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."

Why do we need government?
     A brief introduction to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

This is a draft of an introduction intended to provide context for students discussing the Montana vigilantes. It seems one way of delving into the complexities and dilemmas of those, and similar, events, is to talk about them using language and ideas that have always been central to what America was and is. I’m not sure how much of this is new to today’s high school students, or how much is a rehashing of old ideas. I’m assuming most had American history in 5th grade and these concepts wouldn’t have meant much.

If you can imagine people living without laws or governments, you may imagine what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) called a ”state of nature.” He didn’t necessarily believe that this state of nature had ever actually existed. He discussed it as a thought experiment to help people understand laws and governments.

In a state of nature, he said, each person would be “a law unto himself.” How would people act in such a case, Hobbes wondered. With no rules, no police, no bosses, what would people do? Hobbes believed that human nature would lead them into constant competition. They would busy themselves with endless contests for possessions and glory, and this would lead to widespread distrust and fear.

Because of the constant fear of war and the preparation for war, not to mention the harsh realities of war itself, people would end up with little leisure to cultivate their minds or their gardens, or to travel and engage in commerce, or to create beauty and prosperity. In a state of nature, Hobbes argued, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

It would do no good at all for someone who suffered harm to complain that it wasn’t fair. This was because justice and injustice would be meaningless. The meaning of justice is that a person’s conduct meets some standard of conduct. But there can be no such standard unless there is some external authority. If there is no authority to write a book of rules governing football, for example, then it makes no sense to say that a player committed a foul. It is only a foul because the rule defined it that way. Where there are no laws there are no crimes. Since a state of nature is precisely the absence of any laws or authorities, there could be no justice or injustice.

Hobbes imagined that the worst people would get their way by force and by deception, and so everyone would live in danger of them and their plans.

Of course, people would want more safety and security than that. They would want to escape the state of nature. The only escape would be to become a part of something larger than themselves. When people are united into some form of governed order, they have formed a commonwealth. In Latin, this is called the civitas. In a commonwealth, or civitas, people give up some of their rights to govern themselves to a leader or an assembly of some sort. The commonwealth can then act in the name of the whole society. Its unity will give it the power to protect individuals from each other and to protect the whole society from invasion by hostile outsiders.

Hobbes pointed out that commonwealths have been created in two ways: by conquest or by institution. A strong leader can force others to grant him authority, or a group of people can meet and agree to institute a government. By accepting a governed society, people give up some of their rights. In return, they get more security.

In Hobbes’ words, they formed a social contract. A social contract is the agreement, usually unwritten, that forms civil life. Civil life, unlike a state of nature, is ordered by laws and governments. Of course, not all social contracts would seem very good to Americans today. If a king conquered a country and made the laws himself and punished anyone who disagreed with him, his government would still be a commonwealth held together by a social contract.

John Locke (1632-1704) thought along the same lines as Hobbes in some things, but there was an important difference between his ideas and Hobbes’: Locke believed in natural law. This made a huge difference, and led to his ideas becoming much more influential than Hobbes’. The Founders of the American nation developed many of their ideas by reading him.

Natural law, according to Locke, is a moral principle woven into the very fabric of existence. It’s as real as the law of gravity. It operates whether we recognize it or not. People have a natural moral sense, Locke believed, and can readily learn through reason to recognize natural law. All people can understand the natural law that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

Though Hobbes believed that a person in a state of nature had the right to do whatever it took to defend himself and make himself secure, Locke’s idea about natural law went far beyond this. He believed that every person had a right to enforce the law of nature. Everyone had a right to punish people who harmed another person’s life, liberty, or property. Since the law of nature creates an external standard by which we can judge conduct, justice and injustice are real, even in a state of nature.

If strangers showed up in our midst and began a criminal spree, where do we get the right to stop them and put them on trial? It can’t be from the social contract, for we have no such contract with them. It’s a right that’s in nature, Locke said. Though he says it’s a “strange doctrine,” he argues that we have a natural right to punish wrongdoers, because we have a right to enforce nature’s law.

Locke’s view of human nature was not as pessimistic as Hobbes’. He didn’t think life in a state of nature had to be constant war.

He did believe, though, that once trouble started it would be hard in a state of nature to get it stopped again. We tend to judge ourselves with more understanding than we judge others. If we take our neighbor’s lamb because his dog killed one of our ewes yesterday, we may think that this is just and that we are enforcing what is right. Nonetheless, he may think we are just stealing a sheep we have no right to take. So we will think the score is even, while he will think we owe him a sheep. And when he comes to take his sheep, he will think it is just and we will think it is unjust. And like the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, it may go on forever.

Things get even more complicated when genuinely bad people get into the picture. They often do things secretly and make it appear that someone else did them. They tell lies about others.  They pretend they are in favor of justice when they are really just arranging things to suit themselves. When lots of people get involved, people become confused. One bad thing leads to another and to another in a cycle that can be impossible to stop without a judge who has authority to settle things.

When we accept a common judge, we leave the state of nature and enter a commonwealth.

