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."


Modern irony
     Say what?

Correction in today’s New York Times:

A report in The Caucus column on Friday about President Obama’s remarks to lawmakers and religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday rendered incorrectly part of a quotation by Mr. Obama about the current political debate. In noting that “we become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power,” he went on to say, “And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.” He did not say “this tower of babble.”

We seem to be losing, a little, our power to be understood.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Discerning the rules of life in storyworlds
     Teaching narrative intelligence

I like students to practice seeing the way every story asserts a moral theory of the universe. It’s possible to think about moral issues in an objective way simply by asking what virtues characters employ to reach their telos and what sort of world results from the deployment of those virtues. I invite students to figure out, from the stories we read, what the rules of life appear to be.

Here are basic questions that help gain entry to storyworlds.

1. What is the main character’s telos at the beginning of the story? What’s her life about--what purpose or goals organize her action, her thinking?

2. As the character acts in response to conflict, what virtues does he exhibit? I’m using “virtue” here to refer to a strength from the character’s point of view. For a Spartan, ferocity might be a virtue. For Odysseus, skillful lying was a virtue. The reader’s judgments about such things can come later, but during the reading, try to understand the character’s view of what is good.

3. What consequences follow? How successful is the character at resolving the conflict in a way that fulfills his telos?

4. What turning points occur in the story--key moments where the character needs to rethink either his telos, or the virtues he is employing, or both?

5. Summarize the plot in no more than three sentences, focusing on the major events and the key actions by the main character. Then state a “rule of life” based on that plot. If the story is true to life, then what rule about the way things work is illustrated by it?

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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Which stories? (24 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

As we contemplate stories, both in books and in living, we increase their prominence in our personal narrative environment. It’s helpful to have some general principles in mind, just as we rethink our diet in the light of principles of nutrition that we learn. We might note, for example, that stories that only evoke fear are not as important as those that also teach understanding. We might consider that stories that only clarify principles are not as good as those that somehow manage to kindle or encourage a love of rightness.

I think that a story that leads me to delight in caring for my family is better than one that encourages me to look out only for myself; and one that tempts me to care for the welfare of the whole tribe is better than one that suggests my obligations end with my family. Further, I’m confident that a story that leads me to feel empathy for all of humanity is better than one that tempts me to expect outsiders to be enemies. A story that instills a reverent sense of co-creation with all of life may be about as good as stories get.

Though details may vary and shift as we see more, we can nonetheless discern a hierarchy of stories based on the vision of reality that they encode, with better stories helping us glimpse larger realities, preparing the mental structures we need to inhabit such stories.

This doesn’t mean that I think such a hierarchy can be defined or promoted in any useful way by any coercive bureaucracy. Beyond the level of law, we can only invite, entice, persuade and perhaps seduce. Besides, literature is more subtle than organizational policies, and a powerful vision of evil sometimes teaches much about why goodness works as it does. A principal (and Jesuit priest) at a Catholic high school where I once taught forbade the teaching of Once and Future King--T. H. White’s telling of the Camelot story--because the novel’s central action was the adultery between Lancelot and Guenever. It occurred to me that adultery is also a central theme in the King David story from the Bible, and that the more important issue might be whether the story tells the truth or not. The infidelity in the Camelot story leads to the fall of the kingdom and the suffering of all the main characters. But since I had not been asked for my opinion I didn’t offer one. My point is that I have no interest in any “authorities” imposing a hierarchy of better or worse books, though I do think we, as free people, need to be discussing always which books are better and why. Socrates argued that the good life is the life spent asking the question, “what is the good life?” Thinking one has arrived at the final answer is a way turning away from the question, a way of failing. So it is, I think, with the question, “what are the good books?” It’s death not to ask the question, but it is also death to think it has been finally answered.

We need to recognize that some stories are more useful than others, and we need to keep the discussion about good and better alive. We cannot give the authorities the power to settle the matter. The power to compel belongs to lower orders.

But our problem today isn’t authorities imposing reading lists. Instead, the difficulty of answering such a question has led many of us to make the mistake of thinking that we can turn away from it. The current trend is away from such questions, so teaching literature devolves to teaching reading, and the question of what to read is answered by noting what kids seem to like. This serves the need of children to develop powerful moral imaginations no better than planning meals based on children’s preferences serves their need to for nutritional diversity and balance.

