hunting, but also building and sustaining communities or operating democratic governments, live in their histories. People learn these histories by learning the stories. It isn't the ordinary events that everyone knows about that become the source of these stories, but the extraordinary ones, in which the unexpected occurred or something unusual was tried. In hearing these tales, a person gains the broad experience that we call education. They learn how the world works, what the rules of life are, what character traits are necessary, what roles are available, how to react to crises, and, most important, what is worth wanting.

Educators are relearning this ancient wisdom as contemporary problems lead them to see that neglecting the narrative environment of children turns out to be as educationally unsound as ignoring the bacterial environment is medically unsound. Doctors once went without washing, carrying blood and body fluids, from patient to patient. Patients were put into the beds where sick people had just died without anyone changing the linen. Everyone was paying attention to other things. While grown-ups have paid attention to other things, such as national standards and school board policies, they haven't talked nearly enough about the stories that are loose among their kids. Stories capture our minds. They turn us into the creatures we become. Traditional societies understood that the right stories were as important as axes or horses. Through them people remember what to admire, what to forbid, what to work toward, and what to celebrate.

Many young people now are growing up in a narrative environment dominated outside of school by corporate storytellers-for-profit who have found that violence and sex sell, and within the school by therapists who teach that the self and its desires are the ultimate reality and final authority.

The results can be disheartening. Not long ago, while teaching a class of high school students, I made a routine classroom request. A 15-year-old boy exploded with anger and began shouting obscenities. He threw his desk at me, screaming violent threats. Eventually, I had to restrain him and drag him from the class. Later, other staff members and I met with him. He had stopped swearing and begun crying. "It's your fault," he said. "You're supposed to fix me — " he pushed out his lower lip — "and I'm still like this."

No doubt the kid had problems. "Needs," he'd been taught to call them. His worst problem was that without the rudiments of historical consciousness or access to a civilizing community of memory, he was trapped in the moment and in his moods. His emotional strategies came from movies and the streets. This was a failure of his home rather than of the school, but school had done little to help. He had encountered student-centered teaching all his life. From the student point of view, it's important to remember that "student-centered" means "self-centered." The boy was a young barbarian.

He was searching, albeit ineffectively, for something beyond the self. He covered his notebooks and forearms with gang insignia, dreaming of belonging to a group that would provide an identity. I wish the sort of problems he faced were rare, but the truth is that most teachers face at least some young people like him. Some teachers face a great many of them every day — kids who come from homes where pessimism, violence, fickleness, and rage are normal, and who have learned little of the arts of community. The testimony of countless experienced teachers indicates that his demand to be catered to, expressed in an extreme form, is becoming a widespread demand, already present in a milder form among many youth. The question needs to be faced: How should civil society respond to the demands of such young people?

Teachers participating in the Heritage Project in several Montana communities are acting on the belief that their communities can invite them into better stories. According to the teachers, the heritage approach is powerful for three closely related reasons: it is narrative-based; it is project-framed; and it is community-centered. First, students are immersed in the defining narratives of their communities through engagement in history and literature. Next, the learning is framed in projects that result in final products so that the educational enterprise itself becomes a story. Finally, the teachers balance student- centered strategies with community-centered approaches, encouraging young people to join adults in the work of building and sustaining their communities. All three change both the internal cultures of schools and the relationship between those schools and the communities within which they are embedded. These are the changes that many people have been trying to bring about since a spate of studies painting dismal pictures of the nation's high schools was published in the early 1980s.1 These studies focused on the culture of schools and concluded that the schools we had built were dismal institutions, succeeding at neither encouraging sound character nor academic proficiency.

To understand the culture of our schools, a person needs to follow the narrative of how they came to be. An important part of that narrative unfolded when a group of philosophers who called themselves "logical positivists" got carried away by the success of science and began to think that other ways of knowing were without value. They felt that people had gone down too many deadend roads relying on revelation, inspiration, and speculation. They wanted hard data, by which they meant measurements. The positivists said things like, "Everything that exists must exist in some quantity, and therefore can in theory be measured," and, "Only statements that can be verified by sensory data are true." Other ways of knowing were, to use their word, "nonsense."

