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."


A balance between oppression and chaos 17/24
     The way of the judge

In 1786 Madison went home to Montpelier to prepare for the writing of a new constitution. He studied every experiment in republican and federal government that he could find. The problems with tyranny were obvious, and to this he added the problems with democracy. One of the “regular faults” he found was that both ancient and modern governments that didn’t have strong central authority were torn apart by jealousies and rivalries among members.

The lesson of the past was always the same: among free people, lack of an authoritative center led to jealousies, dissensions, and disorders among the members. This didn’t lead him to forget his passionate belief, over which he joined a war, that strong governments tended to be actively destructive of liberty. He knew that the key was balance: both freedom and constraint were needed.

He understood that if the parts weren’t free to respond to what they found because they were too constrained by the center, the system would lose contact with reality and crash. But if the parts were too free of central control, the system wouldn’t be able to act as a whole. When it met a crisis, its parts would act without coordination, or they would engage in endless communication, not responding at all, unable to use their resources to respond intelligently. And the system would crash.

Peace could be just as readily destroyed by internal quarreling as by the tyranny of an unjust leader.

The government that Madison and his colleagues built, a republic of laws balanced between the tyranny that results when a small group makes the laws for their own purposes and the chaos that results when law is overwhelmed by the tempests of public opinion, was, as Lincoln told a later generation, “the last, best hope of the earth.” From Lincoln’s position in time he could see that the future of western civilization was taking shape in the great nations of Germany, Russia and America. Otto von Bismarck was destroying the rule of law in Germany and Alexander II was autocratically trying to guide Russia between a feudal past and a brutal revolutionary future.

Lincoln saw in America humanity’s best chance to preserve the rule of law from the constant tendency of civic governments to disintegrate into bickering factions or, through a series of emergencies, to degenerate into slave empires.

These are still the dangers we face. America is still our best hope.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Establishing the rule of law 16/24
     The way of the judge

The dominant story in English political history is of that nation’s gradual development from a feudal society into a society ordered according to law. A key moment occurred when parliament executed a king for ignoring the law.

Much was learned along the way in this, one of the great stories in history, of how political hierarchies could be formed that protected the dignity of individuals while meeting the community’s need for the order and stability. From Montesquieu, we took the idea of separation of powers, and from Hobbes the confidence to replace the authority of divine right with the authority of the governed to give their consent. Though it has been downplayed by moderns, the Bible was also powerfully influential on people trying to understand the central question of the Arthurian legend: how can force be subordinated to rightness?

The governments that resulted were far from perfect, of course, and coercion and force remained, just as oxygen and hydrogen remain in water, but a system of law grew out of them that made it increasingly possible for power to be transferred without assassination, for wrongs to be redressed taking into account developing ideas about justice instead of mere strength, and the stability that resulted made life less terrifying. This system developed slowly, and often at great cost, over centuries. Concepts such legal constraints against government search and seizure were not thought up by philosophers concerned with abstract notions of right so much as they were figured out in bloody struggle.

One of the clearest expositions of what is possible in the realm of law is the American Constitution. It is the oldest national constitution on the planet. Others have come and gone, but, so far, it has endured, though it has been corrupted in dramatic ways. It is durable because it is founded on basic insights into the ecology of human systems. Drawing on centuries of accumulated wisdom from Athens, London, Rome, and Jerusalem, the American revolutionaries invented far less often than they codified the learning their predecessors had won by hard experience.

Among the brightest of many bright stars in that generation was James Madison. Madison’s role as “father” of the Constitution is less dramatic than Washington’s military leadership or Jefferson’s vivid rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence. His ill health and weak voice didn’t make him a formidable soldier or a dynamic orator, but he had other gifts. His reason and intelligence prevailed over many flashier opponents. He was a tremendous systems thinker, more coherent than Jefferson and more serene than Adams.

At college he was ravenous for learning. He slept only five or so hours a night, giving himself to the study of human nature through Greek and Latin authors, and his letters are full of easy references to Fielding, Hume, Butler, Swift, Pope, and, most important, Locke. But he also had direct experience in the bare-knuckle politics of his time. He had grown up in a Virginia dominated by the Church of England, and he had seen how quick the pious were to persecute those who believed differently.

