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

Thinking about hierarchies 6/24
     The way of the teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Toward an ecology of peace 3/24
     The writing teacher

We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have found. To find it, we need to realize that it is not found in some utopian absence of conflict. Peace is the supreme achievement of human intelligence precisely because of the powerful oppositions that it brings into balance.

Peace is an energetic engagement with trouble more often than it is trouble’s absence. We understand the goodness of the great works of peace that are among us–good hospitals, good schools, productive factories, active charities–because we have experienced illness, ignorance, poverty, and harm. As we labor and organize to mitigate our trouble, we feel peace when we feel a certainty that, as in a Shakespeare play, evil has limits and as long as good people place their lives in the balance it will not prevail. We are at peace when we sense that our efforts, however small and feeble, will be enough, and that forces larger than we see are working with us. Like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, it isn’t necessary for us to be big and powerful--it’s just necessary for us to be good.

We learn we need to be good as we come to sense that we are up against something that wants things torn down, wants nations at war, wants families in turmoil, wants friendships to fall apart, and ultimately wants us dead. The forces of destruction, decay, and disorder that surround us are nothing so puny as to be escaped or destroyed. They are built into the fabric of our existence.

And yet, we also learn that lashing out at what frightens us often makes things worse. Learning to do good is part of how we get free of fear. One of the trickiest patterns in a tricky world is the way that the urge to destroy evil–meeting it on its own level then getting trapped there–can often become evil’s most powerful tool. Eric Hoffer noted in True Believers that the worst evil in history has been accomplished by people who believed they were righteously engaged in destroying evil. Hitler gloated that totalitarian systems were invincible because they forced their opponents to imitate them.

Seeing how the fight against evil so readily becomes a form of evil itself, some people have tried to evade the dilemma by opposing the concept of oppositions itself, hoping that conflict can be resolved philosophically, by abandoning belief in such dualities as good and evil.

But it doesn’t work.

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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

What’s wrong with these kids? 2/24
     The way of the teacher

The Roman soldiers who killed a teacher two thousand years ago killed people often–mostly rebels, robbers, and thugs. The system of which they were a part, the Roman state, had taught them to take honor in their work defending the order. They knew little or nothing of the dirty, bloodied commoner, or what he stood for, or who he threatened. The teacher understood this and prayed for their forgiveness, noting “they know not what they do.”

Though Jesus was caught in an evil pattern, he wasn’t tricked into thinking that most of the people who harmed him were his enemies. They were also being harmed by the patterns he had tried to change. Those patterns are still among us. They came slowly into focus for me in a small mountain town in western Montana, but it could have been anywhere. It was simply the world.

I now see the same patterns on a much larger scale in the nation and the world and on a smaller scale within families and individuals. These patterns replicate themselves, and the more force we throw against them, the more powerful they become. They are nearly alive, taking their vital force from us, from our efforts to destroy what we see as evil.

We live in troubled times, among disorderly nations. The evening news is dominated by stories of wars that seem unstoppable. Our cities are disordered, and we hear more and more of crime, gangs, and homelessness. Our families are disordered, and we read that children are being born to single girls who are children themselves. Our personal lives are disordered, and the mental health business is booming. It seems that even nature is disordered, as storms and floods may be increasing in frequency and severity.

In all the noise, we hear passionate speakers clamor for attention, proclaiming that our schools no longer work and that our children are not getting the education they need, but there is little agreement about what sort of education they do need, and calls for better schools bog down in contention, becoming part of the troubled pattern.

Meanwhile, children go on learning what we teach, though not necessarily the things we say in classrooms. The fundamental curriculum for schools is often visible at its board meetings, in the bantering stories told by teachers in the lounge, and in the disciplinary code that is practiced (rather than the one that is written down). The level of honesty, compassion, and concern for the truth that we demonstrate in such routine, everyday affairs is more educative, for good or ill, than the ambitious, idealistic rhetoric in official curriculum guides. How do we handle our disagreements? How do we talk about each other in small groups between classes or after meetings? What standards of evidence do we maintain for tales told about our opponents?

