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."

Sense of Place

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

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.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Free chapter: The Power of Community-Centered Education
     Eight Practices of Community-Centered Teachers

Download a free chapter. (Chapter 8: Eight Practices of Community-Centered Teachers)

Order the book: The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.


“Umphrey’s book is part philosophical speculation, part sociological inquiry, part how-to guide for interested educators. Its depth and intellectual substance propel a reader through its pages, looking for more fresh insights and examples of positive educational practice. His message...fills an important gap in contemporary discussions about what Americans should seek from public schools. What is being lost in our preoccupation with accountability and assessment are more fundamental elements of what it means to be a good human being and those elements are all tied into relationships with those around us and the places that support our lives. Gregory Smith, professor, Graduate School of Education and Counseling, Lewis & Clark

“I am so impressed with this wonderful book about teaching and place...It has been observed that 90% of our knowledge is folklore (learned by experience) and this is the knowledge that we will pass on to the next generation. Unfortunately our educational curricula, testing requirements, and bureaucratic busywork have kept teachers and students in a knowledge-restricting straight-jacket. The Power of Community-Centered Education gives us a blueprint for breaking out of these constraints to give teachers and students a way back to real experience-based community-centered learning. Peggy A. Bulger, director, American Folklife Center, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Power of Community-Centered Education is a passionate and personal testimonial based on real experiences in education...[Umphrey] brings his profound insights on education and community together in a treatise that outlines how to create a successful model for 21st century education. This book should be a “must” for all adults who are educating children and young adults...Umphrey’s experiences as the director of the Montana Heritage Project for the past ten years have resulted in a unique and important view of the way that we learn, and the way that we construct our lives from this learning.” Paddy B. Bowman, coordinator, National Network for Folk Arts in Education, Alexandria, VA

Publisher’s blurb:

We face an epidemic of disengagement in American high schools as our institutions fail to offer meaningful and relevant ways to connect curriculum with students’ emerging life stories. These students do not see how schooling, as it is presently constituted, is important to their own developing identities. One solution to this problem is to organize the curriculum around the concept of community and to link the study of abstract concepts and principles to their manifestations in the places that students know and care about (local history, shared traditions, civic pride, etc.).

The Power of Community-Centered Education provides psychological, sociological, historical, and philosophical insights into why community works so well as an organizing principle for high school. The book concludes with a call to action for all agencies and institutions that have public outreach programs to consider how they assist in building “education-centered communities” that support the work of high schools by offering research opportunities and scaffolding to secondary education.

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

Dangerous communication 8/24
     The way of the teacher

Overconnected systems
Riots are a form of horizontal communication–the exchange of information by people at the same level in a hierarchy.

Most organizations develop mild forms of the riot pattern--factions or cliques that feed each others’ rumors and paranoias. Organizations generally try to constrain horizontal communications to some degree, requiring some information to move vertically. We need to get permission from the office for this or that. We need to slow down and get our reasons in order. All our big talk and passionate half truths that work for a laugh at lunch get thought through more carefully. We tone things down, tending toward modesty and sobriety.

In their excellent book on communication within biotic systems,T.F. H. Allen and Thomas B. Starr (Hierarchy) describe animal communities that have too much horizontal communication as “overconnected.” To take a simple example, when the food supply is large relative to the population, what one member eats is not readily apparent to the other members. That is, the actions of one individual are not communicated to the others.

But as the food supply dwindles, each bite taken by one member noticeably reduces the available food, so the actions of each are communicated to all. Some animal populations reduce dangerous horizontal communication by becoming territorial, dividing the food supply into geographical areas, which limits communication. If the food supply continues to diminish, a pecking order sometimes emerges, and some members are sacrificed, removing them from the communication network.