His first involvement with politics was triggered when a Baptist elder was imprisoned for praying in a private home, and Baptist ministers were arrested for preaching without a license. Such acts of state authority infuriated him. He was elected to the Virginia Convention in 1776, only twenty-five years old, and he committed his energies to overcoming a powerful central government that abused people’s rights.

Like most who helped with the Constitution, his wisdom was earned in the heat of real conflict. During 1780, as the British won victory after victory, quarrels, defeat, and treason provided daily challenges for Congress. When the British captured Charleston, making an invasion of the Carolinas likely, the colonies faced an emergency. The man Washington chose to command the southern army was accused of profiteering, so another man was appointed.

Politics overcame military judgment, but then the appointee was immediately defeated in battle and the southern army routed. Chaos and defeat closed in on the colonists, and many of them thought the only hope was help from the French. But even in this there was discord. Many distrusted France and thought that only trouble would come from an alliance.

Hostilities flared when an American delegate to France was accused of trying to get money for goods that had been a free gift from France. Powerful men such as John Adams supported the delegate and equally powerful men opposed him. Madison chaired the committee that met to decide his fate.

Eventually, the war was won and a new government was established under the Articles of Confederation. The revolutionaries’ fear of control by a new central government kept the federal government weak. In the heat of a Philadelphia summer, soldiers demonstrating to get back pay taunted the fledgling congress. When the men began drinking whiskey and making threats, the delegates asked state authorities to provide protection but received no guarantees. The U. S. Congress fled to Princeton in fear of the mob.

By 1783, Madison had learned that a strong central government wasn’t the only way to fail. He saw that the new national government had too little authority to survive. It couldn’t even defend itself from surly mobs.

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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Hierarchies as communication filters 7/24
     The way of the teacher

Nobody really wants or can handle all the information that would be needed to make all the decisions that need to be made. Thanks to hierarchies, nobody needs to. Oddly enough, people talk as though soon networks and mobs will replace hierarchies. Our egalitarian ideals will be realized.

Imagine a McDonalds without a hierarchy. After the teller took an order for a burger, he might run back and grab a patty, slap it on the grill, then get started preparing the bun only to open the refrigerator and discover the ketchup was all gone. So, he heads out the back door for a quick trip to the grocery store–actually, I’ve eaten in cafes that came close to that nonhierarchical ideal.

Most social hierarchies don’t exist because they elevate some people. Their main function is to sort information so it can be dealt with effectively. Most organizations receive more information than a single level can manage, and too much information can paralyze us or drown out what we most need to hear.

As director of an ambulance service, I’ve taken part in many after-incident debriefings where all the agencies involved in a disaster get together to critique the way the incident was handled. At every single one of these, communications ends up being the topic most discussed. At a large emergency involving ambulances, fire departments, and police, people are spread out dealing with multiple urgent situations. Though each responder is vividly aware of what he sees and what he needs, none knows what else is happening, which hospitals are at capacity and which ambulances and helicopters are available.

Getting the communications to work is the overwhelming need, and the hierarchy is primarily dedicated to making sure the right information gets to the right place as quickly as possible. It has nothing to do with domination, oppression, despotism or anything like that.

We always appoint an incident commander not out of any principle of superiority--many of us can fill that role--but out of a principle of order. If communication hierarchies are not established and if people do not discipline themselves to communicate through channels then no one has the big picture and serious mistakes get made. When a clear hierarchy is in place, people are free to concentrate on the task before them.

Most organizations are like that. Consider two messages that enter a school system: A ninth grade student is killed in an automobile accident, and the state legislature enacts a ten percent cut in school funding. Now consider the way these two messages are “heard” at different levels in the school: by the teacher of the student and by the superintendent.

The teacher hears the news of the student quite loudly. It will affect his mood, his teaching strategy for the day, his conversations with other students. The news from the state legislature, however, probably sounds quite vague and distant. He may have a momentary opinion, but it soon passes as his attention is engaged with more immediate concerns.