A couple of years after I resigned as principal, the managers of that school were still struggling with the same problems I had faced. They brought in specialists to teach conflict resolution skills because of an increasing number of fights between students, not to mention a maddening level of contention among staff and parents. The conflict resolution folks taught the latest skills from their field, but judging from the agenda of acrimonious disputes at board meetings, the patterns have proven resilient.

The administrators treated student fighting as a problem separate from the rest of the school operation, to be solved with its own little program. They didn’t see it as one manifestation of a much larger pattern. The school itself was a bundle of unrelated programs with fragmented and sometimes contradictory goals. Its leaders didn’t view the myriad problems holistically, considering what teachers were teaching in the history and literature classes about character and consequence, for example, or how disagreements were handled by administrators, or what values were encoded in the discourse at board meetings.

Of course, seeing that small problems are related to much larger problems can be daunting. A few months before, the superintendent had sued the teachers’ union because of their no-confidence vote in him. Meanwhile, the staff was engaged in its annual acrimony over contract negotiations. The union had suggested a work “slow-down,” in which no teacher would come before eight or stay to help students after four, and a “sick-out,” in which large numbers of the staff would call in sick. Their strategy was based, strangely enough, on faith that the school board members they reviled cared more about the education of children than did professional educators, and that the board would back down rather than see the children lose out. They were using kids as pawns to enrich themselves. And of course, it was quite true that some board members saw teachers as commodities to be bought and used as cheaply as possible. Enemies often come to resemble each other.

And there was much, much more. Groups of parents were campaigning to remove or reprimand a number of different coaches and teachers. At every level in the life of the school, champions of morality or diversity were speaking the language of anger. Each group believed their problems were caused by an enemy, so, of course, the combatants wanted institutional uniformity that would force their enemies to accept a better way. In their different ways, each of the sides wanted codes of acceptable language. Each wanted sanctions against deviance. Each wanted submission to their orthodoxy. They wanted to force things to go the way they were sure was right.

And in the midst of it all, the staff was directed, without intentional irony, to consider the question, “How can we get our kids to stop fighting?” The more interesting question would have been “How can we become a peaceful people?”

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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

Trapped in an Ecology of War

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outside shoes locker at a Japanese high school.

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

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

“What about the next guy?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

What bureaucracies don’t teach
     A community's sense of right and wrong

High school students John Kirtley and Gage
Sobell tape their interview with Mayor
Marty Malesich about problems facing
their hometown of Dillon, Montana.

An email from a friend expressed doubt that community-centered teaching can “preserve community.” He observes the “casinos, lofts, and latte shops occupying the bricks and mortar of former factories” and the blurred sense of community that has remained.

It does seem unlikely that communities organized primarily around economic realities can be preserved--as communities. Communities form when people come together to pursue goods. If the goods they pursue are jobs, when the jobs move on so does the community. But there are other goods that are more durable, and the communities formed around them are also more durable. My prime historical example is that of the Jewish people, who kept a sense of community through centuries, despite persecutions and diasporas.

Their secret was that they ordered life around a written text which they considered sacred and which embodied their understanding of what goods they were pursuing. By teaching this same text to each new generation, they created a durable community, within which members even centuries apart in time could recognize in their writings people who were in essential ways their kin. The community understood itself primarily in moral terms rather than in economic terms.

Though Montana logging towns have been less durable, it’s true that the actual, geographical and historical places are pretty important.

Nonetheless, once you’re there, caring about community is a moral affair. For me, the center of community is the conversation about what is right and wrong. Much of the time the conversation is tacit, but it has to be there. Finding ways to have the conversation, keep it going, and bring others into it is the work. And the ways can’t be faked, very much. There has to be a purpose that touches each life. Fulfilling an institutional mission won’t do it.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

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