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."


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey

A separate peace (20 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The sort of learning that often leads to a commitment to genuine peace is illustrated in A Separate Peace, a text that was popular in high school classrooms for many years. It’s a good, teachable novel, and part of what works about it in high school classrooms is that adolescents are in the stage of life where the reality of friendship is first being explored with near adult intelligence.

The book clarifies the extent to which our friends–other people in general–exist in our consciousness partly as fictions that we’ve created ourselves. The images we have of other people are based partly on inferences we make, and sometimes our inferences are wrong.

In the course of the story, the protagonist, Gene, experiences several versions of his friend, Phineas. The tragedy occurs when Gene “understands” that Phineas has not been inviting him on adventures out of pure friendship but as part of a strategy to wreck his studies. He isn’t a true friend at all. Gene suddenly sees a pattern in their relationship and makes a meaning of it: He sees all of his friend’s overtures as deceptions intended to cause him harm. “That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you’re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn’t want to do something with him!”

This isn’t Gene’s first version of Phineas, and it isn’t the last, but Gene acts upon it as though he were certain it was true. When he learns that however plausible his theory of Finny’s behavior it was still only a theory and it was wrong, it is too late. Gene comes to see that he told himself a lie about another person, then believed his lie, and that this dishonesty, his accepting a version of reality without sufficient evidence, caused the death of his friend.

In less dramatic ways, we daily harm each other when we accept interpretations about why others are doing what they are doing without good enough reason. We see this most clearly when we ourselves become the victim of someone else’s false theory about us.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Getting smart 10/24
     The way of the teacher

Learning the right stories makes us smarter.

It is from the stories they hear, the informal tales from everyday life as well as the spectacular tales of corporate media, that young people take their plans for who to be, their sense of what to admire, their notions of right and wrong and their ideas about what is real.

What appears to be intelligent varies depending on what we think we need to be doing. The Spartans wanted to live free in a dangerous world, and they did, refusing to build a wall around their city. Like other warrior societies, they surrounded their children with stories of honor, courage, endurance, wiliness, ferocity and loyalty.

Early Christians believed they were preparing their children for a better world, and that the preparation required them to live by the rules of an order that didn’t yet exist. They told their children stories of martyrdom, obedience, sacrifice, faith and hope.

America is a large and pluralistic nation passing through a postmodern phase, so here young people grow up in a metropolitan environment of competing narratives drawn from all times and places. It’s hard to think of any virtues that aren’t praised in some quarters or scorned in others. In most American schools, though, young people are embedded in stories of success, usually understood in financial terms. Also prominent are narratives of tribal pride told by groups competing for privilege, and stories of the imperial self drawn from professional therapeutics who have become a powerful class in secular bureaucracies that value an aura of eventlessness.

Young hearts are open to the stories they encounter. From images and possibilities drawn from their narrative environment, their innate desires take tangible form. A young Salish warrior of a couple centuries ago learned to satisfy his yearning for praise by bringing game to camp. A young Hasidic man could satisfy a similar yearning by demonstrating impressive command of Talmud, while a kid in the hood might display bravado in a confrontation with the law. Slavery and public torture and infanticide can seem as normal to some people as Thanksgiving and wedding dresses do to others.

Still, amid all the diversity John Dewey suggested that some desires are more intelligent than others. In fact, he said that the highest outcome of education was “intelligent desire.” In addition to suggesting a hierarchy of desires, his comment also suggests, correctly, that desire can be educated. In fact, a teacher aiming at the heart is aiming higher than one aiming at intellect alone.

Cognitive psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, an authority on human intelligence, defines it as “your skill in achieving whatever it is you want to attain in your life within your socio-cultural context.” Central to his triarchic theory of intelligence–combining analytical, creative, and practical skills–is the understanding that people can adapt both by improving themselves and changing their environments. They can get better at pursuing their goals in the face of obstacles. They can live more intelligently.