The superintendent has an almost opposite reaction. The news about the student will probably catch her attention, and she may check to be sure subordinates arrange appropriate messages and interventions, but the issue can’t dominate her work. She is accustomed to dealing with slower-moving information, such as the decades-long deterioration of buildings and depreciation of buses, the changing demographic makeup of the community, and the trends affecting teacher preparation. In general, the higher levels in a hierarchy are responsible for larger-scale, slower-moving information. The news from the legislature is scaled to the level of her concerns, and it will trigger a flurry of activity: reviewing budgets, revising plans, and calling various committees together to adjust their work.

A similar dynamic is going on in classrooms, of course. Students are prone to paying attention to small-scale, fast-moving information, such as the funny noise Bert made. Teachers are trying to turn their attention to large-scale and slow-moving information, such as MacBeth gaining a kingdom but losing his soul.

No one can pay close attention to all the information that enters a complex system, so for large systems to work smoothly people at various levels need to trust each other. The superintendent needs to trust that the principal and the teacher will do the right thing with the mourning student, and the teacher needs to trust that the superintendent will do the right thing with the fiscal crisis.

If, due to distrust, we come to feel that we have to solve our problems by making sure that everyone gets to hear and speak on every issue, the system grinds toward a standstill, and, unable to respond to surrounding realities, it risks collapse. The public school system in some places is nearing this state. As anyone besieged by memos and meetings may suspect, there is far too much communication.

Does the teacher or the superintendent have the more important work? In important ways this question makes as little sense as asking which level in the body, the cells or tissues, is most important. Each needs to be free to work within limits. Each has a stewardship.

People have been taught to be hostile toward hierarchies by those who have an egalitarian vision of society. Having seen frequent abuses of authority and power, they imagined that authority and power might be removed. They can’t. Even simple hunting and gathering tribes have considerable need for both, although disgruntled individuals may find it easier to leave a clan of a few dozen surrounded by undeveloped nature than they do a metropolis extending past the horizon.

It’s true that people should be treated equally before the law, and I believe it’s true that they have equal dignity before God, who, I think, is less impressed by the wiley cunning common to despots than they themselves are. This doesn’t lead me to believe factories can dispense with managers, or to imagine that most workers on the factory floor could manage the factory, even if most wanted to, which they don’t.

Social hierarchies are not going away, though it is true that changes in communication technology will drive significant changes as much of the information available to leaders is also available to everyone else and as the power of individual workers to get work done is greatly increased due to their tools.

I think we will get better at keeping our essential equality in mind despite our varying roles. Most people that I know do tend to be pretty good at this. When I was a high school principal, one of the teachers I supervised was director of the Sunday school where I taught a class. She also directed a play in which I was an actor. In some of our work, I was “above” her in the hierarchy, but in other parts of it, she was “above” me. But this only meant we had different pieces of the common work that we were responsible for, and it was obvious to us both that, as people who extended beyond our institutional assignments, we were simple equals.

I think such insight is now quite common. Still, our consumer culture creates a thousand chances for people to feel superior to those who do humble work or drive basic cars or drink cheap coffee. Pity.

In addition to allowing us to organize our work efficiently, hierarchies are also critical for protecting us from catastrophes. When a fire sweeps through a forest, individual trees are dramatically changed by the information that is communicated to them, but at higher levels in the system, at the level of climate, for example, the fire changes nothing. The average temperature stays the same, as do the amount of rainfall, the length of the days, and the total amount of solar energy received in a year. Similarly, levels below that of trees are also unchanged: the lives of bacteria in the soil, the permeability and nutrient load of the soil, the potential of seeds that have not yet germinated, the earthworms churning and fertilizing the earth.

The levels above and below the trees were isolated by their scale from the disturbance of fire, and they begin immediately to recreate the forest. Within decades, the forest returns. Despite its apocalyptic appearance, the raging fire was in reality too limited to destroy the forest. It operated on too few levels.

Something quite similar happens when a teacher fails dramatically. The chaos of one classroom doesn’t destroy the school, but other levels including students, parents, colleagues, administrators and board members begin to act in ways that restore order.