In history, this usually happened when a strong military leader forced others to accept his rule. The kings of England had fought for their right to rule with swords. The limits to that right had been established by powerful lords who had armies of their own. Through much of human history, might made right. Whoever had the power made the rules. This might be better than a state of nature, but sometimes it was awful.

An alternative to “might makes right” developed in England. In the early 1600s James I argued that there was a ”divine right of kings.” Kings were chosen by God, he said, which meant that subjects had a moral duty to obey their rulers. For their part, kings had a duty to rule wisely and justly. One good thing about this idea was that it held the promise that there was some principle other than pure force and coercion that might order the affairs of government. It included ideas of duty and obedience to duty that were not based solely on threats.

But Locke didn’t believe that some people were born to be masters and others slaves. He believed that people were born equal in the sense that everyone had natural rights to their lives, their liberty, and their property. For a social contract to be legitimate, it had to be based on the ”consent of the governed.” Government did not come from above, it came from below--from the people who were governed. And it had to preserve their natural rights. This had powerful consequences. For one thing, a government that “violates the social contract… rebels against the people, and the people have the right to dissolve” it. In other words, Locke said, governments get their legitimacy from the and people have a right to revoke that consent if the government violates their natural rights. It was an idea that could power a revolution, as it has, more than once.

The ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke lie at the heart of the American Revolution: People are not granted their rights by governments. People already have their rights, which exist in nature. Governments are not imposed upon people by God. People create governments, in order to protect their rights. When a government violates natural rights, it loses its legitimacy, and the people have a right to dissolve it and form a new government.

They are ideas that have shaped America through history and that continue to be debated today.

Note: the idea of legitimacy is important to understanding governance. Its literal meaning is “in accordance with the law.” In our American tradition we grant legitimacy to leaders who have won elections, or to decisions that are made in accordance with established laws, or to judicial rulings that are true to the Constitution. But we don’t always use “legitimate” to mean the same thing sas “legal.” Sometimes we use the word to mean “in accordance with recognized principles.” Since principles and laws may not always be the same, we sometimes think actions are legitimate without being legal, as when Rosa Parks ignored the rules against blacks sitting in the front of city buses in the South. We think other things are legal without being legitimate, as when a slick lawyer manages to free a wealthy corporation from a legal requirement to clean up an environmental mess it has made.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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The Great Divide: Season of the Freaks
     One story of the sixties was the migration of hippies to the Rocky Mountains

The “Great Divide” that Red Lodge writer Gary Ferguson refers to in his book of that title is the Rocky Mountains. Interestingly, his book has the same title as a new release by John Sperling. Sperling’s The Great Divide is a treatise on the backwardness of many people who live in the Rockies, the South, and the Midwest (as compared to the forwardness of the urban residents of the east and west coasts). The divide he contemplates is between the traditional “retros” and the urban “metros.”

Sperling seeks to intensify contention between people who apparently inhabit different realities by establishing “the great divide” as a metaphor that explains political and economic life in America today. Ferguson examines the way the actual “great divide” running north and south through the western half of the country--the Rockies--has long served as a refuge for people who want to get away from the bickering.

From the mountain men of the nineteenth century to the hippies of the sixties, the Rockies have held the promise that there might be life beyond the vast machinery of progress being assembled ever more noisily on both coasts.

The happenstance of the two books having the same title is thought-provoking. There are obvious parallels between the ‘retros” and the “metros” that Sperling talks about and the division between the “Old West” and the “New West” that many observers of life in today’s West have commented on. Were the antecedents for that division established by an influx of newcomers in the 1960s?

A chapter of Ferguson’s book that might be of particular interest to teachers contemplating joining the Expedition to the Sixties is Chapter 9: The Season of the Freaks. Ferguson points out that during the sixties and seventies, people who were disillusioned by the “system” often headed west, more often than not to the Rocky Mountains. Many of these people are still here. Indeed, they are more or less everywhere. They are easy to find and good candidates for oral interviews.

Many who headed for the Rockies in the 1960s and early 1970s came looking for a life without the corrupting influences of the “system,” but with a good supply of like-minded friends within arm’s reach. . . These newcomers were peaceniks and flower children and freaks.” [p. 232-233]

I imagine every town has stories of newcomers and old timers meeting each other. “While [Aspen police magistrate] Guioo was railing against the longhairs in Aspen, on any given summer afternoon in Crested Butte you could find hippie girls skinny-dipping at Nicholson Lake, waving and smiling at the contented old miners watching from their pickup trucks along the east side of the reservoir.”

Colorado newspaperman George Sibley wasn’t amused by the newcomers. Ferguson quotes at length from a 1968 editorial:

The problem children. . .are no more flower children than were all the howling children of the past decade children of Howl. What they are in fact are the basically dull and unoriginal sons and daughters of basically dull and unoriginal mothers and fathers; they are the ones who tack onto any and every movement without understanding in the least what the movement is about. They are bored because they are too unimaginative to creatively amuse themselves, restless because they have energy they do not want to waste on work, stoned on drugs because they are tired of being stoned on the tube. They are not hip, they are not beat. They fight their nothingness by letting somebody else do the work of giving them their identity.