It wasn't long, of course, until critics pointed out that the statement, "Only statements that can be verified by sensory data are true," was itself a statement that could not be verified by sensory data. The positivists were enthroned for a season, but the debate moved on. It's a fun game that philosophers play. Unfortunately, teachers got tangled in the game even though most of them were more interested in other things. In the late forties and early fifties, when positivism was most influential in graduate schools, education professors were a relatively new presence at universities. They had doctorates, but they didn't have a respectable body of knowledge to profess, in the way that physicians and physicists did. Though the intellectual foundations of education lie in the grand narratives of history, religion, philosophy, and literature, the new professors didn't want stories; they wanted science.

They latched onto positivism, the faith in measurements, as the method by which they hoped to create a science of education. Though most classroom teachers are forced by their work to be pragmatists and few were converted to positivism, the schools in which they work have for some decades now been governed by positivist principles. The academic world quickly passed positivism by, but it remained alive and well in many graduate schools of education, busily devising elaborate dogmas, rituals, and pieties.

The results of this faith have been a staggering proliferation of research data that is to a comic extent ignored by classroom teachers, and, at the same time, a systematic refusal by decision makers to pay much heed to the testimony of experienced practitioners. Teachers who thought their work might be manifest in what a student said at a community meeting 20 years in the future, or in how a young person expressed her character in a crisis far from the classroom, were often dismissed as vague and platitudinous. Those who walked the halls of power preferred crisp reports with footnotes and tables that noted how applying certain techniques in a particular time and place, with a carefully described population, had resulted in precisely calculated percentage increases in retention of bits of data as measured by impressive-sounding instruments a few days or a few weeks later. One critic said of the education research industry that it often amounted to "strange people studying strange activities in strange settings for the briefest possible period of time." Unfortunately, most such research is blind to large-scale, slow-moving information, such as whatever silent transformation may lead a young person to want to emulate examples of competence, courage, and devotion that he or she may encounter along the way to growing up. Just as a caterpillar eating a single leaf on a single tree has a life cycle too brief to perceive that the forest is dying of a multi-year drought, so educational researchers, focused on transient phenomena, were unable to see, let alone explain, large-scale changes occurring around them.

Schools organized along positivist principles have institutionalized a distrust of human judgment, a compulsion to translate all human experience into numbers, a contempt for the common sense of ordinary folks, and a tacit hostility toward the cognitive excellences to be found in such disciplines as art, literature, and history. A truism of management is that you need to be careful what you evaluate, because what you choose to evaluate will tend to drive the whole system. Schools have, at the official level, chosen to evaluate how well students retain fragments of information that are unrelated to any real work they are trying to accomplish. The result has been a relentless narrowing of instruction.

Even more harmful than the trivialization of instruction was a related weakening of the authority of teachers. The positivist culture of schools elevated objectivity and rationality as primary virtues at the same time those schools were encountering increasing political tension over their governance. The nonsectarian Protestant faith upon which Horace Mann built his dream of a common school was under attack by postmodernist arguments from multiculturalists, feminists, and gays who hoped to shift power relationships by delegitimizing established authority. Their attacks often took the form of accusing educators of being "judgmental" and "teaching their values." Thus, teachers were pressured to retreat from explicit concern with the character and beliefs of students by both theorists in their own profession and by critics from without.

Most teachers continued to teach a public morality by practicing judgment moment to moment, day after day, because their work demanded it. A student handed in a piece of writing that fell far short of a standard which was within his reach and the teacher judged it as lacking and held him to the standard. One student harmed another and they both appeared at the teacher's desk pleading that someone had done something wrong and that he must be held to a higher standard and the teacher listened and decided. But teachers judged with far less confidence as time went on because it became increasingly probable that enforcing standards would lead to the teacher being put on trial by angry critics.