This is easier to see if we think about the relationship between intelligence and order. Being able to recognize the patterns on I.Q. tests is certainly an indicator of intelligence–it is, after all, the capacity to discern an order–but doing well on tests is only a tiny part of the whole. An intelligent person can perceive order, create order, and sustain order not just on tests but throughout life. A greater intelligence can perceive, create, and sustain greater orders. This is not done with merely analytical skills.It also involves practical skills, such as those we use to leave behind bad habits and learn better ones. Every scholar or artist knows that excellence does not come easy, does not come without discipline. Getting smarter involves character, as the critic Malcolm Cowley suggested when he observed that “no complete son of a b**** ever wrote a good sentence.”

Everyone knows stories of people with excellent mental agility who nonetheless destroyed the very order that sustained them through acts of stupidity that grew from poor character. You know the tales--a governor who campaigned on traditional values gets caught having an affair or a chairman of an ethics committee gets caught taking kickbacks. Most of us sometimes work against ourselves through the form of stupidity Paul referred to as being “double-minded.” We want contradictory things, which is easy to do since our desires exist in a hierarchy, so that part of us may want another piece of cheesecake while part of us wants to be thin. The work of bringing one’s warring desires into sound governance is the work of character, and the person who succeeds at it can live more intelligently than the person who doesn’t.

For a teacher, seeing intelligence in this way quickly points the way to increasing the intelligence of students. A person who develops even so simple a habit as always putting his tools away so that he spends less of his productive time looking for something he cannot find–that is, in a state of stupidity–becomes capable of getting more accomplished, sustaining a greater order. Judging from the sale of books that help us get organized and declutter our lives, lots of us have figured out that we are suffering from curable stupidity amid our piles of unfinished projects.

A person who overcomes the habit of procrastination and thereby gets more work done becomes more intelligent. Intelligent people have thousands of techniques and disciplines that increase their ability to perceive, create and sustain order–techniques and disciplines that can be learned by others. Culture is, in fact, the great repository of such strategies for human intelligence.

Reflecting on the role that order plays in living intelligently also suggests what telos may be uniquely ours, most worth our time. Peace, we might see, is the state of greatest order. Doesn’t it then seem likely that peace might also be the state of greatest intelligence--the state within which we can best get what we want?

If that is true, and I believe it is, then the best cultures would be those that teach their young the ways of peace. Judged even by quasi-Darwinistic standards this seems right. Enduring cultures are formed around enduring narratives, and the narratives that have survived are those that have, despite the onslaughts of reality in the form of millions of people facing many difficult and strange situations, continued to ring true. I’m talking about Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism and others that put a concept of peace at the center of the meaning of life. We live in a world where the best story wins, and no military conqueror has influenced human life on the scale that Jesus, Lao Tzu, or Siddharta Gautama has.

Humanity’s greatest teachers have spoken different dialects but all have told us in that in the end, to live more intelligently, we need to become better peacemakers. Their messages are not always simple, though, because peace is not a simple thing. Rather, it is a complex order–a system of balances–and like other complex systems it is hierarchically structured.  It can be understood as a hierarchy of realities through which a person grows, a sequence of developmental stages where each stage is a level of consciousness that is more capacious, more intelligent and more peaceful than the one below.

To understand the complex balance that is peace, we need to understand the way fear, justice and love form a developmental hierarchy.

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

Nez Perce Aesthetic
     Rare beauty

Nez Perce dressPrairiemary (AKA Mary Strachan Scriver), blogging from Valier, Montana, invites us to see the sophisticated and subtle beauty of an ancient buckskin dress, probably of Nez Perce origin. She explains the Japanese concept of “Shibui”, which refers to “the type of beauty that doesnt need announcement; its quality speaks for itself.” The Japanese think of beauty in levels—"from blatant, brash, and bold to the ideal of beauty: Shibui.” The hallmarks of this level of aesthetics are “understated elegance, utility (each piece serves an important function), rare beauty, and unobtrusive sophistication.”

She nominates a pre-1820 dress from North America as an illustration of “Shibui.” Patched and fringed with pale but not white buckskin, the top is banded simply in black and white stripes, “lazy stitch.” which means that a short string of beads is not then tacked down bead by bead, but left to be a little fluid. These dresses are really two deerskins, one as the front and one as the back, pieced at the hem, with the tail (hair on) of the deer folded over at the top under the chin, pinned down with beading. The stripe at the top of the arms alternates black, white and red.

