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."


American dreams 1
     1959 Chevy, Flathead Reservation

Flathead Indian Reservation St. Ignatius Montana 1959 Chevy

“Dreams are nothing but incoherent ideas, occasioned by partial or imperfect sleep. . .” Benjamin Rush

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©2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Teaching youth to perceive the narrative environment
     correcting the cave

The mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.
Richard Wilbur

Consider the narrative environment of youth:

1. What do they hear from their family or those they live with
2. what do they hear from their neighborhood or community, incluidng peers and peer-directed groups, adults including voluntary associations such as churchs and adult directed clubs
3. what do they hear from media
4. what do they hear from school


1. Adults will not be able to control the narrative environment--the focus needs to be on educating youth to make choices
2. We are influenced in more ways than by persuasion--we can, for example, develop a taste for things that we intelletually reject
3. The narrative environment has real (and observable and somewhat predictable) consequences for the sort of community that forms.
4. We contribute to the narrative environment of any group we are part of


1. Be sure that good narratives are available
2. Teach that some stories are better than others
3. Teach the criteria for chosing
4. Be explicit in describing the ways our narrative choices matter to us as individuals and to the communities of which we are part

Questions to address

1. How are we shaped by story
2. What criteria might help discern between better and worse stories
3. What are our responsibilities to the narrative environment of 1. our homes 2. our social groups 3. our neighborhoods 4. our society


1. Use Montana literature for “case studies” to discuss narrative environments
2. Focus on tracing linkages between the stories people act out and the consequences that follow
3. Practice characterizing various communities in terms of their narrative environments (ie, the society created by fur traders at their Rendezvous in the Big Sky, the small town created by the homesteaders in Homesteading, the community Fools Crow is inhabiting at the end of his story)
4. Use the dimensions of reality described by Nozick to construct close reading questions for the literary “case studies”


A student will be able to:

1. Explain was MacIntyre meant by “virtue” (After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre, University of Notre Dame, 1984)
2. Give examples of different communities and the virtues they sought to inculcate
3. Demonstrate ability to identify virtues that are implicit in a narrative. Cite specific passages that illustrate each virtue and provide reasons why this passage is indicative of the virtue specified.
4. Understand what a complex hierarchy is
5. Understand the difference between a contradiction and paradox
6. Be able to discuss an example of principles in conflict, using the concepts of complex hierarchy and paradox

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©2007 Michael L. Umphrey

New planning: segregation by values
     social engineering by the market

The Washington Post covers the segregation by values that is emerging in the real estate market. A marketing survey from a new planned community, Ladera Ranch, in Orange County asked predictable marketing questions, such as whether people wanted ballfields or trails. Then came a section titled ‘values.’ ‘Please check the box that comes closest to how you feel most of the time,’ it began, and asked people to rate how strongly they agreed with various statements,” including “We need to treat the planet as a living system,” “Abortions should not be legal unless there’s a threat to life,” and “I have been born again in Jesus Christ.” Other questions dealt with corporate greed, divorce, the merits of foreign travel, and so forth—and the result are different sections of the planned comunity: “Covenant Hills” for folks who identify with Christian cultural traditions, “Terramor” for those who want photovoltaic cells and bamboo flooring.

“These things have always happened organically,” said Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech who studies the exurbs. “What we don’t have experience with is a contrivance of this, where it’s engineered. . . . You target people, you catch a niche of preference in lifestyle, and it creates a community and intensifies the inward focus of the niche, like an island.”

Reason discusses the ways local government has been increasingly privatized. He sees an emerging “postmodern political order”:

We’d have a world where the size and functions of local government would be determined by a trial-and-error process of competition. Different institutional forms would contend with one another; rather than following a central administrative plan, the nature and tasks of local government would be determined by a private market. The “governments” themselves would be more private than public, facilitating a routine flow of mergers, breakups, divestitures, and other organizational rearrangements.

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©2006 Michael L. Umphrey

Staying together
     Generational succession and personal identity

The story of Chief Charlo, hanging on in the Bitterroot after many Salish had moved north to the Flathead Reservation, is poignant in a way that life is often poignant. What is sadder than to lose the homeland of one’s youth and to have the world change around one so dramatcally that one’s grandchildren speak a different language?