Yet the work of schools was with young people who still needed to learn the basics of civility, including not to steal, not to lie, not to fight, and not to cheat. And beyond these, it remained true that nothing difficult or complex could be learned without absorbing a rudimentary morality. To master either difficult content or complex skills, we need to obey masters, we need to put our personal problems aside, we need to persevere, we need to accept criticism, we need to do many things we do not particularly feel like doing, including homework. Malcolm Cowley once commented that "No complete son-of-a-bitch ever wrote a good sentence." Unsurprisingly, as schools became less willing to judge, misbehavior increased and learning decreased. School boards and administrators felt pressure both to deal with problem students and to avoid judgment.

Enter the therapists. Therapy thrived in the bureaucratic culture of schools because it provided promises of administratively simple solutions to the vexing problems that come with people. Therapists, by translating personal difficulties into language that sounded impersonal, objective, and rational, projected a welcome appearance of competence, a sense that someone understood what was happening and that therefore things were under control. Administrators soon learned they could "address" even the most tangled messes by recommending that someone get counseling. It was seldom necessary to discuss what, exactly, a counselor might do or whether it would actually work. Many students learned quite quickly that they did not have to submit to the demands of schooling, but that they could blame their failure on a system that had not provided the right service. Many parents were coached by an expanding corps of nonteaching service professionals, who won control of the public discourse of education, to think of every misbehavior as a sign of an "unmet need."

The language comes from Abraham Maslow.2 Nearly every teacher in America has been taught Maslow's "hierarchy of needs." His language was widely adopted by teacher education programs because he promised to provide a scientific basis for the study of motivation, and at the same time promised welcome liberation from what many felt were stifling orthodoxies.

Maslow argued that the old "regime" with its concern for "discipline," should be replaced with a new therapeutic regime: "If therapy means a pressure toward breaking controls and inhibitions, then our new key words must be spontaneity, release, naturalness, self-acceptance, impulse awareness, gratification, permissiveness." He described an ideal "self-actualizing" person as the superior human that the new therapeutic regime would foster. This new type would be "healthy." People with "unmet needs" were "unhealthy." He used "needs" to refer to everything from the body's dependence on oxygen, to the soul's desire for a mate, to the addict's desire for a cigarette. In his thought, anything that anyone might desire became a need.

Maslow's method was to select people who exhibited a high degree of the syndrome he was looking for as well as a group who showed little evidence of it, so that he could study these two groups to arrive at a "clinical definition" based on contrasting the groups. His "scientific method" consisted of "the slow development of a global or holistic impression of the sort that we form of our friends and acquaintances" through "contacts [that] were fortuitous and of the ordinary social sort." Unsurprisingly, he "found" traits of "the most striking superiorities" in the superior people with whom he socialized.

This convinced him that he was on to something. First, "it slowly became apparent that … in art and music, in things of the intellect, in scientific matters, in politics and public affairs, they seemed as a group to be able to see concealed or confused realities more swiftly and more correctly than others." This was not a value judgment, Maslow insisted, but "a partial basis for a true science of values," because those that he selected and conversed with did not just have Maslow's values, they were "cognitively correct in an absolute sense." He didn't say how he knew this, but he knew it. What Maslow made of all this cocktail party "science" was that, "a firm foundation for a value system is automatically furnished to the self-actualizer by his philosophic acceptance of the nature of his self." And that with this value system in place, all religious or moral disciplines could be dismissed as "sick-man-created" gratuities.

If a person was truly superior, i.e., healthy, doing what he wanted made all the sense that needed to be made. "Education, civilization, rationality, religion, law, government, have all been interpreted by most as being primarily instinct-restraining and suppressing forces. But if our contention is correct that instincts have more to fear from civilization than civilization from instincts, perhaps it ought to be the other way about … perhaps it should be at least one function of education, law, religion, etc., to safeguard, foster, and encourage the expression and gratification of the instinctoid needs."