Such self-replicating hierarchies can be incredibly robust. The downside, for school reformers anyway, is that they can be excruciatingly hard to change. The difficulty is that if only one level changes–such as often happens when a few teachers receive training in some nifty new approach–the other levels, including students, administrators and board members who didn’t hear the message, will tend to recreate the system as it was before the teacher was changed.

To be successful, a reform needs to communicate to all the levels, with messages scaled to the concerns of people at those levels.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Thinking about hierarchies 6/24
     The way of the teacher

Unfortunately, “hierarchy” has in recent years been frequently misused as something of an antonym for “democracy.” When talking about social groups, “hierarchy” for many people automatically connotes oppression. Christopher Boehm (Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior) is typical in rather insistently associating “hierarchy” with dominance, coercion and despotism. While it’s true that coercive orders are hierarchical, so are noncoercive orders. All complex systems are hierarchical.

The hope that the unjust use of authority and power can be eliminated by flattening social hierarchies into an egalitarian fantasy doesn’t get far in the real world. Hierarchies cannot be eliminated from social life. If I form a partnership with a full equal, and we share all decisions, I have nonetheless become a part of a larger entity: the partnership. Though my partner and I are equals, each on the same level in the new hierarchy, there is a new hierarchy.

Even in this simple, egalitarian partnership, the partners much each accept certain limits to prevent the partnership from becoming oppressive to either member. These limits can be accurately understood as constraints coming from higher in the system. The members grant the partnership itself an authority which the partners willingly obey. The two partners are together embedded in a larger reality, which constrains them.

This larger entity is more powerful than either partner alone and belonging to it can greatly enrich the lives of both members, which is why humans everywhere and always organize themselves into groups. The point, for now, is that whether we are subordinate to a vicious dictator or a benevolent democracy, if we are a part of something larger than ourselves, we are embedded in a hierarchy. The question of whether authority is used poorly or well is quite another matter.

The cruel and unjust social hierarchies that have been a constant source of misery through history are not going to be destroyed by wishing them away. Organization is a source of power, and if good people do not create good organizations, complete with hierarchies, then they will be governed by bad people who will organize and overpower them. The question of how to prevent hierarchies from becoming oppressive, despotic or brutal is a serious question, and the better answers should form a part of our basic education, but trying to solve the problems of unjust authority by attacking hierarchy is sort of like trying to solve the problem of divorce by attacking marriage.

I’m not denying, of course, that hierarchies confer power and status on people unequally, and that this is often abused. Neither am I denying that people who are given power or status by a hierarchy easily start thinking of themselves as some sort of nobility, entitled by superior intellect or genetic heritage or something to lord it over others. I’m just saying that such foolishness is not necessary but that hierarchies are.

When the ambulance crew that I’m part of pulls up to a complex emergency involving several patients, we also establish a team leader immediately. We do this almost at random–whoever is sitting in the passenger seat of the first ambulance on the scene–unless that person is a rookie, in which case the people in the vehicle quickly decide who will manage the incident. Any of us can do it. The important thing is that we have a leader to whom everyone will report, so one person has the big picture–someone not engrossed in the specifics of patient care who can think about whether we have enough resources or need to request more, which ambulances will transport which patients to which hospital, and so on. For the duration of the incident, this person is the boss. But that’s just another role, another assignment. It doesn’t affect our underlying equality.

Representative democracies retain something of this. Though we may hope to elect senators with a little more intelligence than the average guy in the street, and though we normally don’t mind providing such people with resources the rest of us don’t have; we rightfully resent it when congressmen and governors begin acting as if they are “above” us in any essential way. In general, I think we have allowed elected officials to get away with much more of an imperial lifestyle than is good for them or the republic.

Many modern organizations are quite humane, having figured out that one limit on how large and satisfying the orders that we create can become–from marriages to families to schools to corporations to cities– is the degree of trustworthiness we have developed and the amount of trust we feel. Of distrustful organizations, economists say that the “transaction costs” increase. In effect, communication becomes highly inefficient, taxed at every juncture. The amount of energy needed to sustain high order becomes excessive.

