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

Two ways, one road (22 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The peacemaker learns to recognize two fundamentally different way: one leads toward greater life--which is greater connection and greater order--and the other leads toward greater disorder--which involves separation, a kind of death. What’s more, the two ways are simply different directions on the same road. At any moment, wherever we are, we can turn around.

Though a society ordered by fear can progress toward one ordered by law, and one ordered by law can move toward being ordered by love, this development remains delicate–it’s easily reversed. A nation, or a family, or a person not only can move down toward lower realities which require less conscious effort to sustain, but will tend to do so without daily work to avoid it. Maintaining complex human realities requires intentional effort. They must be willed.

Virtually all societies contain some elements of all three realities, just as nearly all persons do. The more ethical person, like the more ethical society, is struggling with the higher concerns.

Descartes had described mankind as a people lost in the woods. Because there are many ways out of the woods, people cannot agree which to pursue. There may be many “correct” ways to play a symphony, but if the musicians each follow individual interpretations, they are deprived of a beautiful music that none can make alone. The authority of the conductor sets them free.

People who have chosen the way of the teacher tend to be easy to govern, though difficult to enslave. Leadership is necessary and difficult, and people who are not competing for glory tend to be thankful for people who are willing to carry its burdens. They understand that authority can have liberating power, and that this grows out of the world’s abundance rather than its scarcity.

A peaceful society is a busy society. We need to tend the garden, caring for all the systems that provide us with basic necessities; we need to bear each other’s burdens, looking around for any who are poorly clothed, poorly fed, or sick who need our help; and we need to work at liberating those who are captive to misfortune, bad habits, inadequate education, or political corruption.

Peace slips away, sometimes, simply because it is so demanding, and people begin seeing other things to want that, at first, seem so much easier.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Peace in a world of oppositions (21 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

The hardest part of the reality of living in peace is that we need to avoid the pattern of reading conscious evil intent into the actions not just of friends but also of opponents. When our marvelous intelligence, our power to find patterns and to make meaning of events, is turned toward those who oppose us, it is deliciously easy to discern motive, intent, and ill will. We can see what the rascals are up to.

But we can never be sure. We do not know what other people are thinking.

Everyone speaks in favor of peace, but in the midst of conflicts we tend to want peace only if it’s accompanied by victory and triumph. If the cost of peace is failure and humiliation, and it sometimes is, then our thoughts naturally turn to strategies for bringing down those who have wronged us. If we want other things more than we want peace, we will find it very slippery.

Jesus was maybe our most eloquent spokesman for peace, and this is what he said about the matter: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. . .For if you love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”

This is counterintuitive and unnatural. It is not a sweet little tale for the faint of heart. It is hard counsel. And it is the most clear-eyed and realistic policy that is imaginable. Those who say such an approach is unrealistic see only a smaller and shabbier reality, one that will not endure. The true realist, seeing the largest reality, knows that often nothing else will work.

Taking this advice sometimes deprives us of the great pleasure of seeing those who do us wrong get their own, and people who have really had enemies understand the difficulty and the seriousness of what is being proposed. Still, when we have had enough of destroying and being destroyed we may see that this is the only, the inescapable route. To act on it, one must have real commitment to something larger than the self, because the self may well suffer as we live by such a policy.

The paradigmatic relationship in the highest reality is that between teacher and learner. All of us move through a world of reciprocal relations and role reversals, taking our turns at both roles. When people act badly, the teacher begins by assuming the problem is not evil but ignorance. Since we cannot see into another’s heart, and since from the outside evil and ignorance are indistinguishable, we decide to believe that a person acting badly doesn’t understand what he is doing, or doesn’t know a better way. Sometimes, a person caught in an evil pattern does not need to be destroyed. Sometimes he needs to be rescued, even if he is inflicting harm upon us.

If only he could see, the teacher thinks. And so the teacher teaches.

This isn’t, by the way, an argument against justice or punishment. Sometimes the best way we can teach people is to bring them to justice, to bend their fierce wills by confronting what they have done and by punishment.

But punishment is not the same as revenge, and neither is it the same as therapy. Punishment seeks to educate more than it seeks to settle scores or to cure. And punishment, as every good parent understands, can be delivered in a spirit of love.

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

A third reality (19 of 24)
     The way of the teacher

It is both our plight and our majesty that no one can be forced to see higher realities. We all need to be taught to see them. And only by seeing them can we freely choose them. Our plight is that we cannot simply engineer the sort of world we want to live in, and our majesty is that we are irreducibly free. At some level, others need to get our understanding and our assent to do much with us. They need to teach.

