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."

Who needs English?
     Teaching in the wasteland

I wonder why I’ve been assigned to teach American literature. Could it be to help pull young people into a common world of shared ideals and aspirations? To give them an understanding of the best of the heritage that unites us as a people?

It sounds quaint, doesn’t it? I’ve heard reading scores mentioned and the annual writing assessment, but nothing about understanding or heritage. A more likely answer, I think, is that nobody remembers. Memorial Day isn’t about anything except a long weekend and American literature isn’t about anything except Carnegie Units, those nearly forgotten remnants of an old reform. Schools have English classes and one of them is American lit.

I’ve been teaching some of the early Puritan writings to high school juniors, and a few students complained last week that I was teaching history and religion instead of English, so I was called to a meeting. I offered assurances that my teaching had indeed included a fair amount of both history and religion. Was I teaching the assigned curriculum? Yes. Okay, then.

It would have been okay, too, if I hadn’t mentioned history or religion, I am sure.


I’ve had my own reasons for teaching American lit, of course. I began reading seriously--in snatched bits of time--on a carrier off the coast of Vietnam. It was there that the forlorn idea of becoming a teacher took form. It seemed to that ignorant teenager from logging trucks and Holstein cows that the way to confront a world gone stormily awry was to tell younger people what nobody had told me. I didn’t know what, exactly.

I could see but barely the nuclear-armed Vigilantes launched daily and not at all the trajectories of their flight. I stared during slow moments at the night sea beyond the red glow of running lights unable to make out who we were or through what ocean the steel gray bow was crashing. I hadn’t seen the napalm but I saw the ordnance loaded in the hangar bay onto Phantoms and I had seen the posters around San Diego with black and white photos of a child screaming in an envelope of flame with the motto “Stop the Connie” for weeks before our ship, the U.S.S. Constellation, got underway.

I spent my days with doobie-smoking boys led by profane men, their bloodshot eyes darting and calculating.

I felt in books something of home, a presiding intelligence I mistook for my own. I was still in the landscape of my youth, not yet able to imagine it was not there--that safe place where Matt Dillon and Jesus and Bishop Holyoak gave thought to what ought to be done.

My early attraction to literature was part of the myth of a “great tradition” talked about by Frank Leavis and a “heightened conversation” imagined by T. S. Eliot. I was not alone though I was. I was lurking in that conversation and that tradition, there and not there like a radio melody in the cross talk between stations. The conversation had to do with enduring things, truths made clearer and stronger by all the lies. Time was endless opportunity and I thought--though that’s too strong a word-- that the texts would teach me everything--what it meant to be a seventeenth century woman, a second century soldier, a twelfth century scholar, an eighteenth century slave. They were all one story in the one world that war had shattered into billions of crazy dreams.

It took me a while--years, really--to realize how far from any such notion the English profession I later joined had gone. I learned the morays of that new tribe. We are oppressed, they said. Oppressed by class, oppressed by race, oppressed by sex, oppressed by judgment. Capitalists are the enemy. Whites are the enemy. Men are the enemy. Old morality is the enemy. Ozzie and Harriet. Patriotism. It was more a knowing-better-than than a knowing. Words objectify us. Words other us. Dis us. We have no voice. The canon enslaves us. We are many. We are diverse. We are dark. We are indigenous. We are woman. We are queer. We need power. We hate imperialism, hate patriarchy, hate hegemony. Et cetera.

Maybe the worst fear is that gnawing sense of a world that has no place for us. So taking the side of the underprivileged, underrepresented, underserved may bring power. Anger is power, enough sometimes to clear a space. Masses of marchers, and mockery and scorn. Loudspeakers. Year by year, I moved toward the margin, where it was quieter, bending as I was into old stories which curved outward like glimpses of unseen worlds, transcending and reflecting as they rose and fell again and again back into the plot where I could never be sure. It was about waking up.


That tribe defined itself, often tacitly, by what it was not. It was not bourgeois or philistine. It was not “American.” So for a long time I thought I too had transcended the parochial trappings of those simple ones who, like the poet Richard Hugo’s dim boy sitting in the bleachers, clapped because the others clapped.

At the same time, though, I never really believed that loving my own nation had anything to do with hating other nations any more than loving my family involved disliking other people’s families. It was quite the opposite. Loving America made it easy to wish for all peoples the chance to live in nations of peace and plenty. And I found America easy to love. The places I have lived are wondrous, peopled with my people. The Constitution seems profound to me, still, in spite of all the rumors. And I’ve loved the many times America’s sense of public decency has led scoundrels, of which we have had our share, to come to a sudden end when they were exposed. I wish the surging of settlers into natives’ lands had not been so marked by unworthy schemes and dishonored treaties, but I love that so often our highest court has required Congress to honor agreements signed between low-level bureaucrats and rag-tag bands of Indians under tarps flapping in some wilderness a hundred and some years ago.

