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. 

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YA reading trends
     controversial trends

A new book for young adults focused on an oral sex orgy, Rainbow Party, from Simon & Schuster has triggered some controversy. Critics say the “cautionary tale” defense is a smoke screen.

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Writing for the ages, Part 2
     Talking our way home

Few things are as educationally powerful as assisting young people in researching and writing about their family heritage. Family elders are often an ideal audience for young writers, drawing out the best that they have to say. At the same time, in coming to see more clearly how that elder was once young, students develop their own historical consciousness, sensing better what they themselves are becoming.

Sometimes creating a persona is creating a prototype identity, which is work all teenagers face.

In order to do a good job of either, we need to do a good job of imagining our audience. By “doing a good job” I mean both that we need a vivid and realistic sense of other people and that the other people we envision are the sort of people who bring out something good in us. We have trouble finding something to say or a way to say it when we have no sense of who might hear us, but who we imagine hears us affects what want to say and what we think we can say. One of the ways teenagers get to know who they are is by noting how others respond to them, and one of the ways any of us might go badly astray is to badly imagine who notices us.

Who are you, really? That’s a question writing teachers should pose, in dozens of ways, to every young person. The answer often depends on who is listening, or who they imagine is listening, or who they want to listen. Speech is social. Who is a teenager living in Terry, Montana, or Sutherlin, Oregon? Who will hear him? Who will care what she says?

It’s interesting to consider that, since what we send to the internet may last forever, much or most of our audience may be people who are not yet born. This is even more intriguing when you note that teenagers who have been introduced to family history get excited to find a page or two written by their great-grandparents. This suggests that the most attentive audience for much of what today’s teens are writing may well be their own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reminding them of that is a way of slowing things down. I’ve just looked at several blogs where the posters seemed frantic, wild for something to link and comment upon. They reminded me of gamblers in Reno dropping quarters in a dayless glitter of hope for the jackpot that hovers forever just out of reach. Slowing things down strikes me as quite wonderful.


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Within These Walls
     Researches into the history of one house

Within These Walls is a wonderful exhibit at the National Museum of American History on the Mall in Washington, D.C. By tracing the history of one house and five famlies who lived in it from 1757-1945, the exhibit succeeds in illustrating how local history can provide a gateway into national history, and how family history is American history.

Now this exhibit is available online. Students can follow the family history, learn how historians uncover the history of houses, and how they might do a similar project in their own town. The online exhibit uses Flash, so it’s best viewed over a broadband connection.

In addition to the online exhibit, a three part video series will be broadcast this spring that address national standards for writing and using original sources in research. The series

is designed to teach students research skills, generate ideas for uncovering historical evidence in students’ own communities, neighborhoods, and families, and to suggest ways they can write about their findings. These programs address the national standards for writing and using original sources in research, and have many applications for classes studying American history and the social sciences.

This is a great site. Of course, I think its best use would be to show students what can be done with tools that they have--websites, digital cameras, scanners, and county archives. Montana would be a better place if we had a couple dozen such websites for houses in Plentywood, Glasgow, Red Lodge, Broadus, and so on.

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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 2
     I own myself

Therapy has displaced education as the dominant rhetoric of public schools. This has left many young people with too few resources to escape the demands of the self, and it has left the future of public education in danger from the medicalization of schooling.

“Man cannot stand alone in the face of eternity: he needs the comfort of purpose, the peace of forgiveness, and the confidence of truth.�
Eric S. Cohen

Failing to teach Jason

A few years ago while teaching at a psychiatric hospital where nearly all the troubled adolescents were diagnosed as “oppositional-defiant,� I made a routine classroom request, “Take out your work from yesterday.�

Jason, a 15-year-old boy, angrily began shouting obscenities. He stood up and threw his desk at me, screaming violent threats. To protect myself and other kids, I restrained him and dragged him to the floor. Several other staff members rushed to help. Later, other staff members and I met with him. He had stopped swearing and begun crying.

“It’s your fault,” he said. “You’re supposed to fix me–” he pushed out his lower lip–“and I’m still like this.”

No doubt the kid had problems. “Needs,” he’d been taught to call them. He was searching, albeit ineffectively, for something beyond the self. He covered his notebooks and forearms with gang insignia, dreaming of belonging to a group that would provide an identity.

I wish the sort of problems he faced were rare, but the truth is that most teachers face at least some young people like him. Some teachers face a great many of them every day–kids who demand that we cater to them and blame us for all their failures. We only exist, in the story we have told them, to provide services to meet their needs. But try teaching someone who has been systematically taught to blame you for the consequences of his conduct.


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Levels of storytelling, Part 3
     Master narratives and placemaking

The third level of storytelling is the level of master narratives. These are the large stories that shape communities and cultures.

The third level of storytelling is the level that postmodernists call “master narratives.” These are the large stories--such as those told by Karl Marx or Jesus--that sketch in the shape and meaning of human reality, and that thereby shape communities and cultures. The implication of the postmodernists has often been that these narratives are fictions, a conclusion that seems to follow from the fact that there are many of them, that they conflict with each other, and that we can to some degree enter or leave them at will.