In human systems, such as schools, putting shared resources before the group as a whole to decide often creates similar patterns. In one school where I taught, the administration, hoping to avoid responsibility and perhaps blame, allowed the staff to develop the schedule, which allocated student time–a scarce resource. People had to compete with one another to survive. Programs that couldn’t attract students would dwindle, and putting a class in the competitive time slot could virtually guarantee its failure. When a budget crisis aggravated the situation, territorialism and pecking orders based on seniority, along with calls for sacrificial RIFs, developed quickly.

A reasonable, authoritative decision from higher in the system would have been contested, but it could also have resulted in much more staff harmony and higher morale. Overconnected systems, in which destructive information moves horizontally too readily, can lead to instability and the danger of sudden collapse. This danger is often underestimated by those who call for committees to ensure that “in every step, every memo, every meeting, and every agenda, no student is excluded,” and for all decisions to be made through “face to face discussion. . .to avoid hierarchical domination and engender collective empowerment.”

Gossip, with all its distortions, fabrications, hypotheses, and rumors, often creates a pattern of overconnection. Passing on destructive information about others, except when their welfare is part of your stewardship and your goal is to find a way to help, is seldom a minor problem, but people quite easily convince themselves that, since they are opposing something bad, more good is done than harm.

Lynch mobs are an extreme form of gossip. Between 1889 and 1930, 3,724 people were lynched in the United States (more than 80 percent of them were black). In his study of this phenomena, Arthur R. Raper describes the pattern that led to these violent acts: “As the crowd grows and discusses the case, the details inevitably are exaggerated. These exaggerated reports, in turn, further excite the excited people who exaggerated them. After a time, the various stories of the crime take on a sort of uniformity, the most horrible details of each version having been woven into a supposedly true account. The milling process continues until an inflammatory speech, the hysterical cry of a woman, the repetition of a slogan, the accidental firing of a gun, the waving of a handkerchief, the racing of an automobile engine, the remarks of some bystander, or some other relatively trivial thing, throws the group into a frenzy and sets it on a career of arson, sadistic mutilations, and murder.”

The historical lynchings in the South were stopped, of course, by the imposition of a hierarchical system of justice that “disempowered” the local people, and that replaced pure democratic action with a system of authoritative constraints. Law and order were established.

In a milder form, this was the pattern I saw in my school repeatedly, as leader after leader was driven from the system only to have the levels above and below the administration create a new leader, similar in most respects to the one who had left.

New powers, new challenges
In an age of tweets, texting, and blogs, it’s worth thinking for a moment about some of the effects that improved communication technology has had in the past. Much is made of the way new technologies can thwart unjust authorities, as with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the incipient green revolution in Iran. And this is a good thing.

But new powers are never available only to good people. At each advance in communications technology, old regimes are threatened, leading to social turmoil which is frequently bloody. Even the automobile caused trouble. Soon after motor vehicles became widely available, criminals figured out that they could afford better guns and faster cars than local sheriffs. This led to the era of such notables as Bonnie and Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and “Machine Gun” Kelly. The response was to strengthen law enforcement at a national level–out-organizing the criminals. The old United States Bureau of Investigation developed into a more robust FBI.

In recent years authorities in France and Australia, found themselves unable to constrain mobs of angry youth speeding through the city setting fire to vehicles and buildings. The trouble was that the rioters had motorbikes and cell phones as well as Molotov cocktails, so they were able to out-maneuver and out-communicate the cops. High schools have had problems with students disappearing, their parents calling them home in response to false rumors of bomb threats spread by cell phones. These may be the small warnings we so often get–English teachers call it foreshadowing–when new patterns are being formed. We got herpes before we got AIDS.

The first communications storm
We entered a new communications age in 1963 when the Kennedy assassination and funeral led broadcasters to hack together a temporary and haphazard national live television network. For the first time, viewers across the country were linked in a simultaneous television event. Afterward, people were ecstatic about the possibilities of finally unifying humanity, bringing us all together in the comfort of our living rooms.