I went for dinner with other teachers but learned little of what they thought. We talked about the salmon or the view, which I’m sure was good. I read fewer and fewer books that appealed to them and fewer and fewer novels of recent vintage, as so many of them seemed to have for their imagined audience not me. But still I found book after book that seemed a piece of the puzzle, a step or two on the way. Love of reading was a kind of love of this world and of other people and what they might know. It was of a piece, in my life, with love of place, which included love of family, love of people in town, love of Montana, love of nation, and, to the extent I could conceive it, love of all people, past and present.

I regularly ran into the ones--there were quite a few, really--who never felt they were really teaching if they were not warning young people that wherever you look in America, if you look carefully, you’ll see racism. I wondered why they were so sure that so many people are secretly worse than they seem. I wonder sometimes whether people who preach against racism all the time might be like all those Christian ministers who preach about other people’s sexual sins all the time and then are revealed to be adulterers or active homosexuals. Is it something in themselves they are trying to control or hide?


Last week I read something that maybe could advance the conversation about what America has become and where it is going and where it should be going. It’s a book review by Wilfred McClay, a historian I enjoy, with his old-fashioned concern for the relationship between history and nationalism, about Todd Gitlin’s new book. Fifteen or so years ago a friend gave me a book he had just read by Gitlin and was all excited to have me read it too, so I did. I didn’t care for it. Of course, my friend didn’t want a critique; he wanted that uncritical feeling of warmth that comes from being together with true believers--like joining a protest march.

McClay says Gitlin now sees that something has gone quite wrong with the sixties dream of progress. He once argued against patriotism:

For Gitlin’s generation, the “generation for whom the war’ meant Vietnam and perhaps always will,” it could be said that the “most powerful public emotion in our lives was rejecting patriotism.” Patriotism became viewed as, at best, a pretext, and at worst, an abandonment of thought itself. It became of interest only in so far as it entered into calculations of political advantage. Far from being a sentiment that one might feel with genuine warmth and intelligent affection, it was merely a talisman, which, if used at all, served chiefly to neutralize its usefulness as a weapon in the hands of others, by making it into a strictly personal preference that others were forbidden to question: “my” patriotism.

He now thinks this was a mistake:

Gitlin’s generation accomplished much more than it wanted to by “demystifying” the nation and popularizing the idea that all larger solidarities are merely pseudo-communities invented and imposed by nation-building elites. By doing so, it also made “the nation” into an entity unable to command the public’s loyalty and support-and willingness to endure sacrificesfor much of anything at all, including the kind of far-reaching domestic transformations that are the Left’s most cherished aspirations. The hermeneutic of suspicion knows no boundaries, so that what is true for warחmaking is also true for Social Security or national health insurance. The fact is, the Left needs the nation, too, and needs it all the more in an era in which the cause of international socialism is but a faint and discredited memory. The nation is all the Left has left, whether it knows it or not.

Along with a small number of others on the left, Gitlin now recognizes this fact, and recognizes that it was a grievous error to have abandoned patriotism. His book is an effort to inch his way back toward an embrace of the national idea, without which the Left has nowhere to go, but to do so in ways that carefully avoid the embrace of “conservative” ideas of patriotism.

This review caught my attention because of a pattern I’ve been thinking about this year: several of my classes have very vocal students who hate America, hate any talk of religion and feel it violates their rights if religion is mentioned, and hate history--these are the students, probably, who complained to the administration that my classes weren’t really about English, which, they said, was about commas and stuff. They have had years of English classes by now, so they have a kind of expertise.

They also have a powerful aversion to hearing opinions--such as William Bradford’s--that don’t accord with their quite standard-issue opinions. They are aggressively ignorant, I suppose because having been taught contempt for all authority, they don’t imagine anyone has much to teach them. They are self-indulgent, seeing no guide in life but their own desires. They’re also scared. Like most people who are susceptible to bigotry, they seem at bottom insecure, feeling a powerful need to force their opinions on others.

Since I knew I wasn’t the only teacher who was teaching about the Puritans, the complaints got me wondering whether I was the only one who took them seriously. My experience is that educators don’t take Puritans seriously. As far as I can tell, schools rarely teach Puritan thought, or an understanding of the intellectual force that contributed greatly, for example, to the English Civil War and a costly advance of human liberty.