Having a vision about what a good life might be and what a good society is like is an adult responsibility. Having such a vision, we have a sense of what stories young people will benefit from experiencing. When it comes to educating children, no question is more important than how we will constitute their narrative environment, what stories we will consciously live and tell.

To some extent the moral sense–the feeling that some things are right and some are wrong–is innate, but the moral imagination that shapes the cognitive and emotional landscape of our fears and desires does so by constructing coherent wholes from the patterns of intention, action and consequence that we learn from the stories we inhabit--those we hear, but also those we experience and those we learn to tell.

Our narrative environment includes the curricular stories of history, science and literature, of course, but it also includes the informal storytelling that goes on without pause in the hallways and lounges. It includes the carefully structured narratives of the football team’s movement through a series of planned contests toward the resolution of the seasonal script. It includes the way the principal deals with a recalcitrant student and the way the school board responds to a parent’s challenge over a book.

The better schools are those that manage to pull all these levels and genres of narrative into more coherent wholes. Such schools are orders that waste less energy than failing schools at enacting competing tales, trying to will contradictions. To a large extent, then, school reform requires many acts of literary criticism in which participants increase their narrative intelligence.

Just as we get more intelligent as individuals by recognizing when we are working against ourselves, learning bit by bit that we can only make our lives coherent by devoting ourselves to higher purposes–in the way that being healthy is a higher purpose than tasting candy–and by editing the profusion of whims and desires–"goods," the utilitarians call them–that threaten to dissolve us, so schools get better by trying to make the story of their desire and their action coherent. Kierkegaard argued that “the good” is our name for that which we can will without contradiction. “Purity of heart,” he said, “is to will one thing.”

So it is with schools and other organizations. As they get better, their purposes become more harmonious. They become more beautiful–more sustainable and more healthy–at the same time they become more free. They are lively with stories that bind us together in common cause, in contemplation and discussion about what works and what does not work. They are animated by high purpose, and they are rich in chances to speak and to listen.

We can teach children about peace even in troubled times, because peace is never an absence of trouble. It is, primarily, an order within that is in harmony with an order that is always out there. When we understand it, we see that though the things we fear look ferocious, in another sense they are deceptions without ultimate power to harm us.

For me, the work of peace remains possible without slipping into despair at the magnitude of the work that remains because of a faith, expressed by Desmond Tutu, that “we live in a moral universe, and goodness will prevail.” Such hope that the largest reality is benign and that all of history is working toward a peaceful resolution is intertwined with education because the larger the reality that people can learn to see, the more likely they are to understand peace.

Still, there are lots of troubles, and it is not clear that much of the world is getting better. The world has never been an easy place for working toward peace. When we begin feeling that the fate of the world depends on us, it becomes difficult to avoid either becoming warlike or falling into despair. Nevertheless, no matter how urgent things appear around us, we can’t evade the responsibility to establish peace within ourselves. If we try to solve problems without an inner peace, our energies will most likely be organized into the very contention and conflict we hope to resolve.

I understand that Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and others find support for the work of peace through a kindred faith that larger powers are operative in the world, and that our efforts, insufficient on their own, are part of a bigger story.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Narrative identities (23 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

We teach children peace in the same ways we teach other forms of conversation. To teach children to converse, we surround them with conversation and with invitations to join, letting them slowly become part of an order that existed before them. To teach them peace, we surround them to the extent that we can with the peace that we’ve made, showing them how it works and what its rules are and why they should care for it.

As young people proceed through adolescence, the stories they hear around them become increasingly internalized, forming the basis of their own sense of who they are. The work of being an adolescent is fundamentally the work of digesting and interpreting experiences and putting together out of diverse influences a personal life story that’s more or less coherent.

Teenagers are in the process of becoming a story they tell themselves about who they are.

Our identity is inseparable from our life story. According to psychologist Dan McAdams, adolescents are at a stage of development where they begin adopting an autobiographical perspective on life, understanding in ways that younger children do not that their beliefs and character traits are formed by the experiences they have. They are learning that we “author” the moral stances that define us by the way we respond to the narrative flow of our experience.

It’s not a story they learn to tell by themselves, though. It’s a story they learn in dialogue with others. Adolescents are surrounded by perspectives–or voices–that influence them. Often, the voices of friends and parents are important, but as Robert Coles showed, voices found in literature can also be profoundly helpful. One needn’t be overly perceptive watching young movie-goers adopt the swagger, catch phrases, and fashion sense of a Hollywood star to see that their sense of possible identities is also shaped by movies and other modern media. Vygotsky argued that we develop into mature thinkers by incorporating voices from the society around us into our own psychology. He suggested that this is why adults experience thought as a conversation between “inner voices.”