Herbert Simon’s classic article of some years ago, “The Architecture of Complexity,” provided the rudiments of a model to help understand the beauty and the power of hierarchies. He told a story of two watchmakers. Each assembled watches that contained a thousand parts. The first watchmaker inserted one part after another, sequentially, so that each time he was interrupted, his watch fell back into its thousand parts. If he was disturbed at step 999, he had to begin all over again at step one.

But the second watchmaker had designed his watches hierarchically so they could be assembled in stages. The first stage was to put ten primary parts together to form a unit. He would lay this unit aside and move on to build the next ten-part unit. He continued working until the thousand parts were ordered into a hundred ten-part units.

Then he would begin the second stage, assembling ten such units into more complex units, each with a hundred primary parts. The final stage was to assemble the ten hundred-part units into a finished watch.

Any interruption to the hierarchical watchmaker’s work disturbed only the stage he was actually working on, which never included more than ten steps. A disruption of the current stage could not be communicated to the other stages. The completed units were isolated from disturbances.

Just as not all hierarchies are bad, so not all communication is good. Hierarchies provide stability by constraining the flow of destructive information. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Paradox: on the value of hierarchical thinking 5/24
     The way of the teacher

Living amid a multi-level reality, we are often confused about questions of value. Consider a simple question (posed by Valerie Ahl and T.F.H. Allen) : is a forest fire good or bad?

At the level of one tree, fire is catastrophic, leading to the complete destruction of the individual. Clearly, fire is bad.

But seen from the level of the forest as a whole organism, the fire releases nutrients back into the cycle, allowing diversity and vitality to continue. Fires are part of the life cycle of forests, necessary to their health. Clearly, fire is good.

This only sounds like a contradiction. In truth, it is a paradox. A contradiction arises within a unified descriptive system, and it signals an error: This is Jack, and this is not Jack. Something is wrong.

But a paradox occurs when we mix descriptive system or levels in a hierarchy, and it only signals a limit. When Jesus said, “You must lose your life to find your life,” he was using “life” in two different senses, inviting people to consider the possibility of a larger and more liberating reality beyond what they normally thought of as “life.”

He said his mission centered on peace, and he often spoke in paradoxes to awaken people to the multi-level, hierarchical nature of reality. Seeing the hierarchy is an important step both toward seeing the futility of much of our fighting and toward being at peace with much of what happens.

A good deal of conflict between well-intentioned people occurs simply because opponents are looking at different levels in a hierarchy. People who are looking at the same phenomenon but seeing different realities often seem to each other so unable to see the obvious that both sides begin thinking the other is unforgivably stupid or downright malicious. Visit any cable news talk show for examples.

If your attention is focused upon a particular tree engulfed in flames while your opponent is focused upon the 500-year cycle of a cedar grove and seems unable to grant what you are seeing much worth, it’s natural to get impatient. When neither our clear evidence nor our sound reason can persuade those who oppose us, it’s easy to begin suspecting that we are up against something evil.

So an important rule of peace is to appreciate paradox--that in the complexity of life, our opponents may have experiences and perceptions that are simply invisible to us, and that they might not be contradicting us so much as calling our attention to aspects of reality that we do not yet know.

Consider some of the educational questions that have led people into shrill divisiveness: Should we use the whole language or the skills approach? Should schools be centrally administered for the sake of efficiency, or should they adopt site-based approaches for the sake of flexibility? On specific discipline questions, should we favor consistency or flexibility? Is it the family or the community that educates?

Partisans on each side of such questions tend to argue past each other, like ships passing in the night. They often become angry with each other, although the best answer to each of these questions is “both, within limits.”

This may also be the best answer to even more vexing questions. Should a woman have the right to control her own body, or should others step in and prevent the wanton destruction of unborn children? Should our leaders take courageous stands, even when they must act alone, or should they adopt consensual approaches and bend to political power?

The ecologist Aldo Leopold noted that “nature is full of laws that begin working at some lower limit and cease working at some upper limit.” So, too, societies. The fundamental insight of ecology is that nature is a complex hierarchy in which every level is related to levels above it and below it, and that this complex hierarchy is characterized by a stunning array of feedback loops connecting all the levels in communication systems that we are only beginning to discern.