A few small societies such as families and religious communities have experienced the highest level: the reality of peace. Though it is based on law, it cannot be established by law, because the members need to freely choose it. They need to be drawn toward it by love.

Societies of law struggle to see that justice is done but justice isn’t enough. The truth is that all of us have something to fear from justice. All of us have done things we don’t want examined in a court room by zealous questioners. We know we need forgiveness, so although law remains, mercy grows out of it and tempers it.

Since we live in part by trespassing and being trespassed, and since being wronged is the human condition, those who walk the road to peace find at every fork forgiveness is one of the choices. If they choose the other way, they find the road turns back and descends easily and steadily. So returning to the way becomes the daily work.

Societies of peace rely on the methods of teachers: persuasion, patience, and unfeigned care. An economy of peace is an order in which gift plays a powerful part. Trade remains, but theft does not. The future’s uncertainty is reduced through covenants, promises exchanged with concern about the well-being of the other in mind. What one can give is often more important than what one might get.

Many of us reach a commitment to living peacefully after trying other methods. People who are most committed to peace usually have their scars. They are not naive about the challenges life throws in our way. Sometimes they are accused of being too idealistic.

But in seeing the highest reality, they may be understood as the true realists.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

We are stronger, wiser for having read James Welch
     Re-reading "Fools Crow"

Through the summer I have been re-reading James Welch’s books, because there were things there I wanted to feel again and think about some more. I wanted to continue being taught by this gifted writer. We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the practical and spiritual realities of belonging. Of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.

Montana is at a critical juncture, and we have all sorts of important decisions to make that will have ramifications long into the future. At such times, nothing is more useful than the right stories, because the right stories educate our desires. Our best writers teach us what we need to consider to live well, and James Welch stands among our best writers.

At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.

The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.

Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow’s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look small and insignificant in the blue snowfield. As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his people--its rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. “The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth.”

The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family’s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions.

We see that Fast Horse’s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.

The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky.

Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decides--not once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisis--to face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.

Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.

Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more. But again, it is enough.

Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter one’s lodge at night lies another realm--which we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand things are as they should be.

I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them.

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

Reality is a story 9/24
     The way of the teacher

Emergent characteristics come into existence at some level of a developing hierarchy–they are attributes that weren’t present at lower levels. A common example is that of water, which is liquid and flows–characteristics that weren’t present in the hydrogen or the oxygen that formed it. The hydrogen and oxygen retain their identity–they don’t vanish–but something new has emerged.

The violence of angry mobs, doing things that the individual members would not have done alone, is an emergent characteristic. A thousand angry people is not necessarily a mob. It becomes a mob when it takes on a life of its own, acting as though with a single will, intelligence, and desire, and responsibility for what happened gets exported to the new entity.

Some emergences are real game changers, as when life emerged from matter.

Biotic systems don’t escape the material universe, by which I mean they remain fully subject to the laws of physics–an egg thrown from a window falls according to the same law of gravity as a stone. But the egg nonetheless has become something more than a stone, its full nature invisible to the concerns of classical physics.

A similar threshold was crossed when human consciousness emerged from life. Though people are closely related to monkeys, one of the five species of great apes, they are also significantly different. People live and die amid realities that are invisible to monkeys. For example, a chimpanzee cannot watch a baseball game. It can see the runners, the scoreboard, and the green infield, of course, but what it can’t do is comprehend facing a pitch when the count is two and three with the score tied in the bottom of the ninth. It can’t get the story. It doesn’t know there is a story.

Even among groups of humans, all are not in the same stories, and some cannot comprehend what others are doing. Adults frequently take advantage of this, holding conversations that the children cannot comprehend although they hear all the words. All of us find that we sometimes understand stories that are occurring that others we meet cannot, and we have to assume that some of those around us are engaged in stories to which we ourselves are oblivious.

We typically make meaning by finding stories in what happens. We find our way in the world by learning and making stories from and with those around us. We live by finding patterns, a rightness and a fit in things–the rightness and fit of a good story that makes sense of the onslaught of events. If physics is our way of negotiating the realm of matter, and biology is our way of negotiating the realm of life, then narrative is our primary way of negotiating the realm of meaning.