In a very real sense, we become who we are by internalizing patterns we see in our narrative environment. This is why the narrative environment that surrounds young people is of supreme educational importance.

Adults, and not just teachers, have a responsibility to ensure that young people grow up in communities where civilizing values are given clear, certain, and powerful voice. They also have a responsibility to ensure that the narrative environment of teenagers includes audiences that expect to tell stories that are well-crafted, integrating facts, values, and differing perspectives into coherent wholes.

Developing the capacity to tell such stories is much of the way young people grow from the diffuse and unsettled identity of late childhood into the integrated and coherent identity of successful young adulthood.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

We are stronger, wiser for having read James Welch
     Re-reading "Fools Crow"

Through the summer I have been re-reading James Welch’s books, because there were things there I wanted to feel again and think about some more. I wanted to continue being taught by this gifted writer. We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the practical and spiritual realities of belonging. Of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.

Montana is at a critical juncture, and we have all sorts of important decisions to make that will have ramifications long into the future. At such times, nothing is more useful than the right stories, because the right stories educate our desires. Our best writers teach us what we need to consider to live well, and James Welch stands among our best writers.

At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.

The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.

Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow’s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look small and insignificant in the blue snowfield. As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his people--its rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. “The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth.”

The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family’s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions.

We see that Fast Horse’s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.

The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky.

Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decides--not once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisis--to face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.

Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.

Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more. But again, it is enough.

Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter one’s lodge at night lies another realm--which we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand things are as they should be.

I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The stories that really matter
     Percy Wollaston's "Homesteading: A Montana family album"

At one point during a conversation I had with an eighth-grader over the summer, she cited from memory Sam’s words at the conclusion of the movie The Two Towers. I quote the words at some length because Sarah quoted them at some length. The fact that she had cared enough to get those words into her head and to hang onto them is important:

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. . .Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. . .There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

Sam says these words as he and Frodo proceed onward at great effort and despite great peril. As any teacher would, I thrilled a bit at Sarah’s demonstration that young people are still idealistic and still respond to stories more wholesome than hip-hop and more troubling than Harry Potter.

This is important because we live, like Sam and Frodo, by being caught up in the stories that are loose in the world. Since some of them are not very good, hampering rather than bolstering our efforts, we need to be literary critics of a sort to find our way. When we get caught in the wrong stories, our efforts are vexed and our dreams turn vain.

Thinking along such lines, I was troubled when I heard several people at an education conference succumbing to pessimism about Montana’s future. A teacher said our small towns were dying. A historian lamented the bleakness of the places she passed. And a writer suggested that those who could get out had gotten out and that those who remained were isolated in despair and distrust.

That’s not the Montana I experience. It’s true enough that judging our towns by the standards of, say, a strip mall, can make them seem somewhat incomplete. But it seems just as likely that any people that builds more than a half mile of strip mall may not have a very compelling vision of what the world is for or what is worth doing or wanting.

When I think of Montana places I think mostly of families and landscapes and the way the two interact here. Having truly seen the moon rise over the Snowy Mountains or the sun set over the Missouri Breaks or the storm clouds pile up over the Sweetgrass Hills, one is unlikely to be unduly dazzled by the marquee on Times Square. And having eaten fresh-caught trout with one’s children on the rocky shores of Mollman Lakes, one would have to be ungrateful to hanker after a gourmet meal prepared for profit.

This is not to minimize the economic difficulties some of us are facing. It is only to remember that the surest way out of a bad story is into another story and that there are always other stories. The way the same set of facts and events can be woven into different stories is illustrated by Percy Wollaston’s memoir, Homesteading, set in Montana during the homestead boom that got into high gear around 1910. The memoir tells one story while the introduction by Seattle writer Jonathan Raban tells a different one.

Raban places Wollaston’s work amid the preoccupations of many mainstream historians. In doing so, he finds Homesteading “a story of a colossal failure” (xvi). He sees Montana’s homesteaders as the victims of a dastardly fraud perpetrated by the forces of darkness--corporate marketers. Though he admires the courage and endurance of the Montanans, his big story is the way they were tricked into catastrophe. His introduction is a brief version of the script that won him the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1996 for Bad Land, An American Romance.