It’s useful to draw on American pragmaticism here--the idea that our best approach to truth might be to select our beliefs based on what works. As pragmatist William James put it: “Grant an idea or belief to be true, . . . what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”

By asking about experiential consequences, we can discuss the objective data of what happens to persons and groups who commit themselves to various values. We can use reason to assist our decisions about which virtues to live and teach: should we be warriors or merchants or saints? We can ask what sort of society has in the past emerged when most people lived the anything-for-profit ethic or the never-resort-to-force ethic. 


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Winter and cabin fever in Red Lodge
     Gary Ferguson in the LA Times

Gary Ferguson has an essay in today’s LA Times (free registration required) about winter in the Rockies and the persistent Montana drought.

What I once knew in theory I now know in my bones: that the overpowering weight of a Rocky Mountain winter, the snowbound days that drive us to the edge of madness, are the price paid in one season for the flush of life in another. What can at first seem a terrifying silence in the winter wilderness is in truth the sound of possibility.

Ferguson’s latest book is The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind, a book which I just read (after hearing his eloquence at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula). The Great Divide tells what sort of people have been attracted to this place in the past, and of the changing role of the Rockies in the American psyche. In Missoula he was the only writer on a panel of environmental writers who offered much hope for the future. He said one solution to immigration into this state was to create a literature that attracted the sort of people we want.

Of course, he was assuming most people in the audience would agree with him about what sort of people those were. In American politics, things tend to go together in a way that it’s hard to support environmental causes without also supporting a lot of other causes. I would like to see a reshuffling of which issues the two parties claim as theirs, in the hope that one of them might put together a better hand than either seems content to hold at present.

In any case, his is the best kind of thinking about what placemaking means.  Ferguson lives in Red Lodge.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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Levels of storytelling, Part 2
     Pursuing intentional purposes

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intend to live, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our intentional purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

Because schools are ritual centers cut off from the real living places where we love and hate, we burden them with all the elaborate aspirations that our love and labor are too meager and narrow to bear.
Madeline Grumet

Let us answer this book of ink with a book of flesh and blood.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Organizing around purpose

The second level of storytelling includes the planned and structured stories we use to organize our lives. Politicians call stories at this level of narration “campaigns.� Scientists call them “experiments.� Teachers usually call them “unit plans.� They are scripts we intentionally create, aiming at goals we consciously choose. They are the larger stories we want our lives to follow. They are the stories of our purposes and of what happens as we pursue those purposes.

What intentionally planned stories schools tell is a subject that every faculty should be able to discuss fluently. We know from experience that the most powerful learning occurs when we become protagonists in our own learning: pursuing desires, facing obstacles, meeting opportunities, making decisions, and arriving at conclusions. In many workshops, I’ve asked people to tell me the most significant thing they remember learning. The answer is always a story. Because we are made to live and learn through story, turning schoolinlg into a story requires neither pedagogical brilliance nor a complicated theory.

It mostly requires that we attempt something. A couple of years ago I visited with an unusually intelligent young man who had dropped out of school after ninth grade. “They never did anything,” he explained. Not doing anything, or not seeming to do anything, is a fatal mistake for schools. Getting ready for a test doesn’t count, unless the test itself means something.


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Levels of storytelling, Part 1
     Everyday stories

Early in the twentieth century, William Graham Sumner in Folkways pointed out that stories such as Bud Cheff’s a person learns “what conduct is approved or disapproved; what kind of man is admired most; how he ought to behave in all kinds of cases; and what he ought to believe and respect.” He reminds us that “all this constitutes . . . the most essential and important education.”

This level of everyday narration may be thought of as a first level of storytelling. It goes on among us almost without pause. If the values we express in this level of narration aren’t consistent with what we say we believe and want, then we probably aren’t going where we think are.

Teachers who complain about administrators, for example, but also claim that students should respect their authority are, at best, incoherent. To get a grasp on what a school actually teaches, as opposed to what it merely espouses, visit the teachers’ lounge and listen to the stories teachers are telling about students, parents, and administrators. This will give you a better guide to a school’s moral intelligence and purpose than whatever is said in character classes or board meetings.


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Teaching and writing
     Better teachers are active readers

Over on Pedablogue Michael Arnzen discusses the relationship between reading and teaching.

Reading non-fiction can enhance teaching, even in ways we don’t realize. . . They outline a “process,” usually following the steps in chronological order one must take to put something together, or to go from point A to point B, or to simply arrive at some understanding of an abstract idea. Obviously. But the strategies the writers take teach us along the way about teaching. Whether it’s sharing a personal experience as an example, coaching us to do a little exercise in the margins, offering us insider secrets and tricky’s all teaching strategy as much as it is information. . .

A good deal of what I’ve learned about consciously planning a sequence of experiences for learners, I’ve learned from writers. Arnzen also mentions the relationship between teaching and writing, suggesting that writing is essential for teachers:

Of course, writing—the active organization of knowledge—really does the work to make such knowledge about the teaching process conscious, and this partially explains why educators must write theses and dissertations. If you can write a book, you can probably teach a course (and not just in the subject of the book itself), though obviously there’s more to teaching than just organizing ideas.

The nexus of being a learner and being a teacher and being a reader and being a writer can be a vital center: trying to organize our minds in response to the riches around and within us.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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