For their part, the young newcomers often shared with Sperling a sense that they knew better than the old-timers they found in place. Though they often wanted what they viewed as the naturalness of rural life, they didn’t always want the traditions of the natives they found.

But it wasn’t just flower children who came. Vietnam vets also came, looking for quiet and for space. The West in the sixties was, as it had been earlier, a place of possibilities. “A place where young girls of privilege could savor the smell of sagebrush and sweat. Where some fortunate black men managed to tumble through a rabbit hole and find themselves a million miles from slavery. Where sickly white men jumped into creeks and sucked at mountain air and sometimes grew strong again.”

An interesting strand in the Sixties Expedition would be to interview people who moved here in the 1960s and 1970s. We could ask them why they came, what they left, what they were looking for, and what they found.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Beyond Textbooks
     Ravitch tries to figure out why they're so bad

In The Language Police, Dianne Ravitch documents the way sensitivity guidelines have led to textbooks that interfere with students’ chances to learn critical thinking. Whereas in the past students were kept from liberal education by theories of vocational education, today’s students are kept in the dark by those with theories of a moral order that pretends much of the past was different than it was.

One of her observations gets near to my main complaint about some textbooks: that “voice of God” presenting information as though it simply exists, rather than as a point of view constructed by a human being:

Ravitch notes that one of the major problems in history textbooks is the absence of an author. A name at the end of a chapter would make clear that the account is the product of an individual with distinct interests, tastes, and, even, God forbid, prejudices. And why should students be protected from knowing that “he” once was, and sometimes still is, used as a generic pronoun, or that “negro” was once the commonly endorsed term for African American? To make these issues the subject of discussion in the classroom is to acknowledge the inequities of the past without necessarily condemning the past for not being as enlightened as the present. The contemporary world also needs to be represented as it actually exists. Textbooks that whitewash this world provoke only contempt from students, who know when they are getting a snow job.

One solution to bad texts is primary documents, Ravitch says. But her reviewer deems this impractical.

Of course, if nothing about schooling changes except the text, using primary documents is impractical. But when a stronger emphasis is placed upon local studies, and when schools and libraries make a concerted effort to organize good collections, including materials appropriate for younger students, and when teachers become more familiar with what is already on the internet and of what else might be put there. . .

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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The View from I-90
     Helping students construct a point of view


I drove back to St. Ignatius from Helena yesterday though a gorgeous Montana autumn. The brilliant light flaming in the cottonwoods along the river made it hard to keep driving. I wanted to stop and explore.

Not that I disliked the reality of gliding through an almost timeless landscape at more than a mile a minute, feeling the grip of steel-belted radials on the exquisitely engineered curves and rises of I-90, listening to an audio recording about Alexander the Great written by first century C.E. biographer Arrian on my Subaru’s stereo.

It was great fun, hurtling through space encased in an elaborately contrived point of view sustained by layers and layers of engineering and design. I was seeing the river from a point of view unavailable to earlier travelers. A fur trader wet to the hips trudging the river bank with forty-odd pounds of traps or a Salish hunter returning cautiously from Three Forks leading game-laden ponies could imagine my swift and comfortable journey only as something supernatural.

Though watching the world through a window seems quite natural, it is actually the product of layer upon layer of artifice and construction. And it was only one of the points of view available to me. I also had easy access to information that would help me see the river as part of a vast hydrological cycle, or as a constantly changing habitat for fish, or as a potential real estate development, or as a likely site for a heap-leach gold mine.

Depending on what information I chose to pay attention to, my view of the river might be radically different.

It is the very richness of the information available today that creates the most daunting challenge for educators. A young person has before him or her endless points of view constructed of arguments and facts, and endless choices about what points of view to inhabit, all supported by web sites, music, brochures, pamphlets, videos, and reports.

In this noisy and contentious world, young people need help constructing points of view that are honest and reasonable. Much of the help they need they can get from teachers who guide them into science and history, providing a good grounding in reason and evidence, learning to see things as they really are. This is the basis of a liberal education, and it remains as important now as it ever was.

But by itself, it is not enough. This is because the most profound disagreements among those who would enlist the young in their causes are not about things as they are. They are about things as they will be, and things as they ought to be.

Our best guides in these dimensions are often those people in the community, especially the elderly, who have worked for years to accomplish good work. Every town has them: people who build museums, organize food pantries, develop management plans for rivers or forests, run 4-H programs, establish gardens, or operate successful businesses. They often understand things worth hearing.

In the simple act of gathering and telling their stories, students learn much of what they need to know. They learn how to sort through information, how to select facts that are useful, and how to combine data into coherent narratives that move the work forward. In representing others’ points of view, they find their own. Along the way they discover astonishing uses for the digital cameras and recorders and multimedia programs that we now have, creating cultural artifacts that will be of great worth to other people.

And they also learn a fundamental secret of life: learning is a joy. It goes beyond whatever information highway we find ourselves upon. We can pull out of the traffic and park, climbing down the bank to make our own photographs along the river bottom with mountains beyond mountains all around.

We can see the world anew, getting to the water’s edge with the smell of leaf fall in our nostrils and the cool of unsettled breezes tickling our skin.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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