Maslow admitted that the superior people he identified did have a few flaws, including "superficial vanity," "temper outbursts," "extraordinary and unexpected ruthlessness," but he urged us not to take such foibles too seriously because they resulted from superior power, and hence, were manifestations of their essential "health," which he equated with goodness. The tale Maslow told ended up being little more than a theory of selfishness. For him, the "self-actualizing human" was at the apex of creation, and love was a mid-level appetite. He seemed puzzled by what other writers said about love. He mocked Erich Fromm for saying that love implies "responsibility, care, respect, and knowledge," because "this sounds more like a pact or a partnership of some kind rather than a spontaneous sportiveness." Healthy lovers, he urged us to believe, "can be extremely close together and yet go apart quite easily."

Civilization should exist to encourage the gratification of instincts. Education should serve the appetite. Healthy people are "lusty animals" who don't make commitments. It was a small step from such beliefs to the faith that all social and personal problems stemmed from insufficient catering to the desires of the self. In the cover story of the Summer 1996 issue of American Educator, the official publication of the American Federation of Teachers, psychologist Barbara Lerner argued that the "post-modern psychology" that "swallowed up modern psychology and most of education too" in the 1970s, "reduced every problem in life to question of self-esteem or the lack of it, blurring the boundaries between therapy and school, diluting both, and making education a subservient profession." In doing so, "it made a relentless focus on the self the order of the day in classrooms across the land."

Psychology professor Roy E. Baumeister, in the same issue of American Educator, insisted that in spite of all the passionate rhetoric about the positive effects of high self- esteem, the evidence that has been mustered indicates that "self-esteem doesn't have much impact" on all the personal and social ills that believers have associated with it. Nevertheless, making schools responsible for improving student self-esteem had far-reaching consequences. "The results," according to Lerner, "were dismal — kids learned less, respect for teachers declined, disorder and violence and unhappiness increased, and a lot of Americans lost faith in schools and respect for teachers."

Consider again my troubled student. The poor boy had heard all his life about our responsibilities toward him, but he had heard far too little about his responsibilities to the other students in that class, to the teacher who had come prepared to teach, and to the community that surrounded him. He had been in therapy nearly his entire life and was literally screaming at us that he felt enslaved to moods and appetites, and that he needed to escape from the prison of self. His normal adolescent egocentricism, which a sensible family or school would contradict as a matter of course, had instead been nurtured. We were supposed to care about him, but we were confronting him about his bad behavior. We were supposed to improve his self-esteem, but he still didn't feel good about himself. We were supposed to make school fun, but he still felt miserable. What could he possibly think?

With scanty historical consciousness, he understood no adequate rules of conduct, no power to constrain his passions, no understanding of the linkage between action and consequence. He had no sense of the future because he had not glimpsed how steady, long-term work comes to fruition. He had no understanding of the sacred or of devotion because he knew nothing of unseen powers. He knew something was wrong, and he was begging us to fix it.

We can do better. Heritage teacher Bob Malyevac from Libby, Montana, said that the best of America's heritage is represented by the beliefs that "are still here and can still be saved." The 34-year classroom veteran said he settled in Libby because he found the same beliefs there that he learned while growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Butte. "Perseverance and the work ethic" still matter to people, he said. Also, many people still make large-scale commitments to projects that advance more slowly than a solitary person's career. By "having faith that the younger generation can do better than the previous generation," some families teach young people to accept bonds of obligation beyond the self, to their parents and grandparents as well as their children and grandchildren. These children easily come to see their lives as parts of a larger story, including civic, moral, and historical realities. The rudiments of historical consciousness are taught early and deeply in these homes, along with such fundamentals as brushing teeth or sharing cookies. The support and guidance of such families is the foundation of community-centered teaching.