Of course, most of us lose the homelands of our childhood--that we can’t go home again is a common lament. And I’ve worked with many adolescents who spoke a language in many ways unrecognizable by their parents and grandparents. We live in times of ongoing cultural change, and in such times succeeding generations may come to consciousness in a narrative environment quite different from that their parents grew up in. Under such circumstances, it would be startling if they did not develop values quite different from those of their elders. Something akin to Charlo’s sadness would seem to be a common plight.

And yet, it is not necessary that the generations become estranged. The “generation gap” that so mesmerized observers during the sixties is not a fact of nature so much as a failure of culture. Thinking of education not as the transmission of information and skills in a classroom but as the way a culture is passed on, a question that becomes important is what sort of education is needed if parents and their children are to recognize each other fully enough to share the deepest meanings in life? Clearly, it will be an education that resists some kinds of change, focusing instead on continuities. As many Native American have recognized, it will be an education more concerned with culture than with information. Daniele Conversi argues that a culture that is not transmitted from one generation to the next should not be considered a culture at all:

Despite a proliferation of writings on culture, ...[it] remains one of the most difficult concepts to grasp and define in the social sciences. Already by the 1950s the US anthropologists Alfred Louis Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn were able to identify over 100 competing definitions of ‘culture’.

The rise of cultural studies as a self-standing discipline in the 1960s should have in principle contributed to clarify this conundrum, having elected it as its central topic of investigation. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Despite its promising beginnings under the brilliant stewardship of Richard Hoggart and others (Sardar and Van Loon 1998), the disarray has progressively amplified, degenerating into conceptual chaos and turning cultural studies into one of the most confused and confusing disciplines on earth. Instead of being rigorously defined, the concept of culture has become so flexible and muddled as to include virtually every aspect and form of human behaviour. ‘Culture’ has therefore fragmented into its constituent parts, an amalgam of infinite particles now dissolving into idiosyncratic chaos. At the moment, everything can become ‘culture’ from ‘youth culture’ to ‘drug culture’, from ‘consumer culture’ to pop culture, ‘yob’ culture, hooligan culture, and, perhaps a short step from hooliganism, animals’ culture. Yet, all of these ‘cultures’ fall short of the main distinguishing criterion, inter-generational continuity. There is currently an urgent need to go back to the concept of culture in its original meaning of cultivating and hence nourishing. Culture should be linked to material, rather than biological, inheritance. In short, a sense of continuity is inseparable from culture, hence culture can only exist if it is transmitted through generations.  (Daniele Conversi, “Can Nationalism Studies and Ethnic/racial Studies Be Brought Together?” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. Volume: 30. Issue: 4. Page 815. (c) 2004

Questions of cultural continuity will be easier to discuss within families than they will be to discuss at school. It is quite proper that families and communities entertain the apostles of change who speak from the schools with the moral fervor of revolutionaries with a bit of skepticism. While it’s true that each new generation needs to creatively adopt their culture to a changing world, if the passion for change isn’t judiciously tempered by a fondness for ways and means of proven value, we risk trading our birthright for a gaggle of gadgets.

In her study of Korean Christians in Chicago, Kelly Chong found that a significant way that second generation Koreans kept their cultural identity was through

certain elements of ‘practiced culture,’ that is, values and standards of traditional Korean morality. These values, ubiquitously invoked in their discourse about their Korean identity, consist of a set of core traditional Korean Confucian values—most significantly, filial piety, respect for parents, family-centeredness, and work ethic.

Whereas non-church goers tend to speak more about “making decisions for oneself” rather than obeying parents, the young adults who attend church say they prefer the clear rules, and “traditional Korean views regarding sexual morality and gender relations.” It is more through moral values than general aspects of culture such a food and music that a “powerful sense of group consciousness and boundary is forged among the second generation.”

Those who chose to stay in the church sometimes see the individual liberty of the surrounding society as contributing to the dissolution of culture and of togetherness. One member described it thus:

There are many truths in the American society. Because of that, there is no value system. Everything and anything is permissible. So we lose common dignity, respect, and people end up getting absorbed in their own little worlds. People used to live by Christian virtues, knew definite right or wrong. Now, kids are being killed, and are killing their parents. All because the parents don’t have any values to give them. People are encouraged to be open-minded so they lose definition. Koreans have a better value system, like the way Christianity used to be.