Prairiemarie mentions DNA evidence linking Plains Indians to peoples of the High Mongolian prairies centuries ago. There is a timeless quality to the dress, which for me evokes those moments when we glimpse eternity through the fecund undulations of time.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Writing for the ages, part 1
     Students should be taught their words may last forever

Teaching writing can be a powerful way of helping young people think about what sort of people they want to be. We don’t need to criticize them as people, but we can help them see the way the persona they are creating comes across, how audiences will understand that persona, and what techniques can be used to strengthen the message that would be most effective in whatever particular situation the persona evokes. The best rhetoric teachers have known for centuries that this needn’t lead to the sort of manipulative sophistry common among politicians. Generally, the most credible and trustworthy persona will be the most effective. The sound of goodness is persuasive.

Forever is composed of nows.
Emily Dickinson

Blogging and the same old same old

I’ve been visiting blogs lately, to see what’s happening and to think about implications for teachers. Much of what’s going on truly is exciting. Now that publishing is as simple as clicking a “submitâ€? link, lots of people are re-thinking what writing and publishing are for.

And yet, much of what is happening seems caught up in the same old same old.

Some blogs give me the same feeling I got at a university MFA program--too much desperation. The MFA program sometimes reminded me of those infomercials that run on late-night television--feeding on people’s desires to lose weight or make lots of money or quit smoking. Most people enrolled in the MFA program because they wanted to be famous poets. Could the professors teach anyone to be a famous poet? Of course not. They liked to claim that the value of the program was that it created a community where aspiring writers could find and support each other.

Maybe that was true. Pretty costly support group though, even if credentials were included.


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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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Master narratives that shape our schools, Part 3
     My tribe is separate from your tribe

Ethnic separatism in the guise of self-determination is one of the master narratives that organizes the lives of many students in today’s schools. This undermines liberal education’s central tenet–that we should seek evidence and follow it–and the ethnic pride folks have little use for liberal education’s caveat to consider questions from many points of view and to ask rigorous questions. When the right answer is already known, or deeply felt, questions may be threats rather than tools. When the right answer is the one that makes us feel most proud, we can believe anything, and we parody the pursuit of knowledge. At bottom, ethnic warriors believe not in truth but in power. If they care about schooling, it is only because they see it as a technique of power. My faith as a teacher is that such people will be defeated in time by others who pay more attention to facts than to applause or credentials.

In the tale, in the telling, we are all one blood.
Ursula LeGuin

Skinheads and white militiamen are strikingly similar in important ways to advocates of Afrocentrism or Native Pride, just as ignorant armies clashing at night are often more alike than different. The particular ethnicity the competing groups champion is different but the impulse to circle the wagons is the same. One can’t understand moves made by white supremists without understanding moves made by their opponents any more than one can make sense of a chess game if only the white pieces are visible. The two sides inhabit the same story and have become characters in each others’ tales. The other side is their reality.

When you read the paragraph above, you quite likely began forming judgments about me based on your sense of where I stood on questions that affect you. Am I likely to strengthen or weaken cultural forces that worry you? Can you trust me to take care of the things that you feel are good? If I had power or influence, would I likely be a friend or an enemy?

Race has become so politicized that most of us have something to win or lose in the contests that go on and on, and so talking about race is nearly impossible without taking a side, except by sticking to description of what various sides say, do and believe.

Race is a complex topic, by which I mean we experience it on many levels, using many different methods of perception and analysis. When a sociologist gathers data about the behavior of many individuals to analyze statistically, he is viewing humanity at a different level than the physician who examines your white blood cells under a microscope. When we talk about race, some of us will think first and foremost about contemporary political contests, some will consider large questions of history and justice, some will think about family and blood relationship and the cultural bonds that outsiders never see accurately, and some will think about neighborhood taunts endured as a child.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey
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Local community memory
     Are we in a dark age of community communications?

Kevin Harris wonders whether we are living in a dark age of community communication. I wonder whether working together on community and family histories might be one way of getting back together.