Still, the universe is one thing. Many value conflicts emerge from our own perceptual limitations.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Making a balance 4/24
     The way of the teacher

Opposition is a structural principal of the universe. In his 1967 study of hierarchies, Arthur Koestler pointed out that all complex systems were balances of opposing forces. Every level in a complex system is a balance between what he called an integrative tendency to be joined into larger entities, and an assertive tendency to exist as an independent whole.

An atom, for example, is a balance between forces of attraction and repulsion–just as the solar system is a balance between the attractive force of gravity and the separative force of centrifugal motion. Nature is a vast hierarchy in which every whole is made up of smaller parts at the same time it is itself a part of something larger. Every level in this hierarchical order is characterized by opposing tendencies to join and to separate.

In The Evolving Self, Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan discussed the same pattern in human development. The “creative motion of life itself” is a dialectic between the desire to join and the desire to be independent. In a series of six stages, moving first toward greater independence, then back toward greater sharing, then back toward independence, all the while incorporating larger and larger realities into the personality and awareness, a living human being is a developing hierarchy.

Kegan calls the stages a person moves through “balances,” because they are periods of relative stability between the child’s desire to be part of a family or other group and the opposing desire to be free and independent. Each of these balances, Kegan says, is a self-contained, coherent reality that tends to be invisible to those at other levels. People at different developmental levels are, as Piaget taught us, literally in different realities.

A world made up of many levels and of many forces in opposition is a world of complex realities. In it, we face hard choices. People who are urging us to fight frequently speak in principled terms, as though things were simple, but honest people who sincerely try to make simple decisions based on clear principles always, sooner or later, find themselves facing decisions that force them to violate one good principle to be true to another.

A familiar illustration poses the question, “Is lying okay?” Most people agree that it isn’t. What, then, should you do if the Gestapo knocks at your door and asks if you are hiding Jews, and the true answer is “yes”?

Well, there are other principles to think about. Is preserving innocent life a higher principle than telling the truth to corrupt officials? By working through such dilemmas, thoughtful people who are motivated by a hunger for reality, for knowledge of how things truly are, gradually clarify their principles, coming to understand higher and higher laws by learning what comfortable ideals we sometimes must sacrifice to preserve something that we love more.

In questions of values, we eventually learn that we are free to choose what to believe based on our desires. Moral thinking begins with the question, “what do I want?”

But it doesn’t end there, because some desires are more intelligent than others.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Information activist?
     Or just a Hobbit

Knowledge activist? Not me, probably. “Activist” isn’t one of those words that moves me much. My experience with activists is that they tend to see me as something to be improved. They have a plan, and we all need to get involved. Too often, the plan is to get us involved in making a plan. Because, after all, change.  I’m rather fond of doing what I think makes sense and offering invitations to anyone who would like to help, or accepting invitations from people asking for help. Something more neighborly than activism.

David Wilcox proposes a term for whatever it is some of us are doing: “Others may call you variously a blogger, online journalist, community manager, information worker, editor, researcher, even hacker. Perhaps we’ll find some shared interests wearing the badge of knowledge activist.”

Knowledge activist? Not me, probably. “Activist” isn’t one of those words that moves me much. My experience with activists is that they tend to see me as something to be improved. They have a plan, and we all need to get involved. Too often, the plan is to get us involved in making a plan. Because, after all, change.

I’m rather fond of doing what I think makes sense and offering invitations to anyone who would like to help, or accepting invitations from people asking for help. Something more neighborly than activism.

But quibbling aside, I think I have some of the same sense he does of old boundaries dissolving. I’ve been a newspaper editor, a teacher, and a school administrator, but most of my work now is done with conceptual and technological tools no one taught at the schools I went to, and my goals have little to do with advancement within the old institutions that dominate the cultural landscape like towers in a Tolkien tale.

Was Frodo an activist? Maybe.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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The limits of critical thinking
     Argument is ineffective in morally pluralistic societies

Because logic doesn’t have the power to generate true beliefs, critical thinking in a morally pluralistic society is not an effective way of chaning people’s minds--including the minds of students. Unable to change minds and fearful of accusations of bias, teachers have abandoned teaching authority to let the market rule in their classrooms. 