But that’s not the story Percy Wollaston wanted to tell or did tell. To be sure, he is an astute and thoughtful man, aware of the issues that capture Raban’s passions. He noted, for example, that the 1912 sinking of the Titanic “marked some sort of turning point in the attitude of people all over the country” (56-57). He observed that “trusted and supposedly competent authority” didn’t make good decisions. “The great and the humble, the dolt and the wise, all seem to have been living in some sort of play world where everything would turn out for the best” (58), he said.

Wollaston wasn’t living in a play world. He didn’t fancy himself an important man whose voice would change the big things, so he was not very interested in railing against the chicaneries perpetrated by the big players, though such chicaneries may be as real as Raban tells them.

Success in the world Wollaston cares about is measured by the sort of character one becomes. Adversity, including failure, is often the occasion for developing and displaying that character. When Jim Morrow lost his cow just before his first blizzard on the prairie, he tracked her till darkness then led her home, where he tied her to the foot of his bed before stoking up the fire and falling into an exhausted sleep. Wollaston noted that the storm “changed Jim from a boy to a man who ever afterward faced poverty, hardship, or any other adversity with a calm optimism” (115).

Wollaston’s story is mainly about calmness and optimism, about people coming together and finding a way. In the Montana he describes, newcomers are welcomed and scrutinized for talents that might enhance life. People sacrifice to organize a school, buying windows, digging wells, and hiring teachers. They form a community club to discuss their problems and share their solutions. When they go to town, they leave their houses unlocked, so traveling strangers can stop and fix themselves a meal.

Such stories may be more useful for kids today than yet more tales of corporate malfeasance. Many of our youth are already as distrustful of large corporations as they are cynical about official pronouncements. But they are hungry for stories that reveal the sources of goodness in the world.

The society the homesteaders built turned out not to be sustainable--though, for that matter, neither was Rome--but it was a society that had its goodnesses. The building of that society--as well as what became of it--is a story worth carrying around in our heads.

Wollaston offers quiet wisdom, noting that people today suffer from “some lack of looking forward” (112). The homesteaders did not build a good society by focusing on what was wrong with the world. “The next meal might be potatoes and water gravy but you didn’t hear anything about hardship unless somebody burned out or broke a leg” (112).

Though their prospects were surely not brighter than our own, those hardy pioneers could build a good society because they stayed committed to a better future. “There were people from almost every walk of life and status of education, but they learned little of each other beyond what each planned to make of his place and plans for the future of the community” (112).

Though the closing pages of Raban’s book are taken up with an ironic meditation on the meaning of the Unabomber--another writer passing through Montana preoccupied with our betrayal by the world’s princes--on the penultimate page of Percy’s story we are offered more hopeful fare: he told of the time he heard Jim Morrow’s father upstairs alone, dancing a jig to music from a phonograph, “just serene and happy to be at home” (129).

In the story Raban emphasizes, we may learn such things as the importance of truth in advertising laws and such--useful, and important in a way. But one gets the feeling that he wants us to be angry. The story Wollaston tells is quite different. We learn how some of our fellows dealt with trouble, including injury, sickness, economic misfortune, bad weather, and death--troubles to which we are not strangers. Wollaston’s theme is human character as it emerged amid the whips and scorns of a particular place and time, and one gets the feeling that he wants us to be wise and strong.

At one point, Jim Morrow dug two dry holes by hand, trying to build a well. On his third try he ran into bedrock at about twelve feet. Things seemed hopeless. He prayed, and then he chiseled and hammered through about a foot of sandstone. Below it, he found good water.

A useful story, that.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Reality is a story 9/24
     The way of the teacher

Emergent characteristics come into existence at some level of a developing hierarchy–they are attributes that weren’t present at lower levels. A common example is that of water, which is liquid and flows–characteristics that weren’t present in the hydrogen or the oxygen that formed it. The hydrogen and oxygen retain their identity–they don’t vanish–but something new has emerged.

The violence of angry mobs, doing things that the individual members would not have done alone, is an emergent characteristic. A thousand angry people is not necessarily a mob. It becomes a mob when it takes on a life of its own, acting as though with a single will, intelligence, and desire, and responsibility for what happened gets exported to the new entity.

Some emergences are real game changers, as when life emerged from matter.

Biotic systems don’t escape the material universe, by which I mean they remain fully subject to the laws of physics–an egg thrown from a window falls according to the same law of gravity as a stone. But the egg nonetheless has become something more than a stone, its full nature invisible to the concerns of classical physics.

