Amazon.com 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."

Character Education

Goodness is a vision
     A happy person is like a garden

Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
Proverbs 29:18

I suppose the purpose of our life is to find our way back to the garden, where we are told we began. In the beginning, we did not need to care for the garden–it was a gift. So it wasn’t really ours. We couldn’t stay there, except at the cost of never being fully human.

The way back to the garden is to create it around us. Then it will be ours, and we will be able to keep it because we understand it.

When God finished creating the earth, he said that it was good. What did he mean by that? I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what “goodness” means, or how to talk intelligibly about what it means, because I meet a lot of young people these days who do not have any very useful understanding of what it means, who are not even sure it is something they should want.

They often confuse “goodness” with obeying a list of rules. This is understandable, since teaching an understanding of goodness often includes teaching rules.

But goodness is something much larger and more important than a list of rules. Mainly, it is a vision of the world as it has been and can be, a vision of people living in all the little and big ways that support happiness. Fully realized, the vision is a vast and complex ecological order, quite beyond the comprehension of children.

And so with children we teach little rules that both preserve the order and make visible its principles. Our rules are not meant to deprive our children of freedom. Quite the opposite–they are meant to be the stepping stones that keep us out of the cold, swirling forces we traverse moment by moment and that lead us to freedom.

When our children were small, exploring the world with hands and mouth, my wife and I kept a philodendron on the coffee table. For a time the poor plant got dumped on the floor or had its leaves torn off before we could intervene. Over and over we gently stopped little hands and said “No!” It would have been easier, no doubt, to simply to move the plant out of reach until the children were older, but that would be a controller’s strategy–to turn our home into a huge cocoon in which everything was either child-proof or out of.

Sure, we put cleaning solvents, prescription medicines, and other items that could cause genuine danger out of reach, but the philodendron was sacrificed to an ideal: it is better to awaken children than to pad the rooms where they are sleepwalking. And what we awaken them to is the order that surrounds them, which is the order of our lives, which is our best approximation so far of our vision of goodness.

So it was that we would sometimes encounter a gleeful daughter wildly shredding the leaves of our forlorn-looking philodendron. Such actions are teaching opportunities. So when a lightly slapped my daughter’s hand and said “No!” what did I want her to learn?

Obviously, I would have been disappointed if she had learned that plants are never to be touched, though from her child’s perspective that must at first have seemed to be my intent. In fact, I wanted her to learn things she could not then understand. “Thou shalt not touch the philodendron” was a little rule that didn’t express our final will. Rather, it was a means to a deeper law that might be expressed “Thou shalt respect living things,” or “Thou shalt live in a house of order.” And beyond these laws was a higher reality: “Thou shalt love plants.”

What we really wanted was for our children to learn to live in a garden, which is to say we wanted them to understand the earth and the processes of life, and we wanted them to care for the world in wise ways. We wanted them to recognize and desire goodness.

That’s quite a bit to learn. So let’s start with simple things: don’t touch the philodendron. We knew our daughter would question the rule, and we knew that as her questioning spirit became more mature, our answers, both implicit and explicit, would lead her toward understanding what we really wanted. Soon, we allowed her to help with such tasks as watering the plant. As she grew, we negotiated with her, gradually increasing her responsibilities and freedom to keep pace with her understanding.

In time the philodendron rule became irrelevant as she learned that plants not only could be touched, but they could be pruned, re-potted, fertilized and enjoyed. Beyond the philodendron rule lay profound principles, more difficult to understand but more liberating to live. Beyond the philodendron rule lay all the principles of wisdom, which are identical with the principles of goodness.

Wise traditions teach goodness by giving rules, because life is complicated in much the way ecosystems are complicated, and inexperienced people are likely to make decisions that damage or destroy their chances at happiness without understanding the long-term consequences of what they do. Good rules help keep people safe while they are still learning how life works.

The rules of morality are guidelines to long-term practicality. In many cases, they are summaries of centuries of experience about what sorts of actions tend toward misery, and of what sorts of actions contribute to happiness.

Goodness is closely related to wisdom, since happiness in this world will be fleeting unless our thoughts and actions are in harmony with the way things really are.

“Truth” is our name for such harmony.

A happy life is similar to a garden–it is a thing of beauty made out of the materials of this life, arranged in harmony with both the laws of science and the principles of beauty. It is an emblem of care, and an embodiment of joy. It includes a long history of things learned and remembered, and a long future of things desired and hoped.

It is here. It is now.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

Discerning the rules of life in storyworlds
     Teaching narrative intelligence

I like students to practice seeing the way every story asserts a moral theory of the universe. It’s possible to think about moral issues in an objective way simply by asking what virtues characters employ to reach their telos and what sort of world results from the deployment of those virtues. I invite students to figure out, from the stories we read, what the rules of life appear to be.

Here are basic questions that help gain entry to storyworlds.

1. What is the main character’s telos at the beginning of the story? What’s her life about--what purpose or goals organize her action, her thinking?

2. As the character acts in response to conflict, what virtues does he exhibit? I’m using “virtue” here to refer to a strength from the character’s point of view. For a Spartan, ferocity might be a virtue. For Odysseus, skillful lying was a virtue. The reader’s judgments about such things can come later, but during the reading, try to understand the character’s view of what is good.

3. What consequences follow? How successful is the character at resolving the conflict in a way that fulfills his telos?

4. What turning points occur in the story--key moments where the character needs to rethink either his telos, or the virtues he is employing, or both?

5. Summarize the plot in no more than three sentences, focusing on the major events and the key actions by the main character. Then state a “rule of life” based on that plot. If the story is true to life, then what rule about the way things work is illustrated by it?


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
(0) CommentsPermalinkPrinter-FriendlyE-mail this page
2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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