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."


Toward an ecology of peace 3/24
     The writing teacher

We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have found. To find it, we need to realize that it is not found in some utopian absence of conflict. Peace is the supreme achievement of human intelligence precisely because of the powerful oppositions that it brings into balance.

Peace is an energetic engagement with trouble more often than it is trouble’s absence. We understand the goodness of the great works of peace that are among us–good hospitals, good schools, productive factories, active charities–because we have experienced illness, ignorance, poverty, and harm. As we labor and organize to mitigate our trouble, we feel peace when we feel a certainty that, as in a Shakespeare play, evil has limits and as long as good people place their lives in the balance it will not prevail. We are at peace when we sense that our efforts, however small and feeble, will be enough, and that forces larger than we see are working with us. Like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, it isn’t necessary for us to be big and powerful--it’s just necessary for us to be good.

We learn we need to be good as we come to sense that we are up against something that wants things torn down, wants nations at war, wants families in turmoil, wants friendships to fall apart, and ultimately wants us dead. The forces of destruction, decay, and disorder that surround us are nothing so puny as to be escaped or destroyed. They are built into the fabric of our existence.

And yet, we also learn that lashing out at what frightens us often makes things worse. Learning to do good is part of how we get free of fear. One of the trickiest patterns in a tricky world is the way that the urge to destroy evil–meeting it on its own level then getting trapped there–can often become evil’s most powerful tool. Eric Hoffer noted in True Believers that the worst evil in history has been accomplished by people who believed they were righteously engaged in destroying evil. Hitler gloated that totalitarian systems were invincible because they forced their opponents to imitate them.

Seeing how the fight against evil so readily becomes a form of evil itself, some people have tried to evade the dilemma by opposing the concept of oppositions itself, hoping that conflict can be resolved philosophically, by abandoning belief in such dualities as good and evil.

But it doesn’t work.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

What’s wrong with these kids? 2/24
     The way of the teacher

The Roman soldiers who killed a teacher two thousand years ago killed people often–mostly rebels, robbers, and thugs. The system of which they were a part, the Roman state, had taught them to take honor in their work defending the order. They knew little or nothing of the dirty, bloodied commoner, or what he stood for, or who he threatened. The teacher understood this and prayed for their forgiveness, noting “they know not what they do.”

Though Jesus was caught in an evil pattern, he wasn’t tricked into thinking that most of the people who harmed him were his enemies. They were also being harmed by the patterns he had tried to change. Those patterns are still among us. They came slowly into focus for me in a small mountain town in western Montana, but it could have been anywhere. It was simply the world.

I now see the same patterns on a much larger scale in the nation and the world and on a smaller scale within families and individuals. These patterns replicate themselves, and the more force we throw against them, the more powerful they become. They are nearly alive, taking their vital force from us, from our efforts to destroy what we see as evil.

We live in troubled times, among disorderly nations. The evening news is dominated by stories of wars that seem unstoppable. Our cities are disordered, and we hear more and more of crime, gangs, and homelessness. Our families are disordered, and we read that children are being born to single girls who are children themselves. Our personal lives are disordered, and the mental health business is booming. It seems that even nature is disordered, as storms and floods may be increasing in frequency and severity.

In all the noise, we hear passionate speakers clamor for attention, proclaiming that our schools no longer work and that our children are not getting the education they need, but there is little agreement about what sort of education they do need, and calls for better schools bog down in contention, becoming part of the troubled pattern.

Meanwhile, children go on learning what we teach, though not necessarily the things we say in classrooms. The fundamental curriculum for schools is often visible at its board meetings, in the bantering stories told by teachers in the lounge, and in the disciplinary code that is practiced (rather than the one that is written down). The level of honesty, compassion, and concern for the truth that we demonstrate in such routine, everyday affairs is more educative, for good or ill, than the ambitious, idealistic rhetoric in official curriculum guides. How do we handle our disagreements? How do we talk about each other in small groups between classes or after meetings? What standards of evidence do we maintain for tales told about our opponents?

A couple of years after I resigned as principal, the managers of that school were still struggling with the same problems I had faced. They brought in specialists to teach conflict resolution skills because of an increasing number of fights between students, not to mention a maddening level of contention among staff and parents. The conflict resolution folks taught the latest skills from their field, but judging from the agenda of acrimonious disputes at board meetings, the patterns have proven resilient.

