Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

The Age of the Essay is Dawning
     The power to publish is now universal

“History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.” Of such observations, Paul Graham weaves an essay about how to write essays. He uses history to explain how the teaching of writing became entangled in the English departments in universities and high schools, and he doesn’t believe this has been a good development for students. Writing in school is too much about literature and too little about life experience (though not in the Heritage Project, of course).

But good things may be on the horizon. The age of short stories occurred between the rise of literacy and the coming of television, and it may well be that the age of the essay is dawning now, as the internet allows anyone to publish their thoughts on any topic.

I hope this is true. I rather like the idea that after centuries of working to be sure that nearly everyone can read, we may now be poised to take a giant step toward a world in which everyone can write as well. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone will aspire to being a New York Times bestselling author. We have enough of those. What we don’t have nearly enough of is local writers who talk about local matters. How local? I would say we need more writers, many more writers, who write for their families.

As cameras became easier and cheaper to use, a marvellous new thing came into the world: the family photo album. Most of the world’s millions of photographers are happy to practice their craft for their families alone. This is a very good thing. Today it is quite simple for family members to contribute to a group web site that combines photos and videos with emails from members who are far away. In the interesting way that current news becomes treasured history if it is simply saved, such sites are destined to become some people’s most important possession.  Such sites will teach us, I believe, to appreciate more keenly that all good and important writing does not concern itself with national events or politics. And unlike a photo album, such a web site is safe when the house catches fire.

But we are not just family members. We are also citizens of towns and neighborhoods, as well as amateur gardeners and geologists and volunteer firemen. All these groups would benefit from having their own writers. A gardening club with a group blog could create an informational resource of great value to gardeners from that area, especially young people just trying to figure it out. It could be a resource that would grow more valuable with time, enriching the pleasure gardeners already find in their hobby, by providing a way for them discuss their efforts and document their triumphs, sharing their work with others with similar passions. I wish such a blog existed where I live.

We do not develop and publish nearly enough local knowledge about such topics as gardening. What works in Missoula doesn’t necessary work in Great Falls. We also doen’t develop and publish nearly enough local knowledge about trout populations, building construction, business strategies, ethnic traditions, and cooking.

I would like to live in a place where local scientists studied local ponds and meadows, posting their findings on a local website. A place where local cooks experimented with local produce, sharing their recipes and ideas, developing an original cuisine rooted there. A place where local historians published the histories of local institutions, such as the volunteer ambulance service and the womens club, as well as the histories of roads and buildings, including barns. I would like to live in a place where people documented their favorite mountain hikes, the birds that reliably arrive in their trees, and any number of other topics that I would never have thought to wonder about, but would be surprised and delighted to find on a local website. And I would like to live in a place where I could find at least rudimentary information about every person who had ever lived there.

The easy storage and the growing power of search engines allow individuals or small groups to create repositories of knowledge, experience, and insight that could transform human life in ways we are only beginning to understand. Cheap, fast travel and saturation mass media have tended to homogenize culture in recent decades, but this may be only a phase in history. What lies ahead may be a renaissance of local culture, driven by new informational media. Local groups now have the tools they need to develop local culture to a high state by the simple expedient of sharing with like-minded others their ideas, their experiences, their occasional bits of insight, and their inspiration.

If enough people are drawn to writing and publishing essays, it’s easy to imagine that someday many people will live in such places. If so, it would constitute a true renaissance of local culture.  Such a renaissance would not replace the works of superior scholarship published by brilliant professors, nor need witty national pundits fear unemployment. High school teams and pickup basketball games do not, after all, threaten professional sports. Indeed, they cultivate the most avid of all audiences for the “big” guys.

I would be more skeptical about all this were it not for the several million bloggers who have already sprung into action. Something is happening. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Leaving the Garden
     Setting out into a different world

Frederick Turner considers the rash of scandals in the past year at the old media institutions--the New York Times, the BBC, CNN--and concludes that the corrupted practices of those who make these institutions are catching up with them. A significant minority of people now say the main stream media cannot be trusted. That was before the CBS boondoggle.

He suggests this is the passing of an old order.  A thing that has happened many times before, to such authorities as “the medieval Vatican, the Ching Dynasty, the Holy Roman Empire, the French Academy, the Victorian Church of England, and the Communist Party.” They abused their authority until they lost it.

But all is not lost:

So we set out now, like Adam and Eve at the end of Milton’s great poem on the Fall, into a new informational world, a new period of history where we cannot rely on journalistic authority and have no guide as to what to believe. It is a fallen world, but it has a certain excitement. For we may now start learning about the current world from each other—from Chinese or Iraqi or Israeli or Indian or Persian or Spanish or U.S. eyewitnesses, from bloggers and friends on the telephone and radio callers whose trustworthiness we must judge on our own—just as we did before the great nineteenth and twentieth century newspapers came along.

Perhaps we could put it in an even more radical way. As such institutions as coffee-houses, town meetings, old fashioned barber shops, primary caucuses, soap box gatherings, debates, and suchlike fell into disuse, and the networks and newspapers took over, the Public itself began to disappear, to be replaced by a segmented demographic mass swayed by centralized journalistic voices and shaped by polls. What is now happening is that rather swiftly a new Public is forming, self-organizing around Google and link lists and blog chatrooms. And it will demand a new Res Publica.