Can schools build on this foundation, seeing their work as supporting high levels of academic achievement while teaching the disciplines necessary to civil society by joining and enhancing living communities? Can this work take the form of an invitation to all students and adults to join? Heritage teachers think the answer is "yes." By explicit statement and by their personal commitments, such teachers say that community matters. They send young people into their own communities to learn from the experts, the people with experience of the world, what it might take to build community and sustain it. Of course, all of the arts and sciences have light to shed on such questions, so teachers from every discipline can use the approach. All that is needed is faith that young people's cultural heritage is passed on to them by developing their historical consciousness.

Historical consciousness may not be quite the same as the historical knowledge that academic historians pursue, though the work of academic historians is invaluable in helping students to understand and consider what they are hearing. According to Wilfred McClay, historical consciousness is

learning to appropriate into our own moral imagination, and learning to be guided by, the distilled memories of others, the stories of things we never experienced firsthand. It means learning to make these things our own, learning to look out at the world we experience through their filter, learning to feel the living presence of the past inhering in the seeming inertness of the world as it is given to us.3

As a person develops such a historical consciousness, McClay goes on, he learns that

he is one of many people who remember what happened in that place, and in some way he is connected to all of them, to all who are bound together by remembrance of that story. In the end, communities and nation-states are constituted and sustained by such shared memories — by stories of foundation, conflict, and perseverance. The leap of imagination and faith, from the thinness and unreliability of our individual memory to the richness of collective memory, that is the leap of civilized life; and the discipline of collective memory is the task not only of the historian, but of every one of us. Historical consciousness draws us out of a narrow preoccupation with the present and with our "selves," and ushers us into another, larger world — a public world that "cultures" us, in all the senses of that word.

This broadening of student minds is a primary goal of teachers in the Heritage Project. More than thirty citizens in Libby, including the mayor, a Forest Service archeologist, church and business leaders, and a city council member, joined forces with high school seniors in the evenings to conduct an intensive ten-week community self-study following the model Baker Brownell and Joe Howard created for the Montana Study in the 1940s.

Libby's economy has been devastated in recent years by the loss of timber industry jobs. So, each meeting combined historical reports co-researched by adults and students on such topics as the history of the logging mills in the area, and the town's relationship to the timber industry, with discussions about the town's past, its present, and its future. This was not simply another school assignment. In fact, the students who participated received neither grades nor credit. They were motivated by their hunger for meaning and community. The grown-ups tackled the real problems that they faced including the economic future of their town and how it fit into state, national, and global trends. What was most unusual about this work was that the adults shared it with their youth. Senior Sarah Fisher said that she joined the project because she'd read the minutes of the 1947 study. "I was amazed at what they did," she said, "and I wondered if we could do it again."

One of the community members was businessman Paul Rumelhart. Though he had a degree in philosophy, for years he hadn't had much occasion to use that education. He'd been busy with his retail petroleum business, and after some bad political experiences, he had quit paying attention to public life in general and the schools in particular. "This was an amazing experience," he said of the New Montana Study. "I learned a lot about Libby and its history, but it wasn't what we learned that was most important. It was the attitude that developed." In the course of the study the group developed an "insight statement" that summarized that attitude: "If we lose faith in each other and in our institutions, we become a collection of individuals surviving in same space, but if we grow in our faith in each other and in our institutions, we become a community of people thriving in the same place."

Senior Mark Harmon commented that he learned, "Not just about government, but also about the principles of founding a community." Sarah Fisher agreed. "This wasn't just about education," she said. "It was about civic duties and dealing with people."

Of course, if local studies were only about provincial concerns, their value might be quite limiting. But they are not. They are points of entry into the largest of stories. The community that exists in Libby is self-consciously aware that its story goes back not only to eighteenth-century Virginia, but also to Athens and Jerusalem. The cultural heritage of young people in a rural corner of the vast American west can include an even more vast sense of continuity, a broad and capacious view that reminds them that our current difficulties can be faced in the context of a powerful, living civilization that has developed in spite of, and sometimes because of, crises as bad as anything they are likely to meet. At the end of the study, teacher Jeff Gruber, who organized the project, commented, "I'll be doing heritage teaching in one form or another for the rest of my career."