Then there was 1968. Throughout that year, cities across the world were racked by wave after wave of demonstration and riot, as angry young people inspired by the radical literature of Marxism took “alienation” as their motto and revolution as their project. Students across oceans could learn overnight how tactics used in other places had worked. The occupation of Columbia University was widely copied. Students used the mass media to teach each other quickly the most effective tactics in their heady goal of bringing to collapse the national governments of the industrial world.

Provocateurs in Paris, Prague, London, Mexico City and Berlin quickly learned to enlist the new media in their strategy. From Martin Luther King they already knew that if police could be goaded into acting badly before cameras, passions flared and “the Movement” grew. Too often, the police complied, not yet fully cognizant of the new world that had come into being around them. In their world, belligerent confrontations against legitimate authority were put down. But the kids knew the game had changed. Provocation was their method. “All the world is watching,” they chanted.

Students in the Czech Republic were demanding freedom of speech and assembly, but it’s less clear what students in other places were demanding. They were not engaged in the class struggle as many of their leftist parents had been. “Alienation” was their cry, and they were fighting “the Establishment” symbolized by the Vietnam War, which they hated, and the universities that taught “it,” which they hated, and the governments that supported “it,” which they hated. They ranted against consumerism and materialism. They were disgusted by prosperity.

Some of them were having a tremendous amount of fun. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was not just a motto–it was an anthem of liberation. Beyond suits and jobs and schedules there was ecstacy, as least for those under thirty.

The invitation sent out by the Yippies calling on people to come to Chicago to protest the Democratic Convention read, in part:

It is summer. It is the last week in August, and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY
meets to bless Lyndon Johnson.
We are there! There are 50,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony. We are making love in the parks. We are reading, singing, laughing, printing newspapers, groping, and making a mock convention, and celebrating the
birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.
Everything will be free. Bring blankets, tents, draft-cards, body-paint, Mr. Leary’s Cow, food to share, music, eager skin, and happiness. The threats of LBJ, Mayor Daley, and J. Edgar Freako will not stop us. We are coming! We are coming from all over the world!

The clashes with riot police in Chicago sent 100 demonstrators to hospital emergency rooms. Similar events occurred throughout the world in places such as Berlin, London, New York, Madrid, Tokyo, Prague, Paris, and Mexico City.

Finally, Russia mobilized 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops, and armored cars and rolling tanks put an end to the earlier liberal concessions of Prague Spring, leading to protests in every European capital.

In Paris, leftist student terrorists set off bombs in the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Bank of America, and Transworld Airlines. Rioting erupted at the Sorbonne, and the strikes spread to schools throughout Paris. In the streets, radicals heaved Molotov cocktails at the police.

Long-haired students and communist union members briefly joined forces against De Galle in a general strike that eventually involved ten million people. The French government was paralyzed by the worst social protests in nearly a century. An advanced industrial economy was stopped. DeGaulle’s government in near collapse, he took refuge at an air force base in Germany. The events dominated global mass media.

Students throughout the world, even in Sweden, looked desperately for injustices they could denounce.

In Mexico City, riots went on for months, fed by news of student demonstrations and riots around the world. Mimeographs made publishing cheap and easy, and throughout the nation students created inflammatory “wall newspapers” full of details of police brutality. Handbills and leaflets drifted down from tower blocks. Busses rolled by spray-painted with revolutionary slogans.

At sunset on an October evening ten days before the Mexico Olympics, 5,000 soldiers accompanied by 200 tanks fired on 10,000 students demonstrating in Mexico City. Sniper fire and helicopters contributed to the surreal scene of a nation’s military force turned against its youth. The number of people killed in the Tlatelolco Massacre is unknown but most estimates range from 200-300. The number of arrests is also unknown..

Writing in The Nation, Robin Blackburn argues that the processes that nearly led to the collapse of national governments forty years ago “are far more advanced today than they were in 1968.” We are all “now within the same global communications space,” he says. “All this persuades me that there is a greater potential today for a type of ‘global storm’ . .as we used to say, 1968 was just a rehearsal.”