A human culture can be thought of as a collection of ways to live together encoded in a set of shared narratives. A hunting culture may pass on stories about a wounded buck and an arduous pursuit through winter cold, encoding understandings of proper technique as well as proper conduct. A bureaucratic culture may pass on stories of grievances that succeeded or grant proposals that failed, by way of grasping and sharing the way reality works. Through stories we weave together motive and character and the laws of life in complex forms that come to us so easily we may not notice their strange power. A character immersed in time moves or is moved upon and at some key moment something clicks home like the punchline of a joke: sense is made. We may do without philosophy but we cannot be human without story.

Morality is a crucial part of meaning. In some ways, moral rules form a shorthand version of lessons learned. As Wendell Berry pointed out, morality is long-term practicality. We may win a minor prize by deceiving a friend, but if we persist in treachery we learn to our chagrin that repeated deceptions isolate us and leave us weakened. When noone believes us our words have little power.

But morality doesn’t simply come from experience. Much of it is innate–hardwired in, so to speak. This innate sense of right and wrong–sometimes called the “moral sense"– that even very young children display and which has remarkable consistency across cultures–all cultures admire reciprocity, for example–creates a philosophical problem for people who want natural selection to explain everything.

Philosophers of evolution have struggled mightily to find something plausible to say about how the moral sense could have developed out of the processes Charles Darwin described. Most difficult is explaining the observed data that humans rarely engage in the bloody all-out struggle for individual survival that the theory suggests. Instead, people are more likely to be found attending quilting bees, bringing gifts to weddings, or composing tweets to let the world know they are here. People gather for social reasons at every opportunity–they are everywhere organized into families, clubs, parties, committees, and churches. They cooperate and collaborate incessantly.

The Darwinists have sensed that to figure out what’s really going on, they need to gaze up the hierarchy. They must consider people not simply as competing individuals but as parts of gene pools or as members of kin groups. This is the right direction, trying to discern realities larger and slower-moving than persons, seeing individuals as levels in a more expansive hierarchy.

Their desire to find an amoral explanation for morality is of a piece with their antipathy toward seeing any purpose, or telos, in the teeming exuberance of life. Telos suggests moral law, which many Darwinists would like to do without. But others have noted that from the beginning, life seems to have included some idea of where it had to go, its future encoded in the language of DNA just as an individual human brain is encoded there.

Biologists Jack Lester King and Thomas Jukes in their famous article told us that “natural selection is the editor, rather than the composer, of the genetic message.” Arthur Koestler has pointed to the strangeness that two evolutionary strands isolated from one another, that of marsupials in Australia and of placentals on the continent, should arrive at creatures that are nearly the same. Australia has pouched versions of “moles, ant-eaters, flying squirrels, cats and wolves.”

Naturalist Joseph Krutch thought that if nature really were a meaningless chronology of survival, development could have stopped at insects, which are tremendously successful when survival is the only criterion. As survivors, bugs are unsurpassed. But life didn’t stop with them. At minimum, we can believe that life favors complexity over simplicity, higher states of order over lower, although such ideas are anathema to many contemporary biologists, who dislike teleological thinking about such matters–beyond their chosen telos of self-preservation.

Krutch points out that though mother chimpanzees may be less efficient than insects, their complex and vulnerable affection seems more a fulfillment of what earth wants than does the cold, instinctual effectiveness of mother wasps. In my experience, few people sincerely doubt that.

The simpler creatures are the more they become what they are by fulfilling their biological potential. Their destiny is driven from below in the hierarchy of being. But people, life at its highest development, become what they are by striving toward ideals that come into view at the edge of how far they can see. Leon Koss in his 2009 Jefferson Lecture noted that “our eyes, no longer looking down a snout to find what is edible, are lifted instead to the horizon, enabling us to take in an entire vista and to conceive an enduring world beyond the ephemeral here and now.”

What we imagine is out there we get mostly from the stories of our tribe. Unlike simpler creatures, we are not biologically determined. Humans grow by looking up, moving outward into a narrative environment and acting within the stories that constitute their reality. To truly understand people or to teach children effectively or to consciously influence society, we need to understand stories. We need to pay conscious attention to a narrative environment that we cannot help but create. We need to face the implications of seeing that for humans reality is a story.

Winston Churchill famously observed that “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us” An even more important observation is that we create our stories, and afterwards our stories create us.

Maybe the most important educational question is of all this: which stories?

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Making a balance 4/24
     The way of the teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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