When what happens in school is not part of the student's story, as he or she understands it, school seems lifeless and inert. The school reform movement that began in the early 1980s was triggered largely by researchers going into actual classrooms to see what was happening. What they found, over and over, was that students were not listening. They were docile and unexcited, passively enduring school. Information that we do not need for any work we are attempting tends to be filtered out as noise. While the curriculum was being delivered to students in the form of an endless stream of information unrelated to any work that they understood was theirs, the youngsters daydreamed, ignoring the class talk and running stories through their heads.

So many theorists have issued pronouncements about narratives lately that we risk losing the simple truth in a mystical complexity of words. The basic elements of narrative are pretty much what people were taught in seventh-grade English: There is a protagonist who cares about something, there are events that touch on what he cares about, and there arrives a moment in which things become more clear — character, plot, and theme. Cognitive scientists have shown that children from a very young age recognize when a story is a story.4 A sequence of events doesn't make a story any more than a random heap of words makes a sentence. There must be emotion, challenge, and meaning.

Emotion, challenge, and meaning, it so happens, are the defining experiences of learning. Ask anyone what their most significant learning has been, and they'll tell you a story. Luckily for teachers, to build narrative power into their teaching is not much more complicated than to engage students in projects aimed at accomplishing real work. As students invest energy toward reaching a goal, their work inevitably becomes a story. As they formulate felt questions, they become protagonists in their own story, characters with hopes, fears, and desires. As they begin the search for answers, conflict begins and the plot unfolds. They meet obstructions and difficulties, they find help and encouragement, they reach deadends and epiphanies. As they formulate their conclusions into final products, they transform information into knowledge. They find a theme in what they are doing. In at least small ways, they are changed. That is, they learn.

A town or neighborhood does not become a community until enough people see that they need each other and begin inventing some means of providing for themselves what they need. Community-centered teaching is founded on the realization that people cannot fulfill themselves intellectually, artistically, or socially without others, and that the arts of living together can and must be taught. The bright and the dull, the wealthy and the poor, the sure and the halting help each other to balance their excesses. The old benefit from the young, drawing them into the learning they need, just as surely as the young benefit from the perspective of the old. Young parents learn much of what they need to know from their babies, who demand that they keep trying until they get it right. This pattern, the young and old getting what they most need from each other, continues throughout life.

This is the basic insight behind the work of Erik Erikson,5 who saw that the way individuals develop, both young and old, is deeply connected to the way generations succeed themselves. Human survival, Erikson said, depends on "vital virtues which develop in the interplay of successive and overlapping generations, living together." This meant that the creation of a strong human community was necessary for quality education. Erikson suggested that one of America's educational problems might be our poor understanding of the life cycle. We don't know what the work of old age might be because we have imagined life as a trajectory toward and into success, followed by oblivion. He suggested that career success was not nearly fulfilling enough, and that one generation can conclude its life's work only in the succeeding generation. "Where identity formation is relatively successful in youth … development leads through the fulfillment of adult phases to a final integrity, the possession of a few principles which though gleaned from changing experience yet prove unchangeable in essence. Without old people in possession of such integrity, young people in need of an identity can neither rebel nor obey."

English teacher Renee Rasmussen in Chester, Montana, worked with Pat Ludwig, President of the Liberty County Genealogical Society, to bring young and old together. She asked her class to research the history of the oldest buildings in town, keeping a focus on learning what this said about what the people in town cared about. Meanwhile, Pat began teaching autobiographical writing classes at the senior citizen center. So as the young went looking for the history of their place, their elders were invited to bring that history to the fore. The meaning of events doesn't often come immediately or without reflection, and it may be in response to the needs of the young that the older find in their histories what is needed, for both parties.