One problem teachers sometimes encounter when they think their job is to teach critical thinking is that they wade into controversial topics where, one would think, critical thinking would be of help. But once the arguments start, the lack of moral consensus in a post-sixties world sometimes leaves them with nothing they feel they can say.

So they turn the kids loose to do their own thinking on such questions as whether torture is always wrong or abortion is defensible or what marriage means. What follows, naturally, are the arguments we have all heard, ad nauseum. The kids repeat what they have heard, sometimes from home but often from media, and teachers stand by in more or less idle tolerance.  They make it clear that on the large moral questions of the day, they are being taught, but that the teaching is being done by churches, by MTV, or by Hannity and Colmes. It is not being done by schools.

Another thing that becomes clear is that people seldom change their minds about fundamental beliefs because of arguments. The interminability of the arguments is itself a rather vivid illustration of the ineffectiveness of argument in a morally pluralistic society. This was a central point in Alasdair MacInyre’s stunning book, After Virtue. The enduring disagreements tend to be at the level of perception and emotion rather than at the level of concept and logic. Many positions people hold were not formed by critical thinking and will not changed by it.

All this is fine for the teacher who simply wants kids to be fluent, able to indulge, perhaps, in the intellectual pleasures of pointing out and naming the fallacies in others’ thinking. But for a teacher dedicated to preserving the truth in a chaotic world, the tenuous relationship between true belief and logic creates a dilemma. What is to be done when young people hold beliefs that are wrong or bad?

Though I hope most of us have corrected and revised our own thinking by coming across arguments that changed our minds, this normally happens when we believe there is a right order to things and that we have a responsibility to search for it and to change ourselves as our understanding improves. But it is now common to meet young people who believe there is no right order to things. There is instead an authentic self struggling for validation.

Logic that doesn’t validate their feelings about themselves is, like, whatever.

When we begin with true beliefs, logical reasoning doesn’t lead to false conclusions, but neither does logic generate true beliefs. In practice, our beliefs tend to be socially constructed. We may have certain political beliefs because our parents had them, religious beliefs because our tribe has them, occupational beliefs because our co-workers have them, and beliefs about what books and movies are good because our friends have them.

We can get true beliefs from observation, such as the belief that men on average are larger and stronger than women or that politicians frequently deceive in the manner of magicians, getting us to watch the silk handkerchief in the right hand while the left hand does its trick.

The realm of truth derived from observation is the realm where science excels. Science teachers are still quite willing to correct mistaken beliefs that students hold--such as the belief that summer is warmer than winter because the earth is nearer the sun. Science teachers even manage to use constructivist approaches without lapsing into silly solipsism. They remain firmly dedicated to the proposition that there are wrong answers--many more wrong ones than right ones, in fact.

Maybe it is time to discuss focusing the public school curricula much more intensely on math and science. Not only is there more consensus in these subjects, they also pay better. Where’s the money? has always been a central question of American schooling.

Why continue teaching the humanities in the public schools? Why not empower all our ethnic and religious groups who want self-determination to teach their view of right and wrong? Why not celebrate the diversity? If we continue in the cultural direction we have been moving since the sixties, Might it not make more sense to accept the reality that as the realm of moral consensus shrinks, so may the scope of practice for public school teachers?

Much of the value of the humanities derives from complicating, refining and extending beliefs that we know by faith, such as the belief that truth is a virtue, that justice is better than injustice, or that love is a form of cognition. Without such beliefs, it’s possible to enjoy even the Holocaust as a historical spectacle, in somewhat the ways it’s possible to enjoy films staged by Mel Gibson or Oliver Stone as a theatrical spectacles. This was brought home to me years ago when I visited a classroom where high school seniors were watching Speilberg’s movie Schindler’s List. At the most brutal moments, some of the kids laughed--a response they might have learned from Schwarzenegger’s films. In any case, the teacher did not correct their thinking. It was, after all, theirs.