This is how Puritans are typically presented: a history teacher dramatizes “pre-destination” using phony intercom announcements from the office dictating an unjust fate for some students. This is augmented with irrational favoritism of a few class members as an object lesson. This makes clear how dopey Calvinist theology is. A little of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is read aloud in a tyrannical voice, to illustrate what many teachers apparently think it’s important to understand about the Puritan mind. And, it’s obligatory to teach The Crucible--a moralistic little parable based on a lame analogy between McCarthyism and the Salem witch trials.

I don’t share Puritan beliefs about any of those issues, but I don’t see much to be gained from lambasting them. It’s enough, I think, to try to understand them as the Puritans understood them. I have very little fear that if I don’t coach them properly, my students will suddenly begin practicing severe modesty and believing they are damned from birth. I have no fears of a sudden outbreak of chastity.

Instead of debunking the Puritans as we read William Bradford, I’ve been following the Supreme Court’s guidelines that school officials can neither inculcate nor denigrate religion. I agree with the Court that it “might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion, or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”

I don’t try to persuade kids that Puritans were correct nor to persuade them that Puritans were wretched. It seems enough if they can understand a little of what Puritans thought and what they did. (What I’m emphasizing in my brief teaching about the Puritans is covenant theology and typology, which I think were the important worldmaking aspects of their thought. Truth is a promise kept. We can create societies in which it is true that everyone takes care of everyone. Reality is a structure of narrative forms that recur, like patterns in a Mandelbrot set, which is why Robert Frost’s contemplation at the moment, perhaps in history, where he faces two roads diverging can be used to understand other historical moments, such as a choice about what to say at a critical meeting. History is not one damn thing after another. There’s a structure there, if we can see it. Some metaphors are true everywhere and always.

I’ve also been reading again much of Perry Miller‘s great work on Puritans, as well as the anthology he edited of their key writings. I consider whether it would be fair to think that the way Puritans are routinely treated in schools may function as a type for understanding today’s English teacher. Whether it’s typical, so to speak.

We have the largest department in the school because students have to take more English than any other subject, but I’m not sure anyone knows why. Why is “Of Plymouth Plantation” here before us, with its dull strangeness? No one remembers who chose it, or what it might signify. What remains, mostly, is a dim impulse to mockery and scorn. That tale is old and over, construction paper turkeys in classrooms warm and bright in the dark of early winter. Miles Standish was short. Squanto planted fish.

The curriculum I’ve been assigned is really just a list--almost the least ordered sort of text. On the list is a pretty anthology of snippets from the canon. It seems just what T.S. Eliot knew it was all becoming: A “wasteland.” Fragments from a story whose plot has diverged into confusion with no organizing theme. The department does some “moderns.” A couple “Shakespeares.” Something from the Nineteenth Century. A Native American piece. What the “curriculum” means is about what a wine-tasting party means, where sniffing and swirling and commentary on cheese serve to drowse away the hour.

In the present story, not many English teachers know much about Puritan thought. Where would they have picked it up? How would they have thought about it? And yet the obligatory readings of William Bradford or Edward Taylor linger on, at least in some places, along with some contemptuous gossip about them, which teachers have picked up. We “teach” about Puritans by shuddering at the horror of 1950s anti-communists (managing, I suspect, to know little that is true or useful about either).

Of course, they know other things. Some of them no doubt wonderful. What these things are, I don’t know. They may well be more useful than whatever I know about the way some stories make indelible patterns in history, so that for people who know them, time no longer passes, exactly.

All English teachers no longer know the same things in the way that all science teachers know the laws of thermodynamics or all history teachers know about the Alien and Sedition Act. We have argued, collectively, that we can’t really judge beliefs and that there are no necessary readings, so it’s hard to know what we are good for, though having us around is something of a habit, which anyway is stronger than knowing. There’s an arbitrariness about us that, as the social constructivists say, goes all the way down. If it barely matters what we read with students, are we far from asking whether it matters whether we read anything with them at all? If we have nothing in particular to say, couldn’t the students just as well read to themselves or be somewhere else this period? We can say that we teach critical thinking and all that, but we live in an age that says, “prove it,” and proof was never our way.

That wasteland image haunts another book I’ve been thinking about:  Alasdair MacIntyre’s extremely influential After Virtue”>After Virtue. He begins with the parable of a civilization that has completely lost the meaning of the terms of morality but still has the words. They are like a tribe that discovers amid ruins the documents of a scientific civilization which obviously had a great power. They begin conducting rituals and meetings using the power words and phrases of science--induction, empiricism--and create elaborate theories of what they mean, without having much of a clue what it was all about, a little like an MLA symposium on Hamlet, where the postmodernist presenters have never imagined the cosmos Shakespeare actually inhabited, but go on and on thinking in the godterms of their own quite different faith.