He thinks this would be a good thing. He’s far from the only one. The debates about what it all meant continue. At the moment, American youth seem more interested in IPODs and personal worlds than large-scale social action. But any number of events could change that quickly. Mass movements are a recurrent pattern in history, and next time the movement will be supercharged by powerful communications. It seems that another national or global communication storm at some point is a bit more than possible. It seems quite likely.

The traditional response
All of the world’s major cultural traditions include clear constraints about how people are to communicate with one another. Christians are directed to avoid backbiting or speaking evil of one another, to avoid provoking envy, to avoid dissembling and deception, to avoid murmuring against one another, to edify one another, and to be slow to anger. Buddhists are exhorted to refrain from false speech, to be sensitive to others so speech can be timely and appropriate, and to know when to be silent and to listen. Confucius advised people not to listen with impropriety or to speak with impropriety, but to speak with absolute sincerity, to cultivate one’s own virtues so as to never complain of others’ virtues, and not to say of others what you yourself would not like.

Both email and texting have tended to make communication more informal, and the laxness of many online messages goes beyond typographical simplification. We should think about that.

It may be that more powerful communications technologies have the potential to magnify the effects of what individuals say, sometimes without their knowledge of how someone, somewhere is being affected. More than we can imagine may depend upon people re-learning the wisdom of old constraints.

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

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

Trapped in an ecology of war 1/24
     The way of the teacher

“Ah," said the mouse, “the world is growing narrower every day. At first it was so wide that I felt anxious. I kept running and was happy to see finally walls to the right and left of me in the distance, but these walls are speeding so fast toward each other that I am already in the last room and there in the corner stands the trap into which I’m running.”

“You need only change the direction in which you’re running,” said the cat and gobbled it up.

Trapped in an Ecology of War

I came home from Vietnam angry, distrustful, and certain that having tasted war I had something to teach younger people about the pathways of peace. I had a lot to learn about what a poor platform anger would be from which to launch a campaign for peace. I spent the next fifteen years trying to transform a contentious little school in a contentious little town into an orderly place. It became my personal little Vietnam–a long, drawn out process of failure.

I was astonished over and over again at the resilience of the system. I left the school twice when experience made staying seem impossible; but, after hard study, I returned each time renewed and certain that, this time, I understood what needed to be done. My last bout, as principal, began when I took a job that five people had held in the previous six years, blithely certain that I knew enough to do better. It ended in a stormy board meeting at which five hundred disgruntled people came to the school gymnasium to participate in the local sport of winter politics.

Each of us contends against systems, vast in their scale and deep in their effects, that organize us into patterns that often operate outside our field of vision. Just as geese fly south in the winter without understanding the urge they feel, so we often act for reasons we cannot name. As with magnetic force or gravity, we cannot see the forces that work on us and through us, though we can see their effects. They are manifest in patterns around us, and if we do not learn to see and evade some attractions, we are organized into contests that may not serve our best purposes.

As we learn better to recognize those patterns, we are better able to see that people who are organized to oppose us by those patterns are not necessarily our enemies. It is the patterns themselves that we need to overcome. There is an ecology of war--an ecology of evil, if you will.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

What about the next guy?
     A sense of belonging and school discipline

During third period today, the AP came on the intercom to announce that we’d had too many tardies after lunch as well as too much litter in the parking lot, and that if things didn’t improve, the campus would be closed. Today was the fourth day of school. I would have rather we waited till we could have face-to-face meetings with the kids where we focused on teaching more than on threatening.

The messiness of large numbers of teenagers has been on my mind. A couple days earlier, a student had started a small conversation with me at the end of seventh period, and I didn’t pay attention to students when the bell rang and they left. When I surveyed the room a few minutes later, I noticed that the class had left behind two empty water bottles and a few scraps of paper.