A similar threshold was crossed when human consciousness emerged from life. Though people are closely related to monkeys, one of the five species of great apes, they are also significantly different. People live and die amid realities that are invisible to monkeys. For example, a chimpanzee cannot watch a baseball game. It can see the runners, the scoreboard, and the green infield, of course, but what it can’t do is comprehend facing a pitch when the count is two and three with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth. It can’t get the story. It doesn’t know there is a story.

Even among groups of humans, all are not in the same stories, and some cannot comprehend what others are doing. Adults frequently take advantage of this, holding conversations that the children cannot comprehend although they hear all the words. All of us find that we sometimes understand stories that are occurring that others we meet cannot, and we have to assume that some of those around us are engaged in stories to which we ourselves are oblivious.

We typically make meaning by finding stories in what happens. We find our way in the world by learning and making stories from and with those around us. We live by finding patterns, a rightness and a fit in things–the rightness and fit of a good story that makes sense of the onslaught of events. If physics is our way of negotiating the realm of matter, and biology is our way of negotiating the realm of life, then narrative is our primary way of negotiating the realm of meaning.

A human culture can be thought of as a collection of ways to live together encoded in a set of shared narratives. A hunting culture may pass on stories about a wounded buck and an arduous pursuit through winter cold, encoding understandings of proper technique as well as proper conduct. A bureaucratic culture may pass on stories of grievances that succeeded or grant proposals that failed, by way of grasping and sharing the way reality works. Through stories we weave together motive and character and the laws of life in complex forms that come to us so easily we may not notice their strange power. A character immersed in time moves or is moved upon and at some key moment something clicks home like the punchline of a joke: sense is made. We may do without philosophy but we cannot be human without story.

Morality is a crucial part of meaning. In some ways, moral rules form a shorthand version of lessons learned. As Wendell Berry pointed out, morality is long-term practicality. We may win a minor prize by deceiving a friend, but if we persist in treachery we learn to our chagrin that repeated deceptions isolate us and leave us weakened. When noone believes us our words have little power.

But morality doesn’t simply come from experience. Much of it is innate–hardwired in, so to speak. This innate sense of right and wrong–sometimes called the “moral sense"– that even very young children display and which has remarkable consistency across cultures–all cultures admire reciprocity, for example–creates a philosophical problem for people who want natural selection to explain everything.

Philosophers of evolution have struggled mightily to find something plausible to say about how the moral sense could have developed out of the processes Charles Darwin described. Most difficult is explaining the observed data that humans rarely engage in the bloody all-out struggle for individual survival that the theory suggests. Instead, people are more likely to be found attending quilting bees, bringing gifts to weddings, or composing tweets to let the world know they are here. People gather for social reasons at every opportunity–they are everywhere organized into families, clubs, parties, committees, and churches. They cooperate and collaborate incessantly.

The Darwinists have sensed that to figure out what’s really going on, they need to gaze up the hierarchy. They must consider people not simply as competing individuals but as parts of gene pools or as members of kin groups. This is the right direction, trying to discern realities larger and slower-moving than persons, seeing individuals as levels in a more expansive hierarchy.

Their desire to find an amoral explanation for morality is of a piece with their antipathy toward seeing any purpose, or telos, in the teeming exuberance of life. Telos suggests moral law, which many Darwinists would like to do without. But others have noted that from the beginning, life seems to have included some idea of where it had to go, its future encoded in the language of DNA just as an individual human brain is encoded there.

Biologists Jack Lester King and Thomas Jukes in their famous article told us that “natural selection is the editor, rather than the composer, of the genetic message.” Arthur Koestler has pointed to the strangeness that two evolutionary strands isolated from one another, that of marsupials in Australia and of placentals on the continent, should arrive at creatures that are nearly the same. Australia has pouched versions of “moles, ant-eaters, flying squirrels, cats and wolves.”

Naturalist Joseph Krutch thought that if nature really were a meaningless chronology of survival, development could have stopped at insects, which are tremendously successful when survival is the only criterion. As survivors, bugs are unsurpassed. But life didn’t stop with them. At minimum, we can believe that life favors complexity over simplicity, higher states of order over lower, although such ideas are anathema to many contemporary biologists, who dislike teleological thinking about such matters–beyond their chosen telos of self-preservation.