Kevin Harris wonders that modern society seems to lack “the sense of readily available common repositories for local community memory. It’s as if what we’re left with is no longer fulfilling the role of shoring-up everyday lives, of giving form to neighbourhood life.”

He mentions contributing factors, such as the automobile and the television, and laments the loss of a time when “communication between neighbours was lubricated by frequent interaction in the street, in the workplace, in the pub, at school, at the football match or at the church.”

This perspective suggests that we may be living in a ‘dark age’ of community communication, where at the moment we have neither the benefit of dense overlapping networks in our neighbourhoods, nor the potential of an online resource for the accretion of community memory.

I wonder how much the action of building those lost repositories of community memory might provide the animating motive for rebuilding family and community. The wild growth of interest in family genealogy suggests to me that living communities organized around reclaiming and understanding the past might be modern equivalents for old time barn raising and branding parties--work that draws people into shared, purposive relationship.

The History Begins at Home video from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gives a glimpse of what kids can do. When you have a neighborhood’s history and its children involved, you have powerful forces for inviting engagement from others.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Place and narratable moments
     Longing for a sense of place

The phrase “sense of place” has migrated to the commercial world, where it is linked to the decor of kiosks and fast food counters. But it became popular because of a longing people have for narratable moments--events that have meaning, and that we cannot recall as separate from the places they occurred. It is those meaningful events, rather than the geographic spaces that evoke them, that are of human importance.

If you land at JFK airport and come through Terminal 8 or 9 you may notice that the 60 or so shops – food courts, kiosks, newsstands, duty-free stores, etc., etc. – aren’t quite the same as those in, say, New Orleans or San Francisco. You see, these shops are “visually related� to each other through design elements inspired by the 1930s New York streetscape.

This provides a “sense of place,� the designer said. So between the taxi lanes and the portable tunnels to climb aboard planes, this corridor is given the atmosphere of a recognizable time and place. Though the terminal as a whole is designed to sort us and move us like so many widgets past uniforms and signs through some total administrative state of loudspeakers and no smoking, the murals, signs and plastic cutouts give us a feeling of ease as we negotiate the minimum security nowhere in which we have locked ourselves. This noisy chute to anywhere offers the charm of a custom retail environment without sacrificing the comfort of familiar brands.

The plan worked. The decor increased per passenger spending by fifty percent, the designer said. This, the designer said, was because it gave passengers a sense of place.

A sense of place. Not the real thing, I suppose, but a sense of it like the after image of a blown out candle. A sense of place haunts the Pizza Hut, evoked by wallpaper images of nineteenth century London.

With such thoughts in my mind, I hesitated when an editor called and asked me to write a piece on “teaching and a sense of place.�

“Let me think about it.”

In most ways I don’t mind the designer thinking about how to make more people spend more money. That certainly doesn’t make her worse than me or my friends and family. Most of the time I don’t do anything more ennobling than turning my time and skill to what pays. And really, the New York streetscape is an improvement over those old Soviet cafeterias designed by political appointees who didn’t care what sort of feelings a space gives us.

Still, I suspected that an editor asking for a piece on “sense of place� was expecting something more profound than marketing. Her audience was no doubt hankering after something more authentic than moods evoked by plastic signage. We use “authentic� much as the optimists before World War I used “progressive,� as an all-purpose term of praise, part accolade and part prayer.

No doubt the editor thought I was a natural to write about a sense of place since I still live in the western Montana town where I grew up – a little place of about a thousand people nestled at bottom of the west slope of the Mission Range in the Northern Rockies. Surely one who has stayed in place could write authentically about place.

As I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my 21-month old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me.

“Campin?� he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmellow. He had associated the “camping� he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him.

“Campin� had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The “place� we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson. His mother had gone there with my wife and me. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass by that little place on Wounded Buck Creek without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road.

But it had become a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place but what had happened there that he wanted.

In a word, it was story that mattered. Not a story we have told but the story we have lived.

There are significant dangers in misunderstanding what it is that one wants. I worry that sometimes people who are pursuing a sense of place are not clear about what they want. All our airports and shopping districts might get prettier and we might be just as lonely, just as full of longing.

What we want are stories and hugs.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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