The administrators treated student fighting as a problem separate from the rest of the school operation, to be solved with its own little program. They didn’t see it as one manifestation of a much larger pattern. The school itself was a bundle of unrelated programs with fragmented and sometimes contradictory goals. Its leaders didn’t view the myriad problems holistically, considering what teachers were teaching in the history and literature classes about character and consequence, for example, or how disagreements were handled by administrators, or what values were encoded in the discourse at board meetings.

Of course, seeing that small problems are related to much larger problems can be daunting. A few months before, the superintendent had sued the teachers’ union because of their no-confidence vote in him. Meanwhile, the staff was engaged in its annual acrimony over contract negotiations. The union had suggested a work “slow-down,” in which no teacher would come before eight or stay to help students after four, and a “sick-out,” in which large numbers of the staff would call in sick. Their strategy was based, strangely enough, on faith that the school board members they reviled cared more about the education of children than did professional educators, and that the board would back down rather than see the children lose out. They were using kids as pawns to enrich themselves. And of course, it was quite true that some board members saw teachers as commodities to be bought and used as cheaply as possible. Enemies often come to resemble each other.

And there was much, much more. Groups of parents were campaigning to remove or reprimand a number of different coaches and teachers. At every level in the life of the school, champions of morality or diversity were speaking the language of anger. Each group believed their problems were caused by an enemy, so, of course, the combatants wanted institutional uniformity that would force their enemies to accept a better way. In their different ways, each of the sides wanted codes of acceptable language. Each wanted sanctions against deviance. Each wanted submission to their orthodoxy. They wanted to force things to go the way they were sure was right.

And in the midst of it all, the staff was directed, without intentional irony, to consider the question, “How can we get our kids to stop fighting?” The more interesting question would have been “How can we become a peaceful people?”

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Gardeners understand small solutions to big problems
     A Gardener's Duty

People are funny, often going to great lengths and enormous trouble to do the wrong things, when doing the right thing would be easier and more enjoyable. The school I work at has tried several things to boost student reading scores. Simply allowing people enough time to read doesn’t seem complex and substantive enough, so instead of reading we plan more meetings.

For lunch today I read a few blogs while enjoying a bowl of raw tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and carrots that I sliced up before going to bed last night. It was delicious, inexpensive and healthy. Not many years ago I would have filled up my limited lunch “hour” with a rush to a fast food place, spending most of my time in traffic so that I could pay too much money for food high in carbs and fat.

Lily in my secret garden.

I think of people on a hectic thousand-mile weekend, packing and driving and spending to enjoy their free time, when a few quiet hours in a nearby park might have done the trick better, if they could but relax and pay attention to what is at hand. Gardeners know better than many others that it isn’t necessary to travel to the Amazon to view the wonders of nature, that a lily near at hand is as wondrous as those the king keeps at his estate.

I doubt we will solve the world’s most serious problems until we accept the wonderful news that real solutions require free people making good decisions for themselves. Those who understand this readily see that the the best way forward has more to do with education than with control. It’s easy to fall for the delusion that widespread problems requite large-scale solutions. Such a way of thinking comes naturally to kings and others who dream of being in charge.

Wild Flora points out in a “gardener’s duty” that many of our environmental challenges are best dealt with by individuals who have a refined sense of duty and self-interest:

Well, not to let the big corporate types off the hook--but the choices made by millions of individuals have emerged as one of the major causes of planetary degradation. Choices made in the way we manage landeven if itגs a half-acre back yardaffect the quality of our air and water, species diversity, and a host of other matters of more-than-passing interest to a lot of creatures for a lot of reasons.

And it’s not just environmental problems that require millions of people making better choices. Though it would wreck the economy in the short-term, the worldwide consequences of people just keeping the Sabbath would be enormous. Not only would people find it a joy to step aside from so many concerns that seem so awfully urgent until they are put aside and one learns that they can be put aside, but fuel consumption would decrease as people stayed home more and stores closed, lonely old people would get more company, and a few people here and there would be tempted to read the great old poetry, finding themselves contemplating their own character and how they ought to live.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

The Founders’ Constitution
     Text and background sources

The Founders’ Constitution includes the text of the Constitution with extensive links below each phrase or section that take you to full text sources for the ideas encoded or important commentary about them. Sources include such luminaries as John Locke and John Adams and James Kent.