Krutch points out that though mother chimpanzees may be less efficient than insects, their complex and vulnerable affection seems more a fulfillment of what earth wants than does the cold, instinctual effectiveness of mother wasps. In my experience, few people sincerely doubt that.

The simpler creatures are the more they become what they are by fulfilling their biological potential. Their destiny is driven from below in the hierarchy of being. But people, life at its highest development, become what they are by striving toward ideals that come into view at the edge of how far they can see. Leon Koss in his 2009 Jefferson Lecture noted that “our eyes, no longer looking down a snout to find what is edible, are lifted instead to the horizon, enabling us to take in an entire vista and to conceive an enduring world beyond the ephemeral here and now.”

What we imagine is out there we get mostly from the stories of our tribe. Unlike simpler creatures, we are not biologically determined. Humans grow by looking up, moving outward into a narrative environment and acting within the stories that constitute their reality. To truly understand people or to teach children effectively or to consciously influence society, we need to understand stories. We need to pay conscious attention to a narrative environment that we cannot help but create. We need to face the implications of seeing that for humans reality is a story.

Winston Churchill famously observed that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” An even more important observation is that we create our stories, and afterwards our stories create us.

Maybe the most important educational question is of all this: which stories?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Reading at the end of the world
     The New Dark Ages?

The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) recently published a report that documented a precipitous decline in literary reading among Americans. Chairman Cana Gioio found the news grim:

“This report documents a national crisis,” Gioia said. “Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity - and all the diverse benefits it fosters - impoverishes both cultural and civic life.”

This follows, somewhat tardily, an earlier report that took a somewhat worse view of the state of literary reading among Americans:

The works of the great poets have never yet been read by mankind, for only great poets can read them. They have only been read as the multitude read the stars, at most astrologically, not astronomically. Most men have learned to read to serve a paltry convenience, as they have learned to cipher in order to keep accounts and not be cheated in trade; but of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I began my teaching career hoping we might get nearer Thoreau’s ideal—that more of us might read “as a noble intellectual exercise.” The schools I’ve worked in, however, have increasingly seen reading mostly as something in the realm of accounts and trade, as part of the world of occupations and money. One studies mostly so that one can later make money. This is in harmony with the therapeutic tone of these student-centered schools, which also teach young people that “what’s in it for me?” is the fundamental question that remains when an ethic of self-fulfillment is taught in a narrative environment where ultimate, which is to say religious, concerns are avoided.

Who would expect many people so educated to be drawn to the sort of reading Thoreau is talking about, when videos are more titillating and require less effort? Expecting a nation of readers at this stage of the game would be foolish, as would be expecting any real educational leadership from our official leaders, who did not get where they are by giving long hours to the best that has been thought and said.

As with all reports based on survey data, we have willful readers who point out the numbers may not mean what it is claimed they mean. In this case, the critic ignores the important point that the NEA is talking about literary reading, and not merely scanning the sports page or the twitterings of friends. Nevertheless, the constant disagreement and argument over virtually all the education data we have gives us a great variety of possible opinions with no certain way of knowing the truth, and so our plight is that we remain quite free to think whatever we want, which is much of the reason these reports seldom have much impact.

My biases, based on my experiences, lead me to think that if we are talking about literary reading, as the NEA says it is, things are quite dismal. The time is long past when I’ve been tempted to support a point with a quote from Donne or Blake. It would sound alien and odd to most listeners. Our literary culture is not really our culture any more.

By 1984, Alasdair MacIntyre, one of the more important moral philosophers during the second half of the twentieth century, observed in After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory that it was too late to avert a new dark age:

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.

The first time I read that, I thought MacIntyre was speaking hyperbolically. Now, reading with more experience, I think he was only saying aloud the obvious. Though the NEA does its best to sound the alarm, I find its warning far too mild. One way I read the history of the 1930s and 1940s is that the poetry of totalitarianism, with its grandiose vision of individuals sacrificing to the common good as defined by a ruling elite, clashed with a centuries-long tradition of English poetry in the form of a people whose characters had been influenced by visions of hearth and home, of the essential dignity of every person, and of the sacred duties of liberty.

Today, the poetry of totalitarianism is again ascendant—one hears it at home and abroad—but the cadences of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats have gone mostly silent. For those who cannot or do not read them, they might as well have never existed.