People who do not believe this or that moral truth cannot be made to believe it by logic. It isn’t possible to prove that one world view is right and the other is wrong. Many ideas might follow from this observation, but one that has been highly favored among university humanists is that right and wrong are not very useful categories.

This is probably the defining charcteristic of secular rationalism, also calleded modernism and liberalism. If God is dead, then we are free to make our decisions about what we think is right.
We are morally autonomous, and we get to set our own standards. People who come to feel this often feel liberated. They can do whatever they want. The trouble with this world view comes into view when somebody wants to do something to them that they don’t want done. They want to call on some absolute moral authority to claim that it’s unjust or intolerant or inhumane. But who is that moral authorty?

In a 1979 lecture, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff called this the problem of “the grand sez who?” If there is none but human authority and every person’s moral authority is equal to every other person’s, then we have no basis from which to condemn what anyone does. We can say that homosexuals have a right to express their sexuality as they desire, but then we also must agree that someone else has a right to refuse to hire them. Who has the authority to say otherwise?

The problem is that in modernist thought normative statements claiming this or that action should not be taken are foundationless.  When modernists feel the need for foundations, they often cite Darwin. It seems plausible that a tendency for cooperation or for telling the truth increases our chances to survive. Unfortunately, so does a willingness to kill the weak and take their property. The latter is, in fact, a closer fit with the theory of natural selection.

Modernists sometimes claim other sources of moral authority, trying to derive it from the rationality of utilitarianism or the prgamatism of majority rule, or simply trying to assert it with vague platitudes about equality, but as more and more people learn how simple it is to challenge the pretensions of such authority--a simple sez who will suffice--we find, as Leff said, “Everything is up for grabs.”

Leff ended his lecture not with reasoned conclusions but with undisguised assertions of what he wanted to be true:

Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot-and General Custer too-have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who? God help us.

Modernists who want goodness usually feel that rational minds will reject such things as slavery, but they have not been able to establish rational reasons why this should be so. They take refuge in believing that people are simply good by nature or they slide on into post-modern nihilism. We are left with no basis for public authority, and as groups get farther from each other in our moral pluralism, they find it increasingly difficult to talk with each other in ways that make sense and can be understood. They find it increasinly difficult to keep the peace.

To keep the peace, humanities teachers avoid speaking with authority, which in practice means taking seriously viewpoints they think are corrupt. The hard issues we face as a people, if it’s reasonable to say we are a people, are not discussed in classrooms lest classrooms take on the ethical tone of those cable news shows where controversial topics are handled by letting representatives from all sides have their say. If bestiality becomes newsworthy, we will get someone who’s for it and someone who’s against it, and let them hash it out. Who is to judge?

The consumer, of course. We’re not quite to the point where we give up on truth, as can be seen when partisans of all sides try to get schools to teach the one correct view. Darwinists abhor the idea of allowing Intelligent Design to be taught alongside mainstream biology, because they feel doing so gives the yahoos credibility they should not have. Evangelicals do not want homosexuals presenting their views on marriage at school because they feel such ideas are the products of malformed consciences, and to present them to young people is to corrupt rather than to educate. In such disputes, no side can appeal to any authority recognized by the other side, so resolution is not possible. In time, even co-existence may seem too much to ask.

Because the schools have not yet become pure markets, we still struggle with politics, with notions of right and wrong. We argue about what is to be taught about sexuality, evolution, history and literature. But more and more, the arguments come down to, sez who? So within classrooms, the market approach grows apace. Teachers take the safe course, which is the cable news approach: all opinions are aired and no authoritative positions are taken. The old nation America continues to fade way into this new market state. In the market state people consume moral points of view just as they consume ethnic cuisines. They select from an array of opinions peddled without judgment and without authority by a media system that has no morality beyond that of ratings, which is to say, money.

Meanwhile, critiques of liberalism and modernity have spread from moral philosophers to the masses. Its incoherence has become fodder for radio talk shows. Its moment has past and I don’t think it can regain either the intellectual or the moral authority needed to govern.

The task for teachers today is not easy. We do not live in times when we can simply pass on the traditions, such as modernity, that we grew up with.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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