And how do we ensure that this new Public, of which our students may be members, is a good Public, except by educating young people into the highest and best use of the informational tools we now have and are developing.

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What kids can learn studying past community disasters
     Houghton Creek Fire

Houghton Creek Fire poster

The kids in Libby are going to study the Houghton Creek Fire from 1984. The study of past community disasters has the potential for being a wonderful group inquiry for a team of adolescents.

Generally the stories and memories associated with such events are dramatic and vivid, and how older people remember and discuss such events can shape the emotional intelligence of youth, which is a primary governor of their conduct. Montanans tend to like to tell the stories of disasters they’ve experienced. This is because, in general, we acquit ourselves well. In disasters, we have a chance to demonstrate the strengths of our character. During a typical Montana disaster, you will see people acting with resiliency, ingenuity, persistence, courage, intelligence, and selflessness.

In my work as an EMT, I recently helped with a disaster when the balcony of a local bar collapsed, sending over 50 people to the hospital. As EMTs got to the injured, they were often waved away by injured people who requested that more seriously injured people be taken care of first. The Polson Fire Department and ambulance service quickly got to work. Lighting was arranged. A triage area was organized and the patients were treated and sorted. Cars were towed to create an efficient route for emergency vehicles to cycle through the scene. Equipment and supplies were passed freely among agencies. The most badly injured people were transported first, which is a more amazing feat than it sounds, considering the tangled mass of bodies in the dark that the first EMTs encountered. The primary topic of conversation after the incident was how well the numerous agencies cooperated. Though there were some of the usual communications challenges, there were no turf battles. People took direction, figured out solutions, and took action. After barely an hour, all the patients had been transported to several area hospitals.

In dinner tables around Polson after that incident, many young people no doubt heard their parents talking about what had happened. And in the hearing, they learned that we are the kind of people who admire toughness and intelligence and resourcefulness and duty and selflessness. We aren’t born valuing such strengths. We learn them from stories--both those we experience and those we are told. The informal storytelling that goes on in our families and neighborhoods is a more powerful force in shaping the ethical bent of our young people than are formal ethics classes, with their analysis of abstract problems.

And yet not all went well on that dark and chaotic night in Polson. The most notable problem was that police weren’t able to help as much as we would have liked, because there was a rash of fights between young men about whose friends were going to be helped first. These young people interfered with helping those who were hurt. The excitement made them want to show off and strut their stuff. Where did they get their ideas about how a human being should act during a crisis? I’ve seen enough self-indulgent and self-centered people on MTV and similar shows to suspect that such modeling has something to do with it.

In any case, it isn’t true that all disasters reveal good character. But they all reveal character, good or bad. It’s quite sad that many adult Germans today do not feel it is possible to teach young people there to take pleasure in their identity as Germans. Young people can learn from both good and bad examples of character, as long as the teachers are willing to make such judgments.

We are lucky that in most small Montana towns, when bad things happen, plenty of people reveal themselves to be the sort of people that make you glad to call them friends and neighbors.

There are many things young people can learn from studying community disasters. They can learn to gather information from archives and from oral interviews. They can learn to read historical photos. They can learn to analyze evidence and evaluate sources. They can learn how to weave reports and fragments into a coherent narrative.

But in all that, they can also learn what sort of people we are. What sort of action we admire. What sort of behavior we dislike. What choices we make when situations get hard. And they can glimpse the reserves of diligence and endurance that people are capable of, which can help any of us hold ourselves to higher standard than we otherwise might have thought possible.

And we don’t need to make a big deal out of it to teach these things. We just need to find the right people and let them tell their stories.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Homesteading the Digital Frontier
     Making Places for Citizenship

When the United States government transferred vast regions of the American West from public to private ownership through a series of homestead acts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a world that had become clogged and burdened with the inertia of old governments and old bureaucracies was suddenly young again. All the kings were dead.

The future was open. Everything might be different. People around the world reconsidered their prospects and many headed for the frontier, leaving behind regimes that no longer seemed to work.

In the West, they formed new towns, created new institutions, developed new traditions and practices, and raised their children in a world that, though it grew out of the old worlds, was unlike anything that had existed before. It was a world of huge opportunity and daunting risk. Entering it was a entering an epic adventure.

For the most part, things that worked were variations on things that had worked before. Towns that thrived did not invent themselves from nothing. They drew on the experience of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. But they were able to make it new because they had before them a world not yet organized into the fiefdoms of the past.

I find the sublime hurly burly of the American West a useful metaphor for thinking about what is happening today through digital technologies. The empire of network news has just suffered a significant blow from guys in pajamas, and new heroes and legends are forming. Digital red light districts are growing apace, without the citizenry quite knowing what to do about it or whether anything can be done about it. Entrepreneurs are rounding up stray resources and driving them across borders to fresh markets. People from distant lands are encountering each other for the first time, and old ways and new ways are being put to the test. Industry is laying new rails and inventing new ways of organizing and new ways of peddling goods. The world is in flux, a kaleidoscope of danger and promise.

The earth is young once again.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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