Elementary principal Vi Hills saw what was happening and put her energies behind the project. She organized a community Heritage Fair at which the students could report their research back to their community. Before she was finished the Fair included dozens of events and activities: storytelling sessions by elders, demonstrations of arts and crafts, oral histories of the hospital and other community agencies, presentations of cultural artifacts brought to town by European migrants, rides in horse-drawn wagons and vintage automobiles, old time music and dancing, samples of quilts and other crafts, chances to make ice cream, butter, and wooden hay forks. School was canceled for the day and over five hundred people came to town to share their heritage.

"It was like no class that I have had," commented junior Michael Nelson. The writing which the students produced was first-rate, according to writer and research historian Dave Walter. The writing not only captured the histories of the buildings, but it brought that history to life "by putting real people in those buildings." And beyond the academic skills lay other realities: "One of the things that will never leave my mind," said David Jensen, "were the expressions of joy and youthfulness of the older generation. I remember walking into the nursing home and listening to the never-ending stories of when they were my age. Those stories are what makes this community what it really is."

The heritage approach to education includes dozens of ways to teach all the academic skills that young people these days need to learn, but it also includes dozens of ways to educate their hearts. Until all children have heard the most hopeful, most powerful, and most challenging stories their community can tell, they have not received their truest and best heritage. They are not free to choose the better unless they hear about it. Making sure students hear, so they are truly free to choose — this is the work not just of our public school teachers, but of all who believe that the continuing saga that is America includes much that is good, much that is worthy of preservation.

Keith Basso spent years observing the Apaches in Arizona, and he noted the way their community, through its stories, shaped its young people. This is what one of the elders told him:

This is what we know about our stories. They go to work on your mind and make you think about your life. Maybe you're not acting right. Maybe you've been stingy. Maybe you've been chasing after women. Maybe you've been trying to act like a Whiteman. People don't like it! So someone goes hunting for you — maybe your grandmother, your grandfather, your uncle. It doesn't matter. Anyone can do it. So someone stalks you and tells a story about what happened long ago. It doesn't matter if other people are around — you're going to know he's aiming that story at you. All of a sudden it hits you! It's like an arrow, they say … then you feel weak, real weak, like you are sick. You don't want to eat or talk to anyone. That story is working on you now. You keep thinking about it. That story is changing now, making you want to live right. That story is making you want to replace yourself.… It's hard to keep living right. Many things jump out at you and block your way. But you won't forget that story.6

It isn't just Apaches who surround their children with webs of stories that teach them what matters, what to believe, and therefore who to be. All communities do the same thing. America is a web of such stories. All our children are surrounded by them every moment of every day. Some of the stories are foolish and some are wise. The faith of the Montana Study in the 1940s was that although the times were troubled, the wisdom and virtue needed for the survival of free society still lived in our communities, and that the best communities could, through the faith and effort of concerned members, become education-centered, valuing learning and teaching as their most important activities. It's a story that might be true.

What we know for sure is that however we decide to act and whatever narrative we choose to tell, our young will be watching and listening.


1. These are the most notable: Boyer, E. L. High School. New York: Harper & Row, 1983; Goodlad, J. A Place Called School. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984; National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983. Sizer, T. R. Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

2. Maslow, A. H. Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954.

3. McClay, Wilfred M. "The Mystic Chords of Memory: Reclaiming American History," Russel Kirk Memorial Lectures, Delivered to the Heritage Foundation, December 13, 1995.

4. Mandler, Jean Matter. Stories, Scripts, and Scenes: Aspects of Schema Theory. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984.

5. Erikson, Erik H. Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight. New York: W. W. Norton, 1964. 6. Basso, Keith H. "Stalking with Stories: Names, Places, and Moral Narratives Among the Western Apaches," Antaeus, 57, Autumn, 1986; pp. 111-112.

Michael Umphrey has published two books of poetry (The Breaking Edge and The Lit Window). He writes and speaks extensively on community-centered teaching. He lives with his wife and five children on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.

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