In class, we had been talking about the way people are shaped by the places they grow up. It’s a way of getting into American literature, much of which is the exploration of such questions as why did the world feel as it did to the Puritans and what led Thoreau to believe he could find answers to life’s basic questions by living by a pond in the woods?

So we’d been talking about such questions as, are kids growing up in a small Montana town likely to think and feel differently about some things than kids who are growing up in urban New Jersey? Are kids growing up in America likely to differ in some ways from kids growing up in Italy or China? We talked a little how rural and urban spaces affect us, and how religious beliefs and political realities shape us psychologically as well as socially.

So it seemed an easy step to put our little littering problem in the context of what sort of people we are. The next day, I talked for a couple minutes about what Japanese high schools were like. In Japan, when students come into the school, they stop at their lockers and change out of their street shoes into their indoor slippers. Before they go into a rest room, they change again into shoes that are only worn there.

I invited them to imagine a clean and orderly place that was kept that way not by threats of punishment so much as by habits of neatness and cleanliness.

Outside shoes locker at a Japanese high school.

The most vocal students expressed the opinion that Americans tended to be too laid back and in too much of a hurry for the Japanese shoe thing to work here, but they acknowledged that there was something nice about it.

I then moved on to suggest that the idea of cleaning up your own messes was quite American and quite common among us. When I was a little kid, my Dad took me to work with him. At the time he was driving truck on a highway construction project quite far away, so he stayed in a motel during the week and came home on weekends. I wasn’t in school yet, and it was my first time living briefly in a motel. For dinner, we had bar sandwiches. It was tiny town-- one bar that also served sandwiches, one motel, one gas station, and two churches. He took me into the bar’s restroom to wash up after the hard day’s work and before the pork chop sandwich. After I washed and dried my hands with paper towels, I started to leave. He stopped me and pointed to the water I’d splashed around the basin.

“What about the next guy?” he asked.

He told me that when he was in army during World War II, he learned quickly that when you were in places that a lot of people had to use, it was important to think about the next guy. In the army, real men didn’t leave messes for other people, though a few punks did. If people made messes and then just left them, pretty soon everyone had to live in a mess all the time. But if everyone just cleaned up his own mess, then the next guy always got to enjoy a clean spot at the lunch table or a clean sink in the rest room.

Chastened a little, I got a paper towel and wiped up my water splashes from around the sink.

Classrooms are a little like that, I pointed out to the class. If people trash them, then the next people who come in have to put up with other people’s messes. But if each class just makes sure they pick up around them before they leave, everyone can come into a place that’s neat and clean.

As I said, it’s only been a couple days, but the room has been neat at the end of each period. It won’t last, of course. But when someone gets careless or maybe a little rebellious, I’ll figure out who the individual is and then try more direct teaching to that person, maybe including punishment. After all, most of the kids aren’t creating messes.

But before I start chewing people out or threatening them or punishing them, I like to try simple teaching: we’re the sort of people who think about other people, and the sort of people who clean up our own messes.

Most successful groups control behavior less with rules and punishments than by having leaders explain the way we are and why we are that way. This is done simply but effectively with storytelling, as when the elder of a hunting tribe tells his story of tracking a wounded buck for miles through a swirling snow storm to finish the kill, making it clear even when it’s not explicitly stated that “we” are the sort of people who are bothered by an animal’s suffering, that “we” are a persistent and diligent sort of people, and that “we” do things the right way. Then when a youngster has to do something difficult--following a buck uphill in spite of fatigue and bad weather--he feels a bit of a glow inside and being a bit grown up and doing the right thing.

The more we create a community that means something the more kids and the more we make the meaning of that community central to our teaching, the more kids will want to join us and the less need we will find for punishment.

This doesn’t mean we can avoid punishment completely. It does, though, let us be clear that we punish as a way of defending a good community against bad practices that destroy community, which is a quite different than punishing to preserve our own control or because we don’t like people, which some kids think is what’s really going on. It helps keep punishment just and loving--part of our repertoire of teaching.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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