MacIntyre ends his book noting that civilizations have collapsed in the past, and after a bit of talk about Rome he ends his book this way:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of the imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead - often not recognizing fully what they were doing - was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . .This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a God, but for another - doubtless very different - St. Benedict.


I’ve begun saying, here and there and not too loudly, just curious to see whether anyone will give me a good reason to think that I’m wrong, that it’s time we eliminate literature from the high school curriculum, except as an elective for students who are drawn to fictions. Reading would be taught in the other disciplines--science teachers would teach how to read science texts, history teachers how to read history texts, etc.

Someone would still teach writing, but it isn’t clear who.

I suggest this not because I have lost my own faith in the civilizing power of great literature. Rather, I think that literature, as it is has been constructed, has become just what the English departments have said it is: political. In a place without a canon or common truths there may be no reason to teach literature. Every culture has stories which bind the generations together, but if we were truly multicultural then our public life would be, to a greater or lesser extent, cultureless. Yes, various groups would have their stories but it’s unclear why any group would be required to bother with any other group’s. In post-national space, literature, like religion of which it is usually an expression, might better be reserved for private space. We might keep our stories, like our gods, to ourselves.

For now, I get a funny mental picture of the tribe of English professors, who Dustin Hoffman lampooned quite well in Stranger than Fiction, denigrating such people as John Milton, Oliver Cromwell, Jonathon Edwards. . .When I try to put the best-known of the English professors together in my mind with the best known of the Puritans, the profs seem somewhat indistinct like Star Trek characters not yet beamed fully here.

I turn back to the text planned for tomorrow. Words penned by that solid young Puritan, John Winthrop, trying to make out in 1630 what sort of place his poor company might build in the wilderness on the far side of the sea:

We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must . . .delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God. . .He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. . .
. . .if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity.

I suppose I don’t know whether there is a useful way to read a Puritan, for a kid who believes that religion is the source of most of the world’s evil. If, as his culture teaches, the universe is without intrinsic meaning, and the sound of “god talk” is hateful, and one’s best strategy in life is to pursue self-fulfillment relentlessly, taking what pleasure one can--especially sexual pleasure--as often as possible, and to seek power to defend against all that would limit one’s choices, well, who am I, in my role as a functionary of a state committed to neutrality on such questions, to speak?

The kids I teach don’t come to a text like Winthrop’s with fresh eyes. They can’t yet imagine away a world in which everyone is considered equal, beneficiaries of a staggering list of rights that, they believe, are just there like facts of nature: wind, rock, sky and rights to dignity, dental care and television sets. They cannot fathom a world in which a ruler might order that all infant male children should be murdered or all Armenians or Jews removed.

The city on a hill is a dream that in millions of ways came true, that became real in the way only myths are ever real because people desired it and sacrificed for it. There are places very near to this very spot from which it can still be seen, quite clearly. People have an inborn hunger for reality, which is a hunger for the sort of truth we discover only after we have created it by what we promise and what we remember. It’s something I learned from a Puritan, but I’ve tested it myself, and it’s true, though nearly unspoken.


In any case, the world is poised for change, as all worlds are when the lies, with all their instability, get into the plans. Trouble is coming, which is not to imagine that the human project is going to fail. It never has, though history is tricky, as the turkey may have learned, who was always fed and never mistreated.

When the dust clears, I think the world will again have moved forward. But oh, oh. . .

We can take some consolation if not comfort in remembering that Rome wasn’t all that great and its fall was part of getting to something better. As it has before, moral clarity and intellectual honesty will prevail. The public school system, I think, is likely to remain too confused to think what to do, and too paralyzed by contentions and the fear of contentions to be honest, and too stuck in centralized processes to act. Maybe that’s okay. It’s a little late to worry now that if we lose the common schools we will lose a sense of shared destiny, of which commitment to equity is at least two paradigms less than a pale shadow.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the right events and the right leaders will help us remember that old aspiration of unifying a world together out of the disciplines of love. It’s how we build strong families. It’s how we build strong nations. And I trust it will be how, when we have learned enough through whatever trouble it takes, we will build a strong world. Who knows, if Todd Gitlin is beginning to see the value of what he once urged us to leave behind, what else might happen?

The angry students are only a few. Many more are listening past the blather, hungry for clear talk about real questions. I think someone will find a way of talking to them and they will act, moving out of the deceptive mists that swirl and rise from the towers and palaces of the information age.

It was work I imagined English teachers could do. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2006 Michael L. Umphrey

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