Most public schools are now attended by some young people whose plight is similar to that of the urchin in Auden’s great poem ”The Shield of Achilles”:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

Such urchins are what I see beyond the NEA’s numbers.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Daniel Day-Lewis as historian
     Informing imaginations

Jim Cullen has an interesting article in the wonderful online journal Common-Place. The article gives his rationale for using Hollywood films to teach American history, as a way to cultivate “an informed imagination.” He wants his students, who don’t read enough, to gain some sense of the richness and texture of the worlds that make up America’s past. He noted after the fact that all four of the films he settled on for first semester included the same actor: Daniel Day-Lewis. The four films provide something of an arc from the Puritans to the early dawn of the Progressive Era: The Crucible (1996), Last of the Mohicans (1992), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Age of Innocence (1993).

“The engine of American history” that one sees in the various roles played by Day-Lewis “is a restless individualist who strains against an inherited culture, an individual as likely to look back as to look forward, but an individual who, in that very restlessness, also paves the way for a new generation, one that will ultimately produce a new rebellion for a new age.” He sees this as a relevant vision for high schools which, “whatever their specific deficiencies, are veritable workshops of dreams.”

He goes on to note that in some ways Day-Lewis may be a better historian for high schoolers than academics who, for the most part, see vivid and sweeping storylines as too simplistic.

There is one . . . aspect of Day-Lewiss vision of American history that distinguishes it from others propagated by popular media. And that is that it is a vision, a sweeping interpretation that takes in the American past as a whole. Not many professional historians (Sean Wilentz comes to mind as an exception) consider it appropriate to even try. In this regard, Day-Lewis harkens back to earlier generations of American historians: Hofstadter, Parrington, and, especially, Turner, and maybe a few modern descendants such as Patricia Limerick. For a variety of structural and ideological reasons, the contemporary professional vision of the past is fractured, slivered into shards that are constantly being recombined into often compelling new arrangements. A postmodern playhouse. That’s fine for graduate students, maybe. But thats not what the kids I see need right now.

They need to grapple with a frontiersman in the woods.

I, too, like to use film to make other places and times more vivid. I have kids read as much as possible, but I think they also need to experience film and learn to view it critically. I wouldn’t use The Gangs of New York in class, though. It’s rated R “for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language.” Hollywood deems it inappropriate for people under 17 unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, and I would hate to think Hollywood is more protective of young people than the school where I work.

What films have worked well in your classes for bringing a different time to life? What films would you recommend to enrich students’ sense of the world of circa 1910?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Teaching youth to perceive the narrative environment
     correcting the cave

The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.
Richard Wilbur

Consider the narrative environment of youth:

1. What do they hear from their family or those they live with
2. what do they hear from their neighborhood or community, incluidng peers and peer-directed groups, adults including voluntary associations such as churchs and adult directed clubs
3. what do they hear from media
4. what do they hear from school


1. Adults will not be able to control the narrative environment--the focus needs to be on educating youth to make choices
2. We are influenced in more ways than by persuasion--we can, for example, develop a taste for things that we intelletually reject
3. The narrative environment has real (and observable and somewhat predictable) consequences for the sort of community that forms.
4. We contribute to the narrative environment of any group we are part of


1. Be sure that good narratives are available
2. Teach that some stories are better than others
3. Teach the criteria for chosing
4. Be explicit in describing the ways our narrative choices matter to us as individuals and to the communities of which we are part

Questions to address

1. How are we shaped by story
2. What criteria might help discern between better and worse stories
3. What are our responsibilities to the narrative environment of 1. our homes 2. our social groups 3. our neighborhoods 4. our society


1. Use Montana literature for “case studies” to discuss narrative environments
2. Focus on tracing linkages between the stories people act out and the consequences that follow
3. Practice characterizing various communities in terms of their narrative environments (ie, the society created by fur traders at their Rendezvous in the Big Sky, the small town created by the homesteaders in Homesteading, the community Fools Crow is inhabiting at the end of his story)
4. Use the dimensions of reality described by Nozick to construct close reading questions for the literary “case studies”


A student will be able to:

1. Explain was MacIntyre meant by “virtue” (After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre, University of Notre Dame, 1984)
2. Give examples of different communities and the virtues they sought to inculcate
3. Demonstrate ability to identify virtues that are implicit in a narrative. Cite specific passages that illustrate each virtue and provide reasons why this passage is indicative of the virtue specified.
4. Understand what a complex hierarchy is
5. Understand the difference between a contradiction and paradox
6. Be able to discuss an example of principles in conflict, using the concepts of complex hierarchy and paradox

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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