This sort of website is important, and its greatest importance may not be for people in America or in this generation.

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2006 Michael L. Umphrey

freedom and responsibility
     authors of their own lives

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; its not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what youre given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.

We are free to be the authors of our lives, says Schwartz, but we dont know exactly what kind of lives we want to write. Maturity lies in deciding just that.

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2005 Michael L. Umphrey

Quality education for all
     Coming home from the legislature

I drove over to Helena last week to attend some hearings in the legislature, to get a better feel for how education is being shaped by politicians in our little corner of the universe. It was enjoyable. I liked everyone who spoke and found something to agree with in most of what was said.

I enjoyed what seemed to be a room full of people trying their best to be wise, methodically slogging toward important decisions, trying to figure out how to define a “quality” education for all Montana students. I was in a good mood when I left.

Afterwards, I stopped at Hardee’s for a quick burger before the 3-hour drive home. I overheard a couple of 15-year-old girls talking about their sex lives, their parents’ views, and the social dynamics of high school. I didn’t feel I was eavesdropping, because they spoke loudly enough to be sure everyone heard them. In fact, I had intended to spend a few quiet minutes reading Paul Schullery’s excellent book, Mountain Time, and I wasn’t in the best mood to contemplate the emotings of confused adolescents.

But there they were. I know they were fifteen because one of the girls said her mother was, like, totally amazed that she had made it to that age without getting pregnant. They were scantily clad in tight tank tops, talking angrily and loudly about what jerks the boys they were having sex with were, about what interpersonal dramas had transpired at recent parties, and how much they hated their parents’ counsel: “My Mom doesn’t care if I get an abortion or give the baby away as long as I tell her.”


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2005 Michael L. Umphrey

Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 1
     Life is a market economy

As we have abandoned morality to the markets, fewer and fewer young people can make sense of old arguments against prostitution, drug deals, or pornography. It’s all just business. And beyond these old-fashioned prohibitions lie realms of the forbidden that we have barely begun to transgress.

The fact that they are powerful does not mean that they are sane, and the fact that they speak with intense conviction does not mean that they speak the truth.
Thomas Merton

The meaning of school is to get a well-paying job

Years ago when I was a beginning teacher, I read an elementary school newspaper in which the children had been asked why doing well in school was important. Even first graders reported that they should do well at school so they would be able to “get good jobs.? While the seven-year-olds that I know are far too intrigued by the world in all its aspects to believe that the main thing is getting and spending money, their testimony indicated they had heard this story so often it seemed self-evident.

Students are told implicitly and explicitly over and over that the meaning of school is that they need to be nice and work hard so they get good grades, they need to get good grades so they can get into good college, they need to get into good colleges so they can get good jobs, and they need good jobs because otherwise they’ll be losers.

Like most myths that have staying power, this one has quite a lot truth. It’s true that work–effort toward a goal–is the foundation of most people’s lives. How large and how good the order we build for ourselves has much to do with the wisdom and persistence of our effort. The young seldom realize how true this is, so guidance into wise and persistent work should be a foundation of the education we offer them. And, yes, it is a truism that we need things–food, clothing and shelter.

But from this truth it’s a small step into an old error: seeing the economy, which is a means of providing the materials of a good life, as an end in itself, and seeing the jobs it offers as the only work in town. Neil Postman notes that this story “is rarely believed by students and has almost no power to inspire them.? Besides, he says, “any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.?


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2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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Constraints and the character of community
     Be careful what you wish for

A community’s character is mostly determined by the boundaries it understands and the constraints it observes.  A community is an order--something more unified than a crowd, and order is created by borders, by cell walls that allow life to arise from a random flux of elements. 

Advice included on a blog about forming online communities: “Invite everyone to share, without boundaries or constraints.” The site didn’t prove interesting enough for me to bookmark. The notion that including everyone and prohibiting nothing will somehow make us free and happy seems a rather constant source of unhappiness and bondage.

A community’s character is mostly determined by the boundaries it understands and the constraints it observes.  A community is an order--something more unified than a crowd--and order is created by borders, by cell walls that allow life to arise from a random flux of elements. To destroy a community, it is only necessary to invite members to believe they can live without boundaries or constraints.

Through folkways and formal rules, communities encourage or discourage conduct that strengthens or weakens the order that they seek.

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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Why do we need government?
     A brief introduction to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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