Various scholars have noted that the strengths and vitality of contemporary evangelicalism can be attributed to its “strictness,” which confers strong social bonds and cohesion among the church members ( Kelley, D. M. 1972 . Why conservative churches are growing. New York: Harper and Row.; Iannaccone, L. R. 1994 . “Why strict churches are strong”. American Journal of Sociology 99: 11801211.). It is my contention that Christian conservatism, both through its peculiar resonance with traditional Korean values and its ability to help articulate a clear sense of group boundary and identity, is crucial to the ethnic project of the Korean church regarding the second generation. The conservative Protestant ideology of the Korean church, through its reference to the unchanging, divine laws which dictate standards of strict ethics and morality for the members of the group, has proven quite effective as a form of legitimation for strict, exclusive ethnic group identity in the secondgeneration church members. In contrast, scholars such as Steve Bruce (Bruce, S. 1983 . “Identifying conservative Protestantism”. Sociological Analysis 44: 65-69.) have remarked on the relative ineffectiveness of liberal Protestantism in generating such group cohesion. As Bruce ( 1983 :68) puts it, “The liberal insistence on reason as filter for revelation produces a variety of problems in social reproduction. In a pluralist society, denial of an objective and unchanging source of revelation invites diversity and the consequent problems of maintaining cohesion and commitment.”

“An agreed-upon and commonly held interpretation of reality is a prerequisite for social identity. It is also the constructive link with personal identity” ( Mol, H. 1976 . Identity and the sacred:A sketch for a new social-scientific theory of religion. New York: Free Press : 67).

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The Founders’ Constitution
     Text and background sources

The Founders’ Constitution includes the text of the Constitution with extensive links below each phrase or section that take you to full text sources for the ideas encoded or important commentary about them. Sources include such luminaries as John Locke and John Adams and James Kent.

This sort of website is important, and its greatest importance may not be for people in America or in this generation.

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freedom and responsibility
     authors of their own lives

Ultimately, the debate about choice is not about markets but about character. Liberty and responsibility really do go together; it’s not just a platitude. The more freedom we have to control our lives, the more responsibility we have for how they turn out. In a world of constraints, learning to be happy with what you’re given is a virtue. In a world of choices, virtue comes from learning to make commitments without regrets. And commitment, in turn, requires self-confidence and self-knowledge.

“We are free to be the authors of our lives,” says Schwartz, “but we don’t know exactly what kind of lives we want to ‘write.’” Maturity lies in deciding just that.

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Rotary’s 10 virtues
     Common ground between world's six major religions

To develop Empower The Family as a turnkey project for Rotary clubs worldwide, a universal message has to be crafted that transcends geography, religious, racial, political, social and similar barriers. World Peace Parents turned to the world’s six major belief systems of Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, seeking such a message.  Accepted by 65% to 75% of the world’s population, common virtues embraced by these six belief systems for ten, twenty, even thirty centuries approaches universal acceptance.  A founder of a belief system that has endured the test of time, as these six have, must have taught basic virtues essential for harmonious, peaceful community living.

World Peace Parents engaged graduate students at Harvard Divinity School and Brigham Young University to research ten virtues common to these six belief systems and accepted by most world cultures, religions and societies. The “Ten Virtues” selected were:  Fairness, Family, Forgiveness, Free Agency, Love, Peace, Service, Trust, Truth, and Worship.  The results of the research to date:

“The founders of the six belief systems have common teachings, with some variations, for The Ten Virtues. The research was expanded to include the question: Do these six- belief systems teach that parents have a duty to teach their children? The short answer is yes.”

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YA reading trends
     controversial trends

A new book for young adults focused on an oral sex orgy, Rainbow Party, from Simon & Schuster has triggered some controversy. Critics say the “cautionary tale” defense is a smoke screen.

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Quality education for all
     Coming home from the legislature

I drove over to Helena last week to attend some hearings in the legislature, to get a better feel for how education is being shaped by politicians in our little corner of the universe. It was enjoyable. I liked everyone who spoke and found something to agree with in most of what was said.

I enjoyed what seemed to be a room full of people trying their best to be wise, methodically slogging toward important decisions, trying to figure out how to define a “quality” education for all Montana students. I was in a good mood when I left.

Afterwards, I stopped at Hardee’s for a quick burger before the 3-hour drive home. I overheard a couple of 15-year-old girls talking about their sex lives, their parents’ views, and the social dynamics of high school. I didn’t feel I was eavesdropping, because they spoke loudly enough to be sure everyone heard them. In fact, I had intended to spend a few quiet minutes reading Paul Schullery’s excellent book, Mountain Time, and I wasn’t in the best mood to contemplate the emotings of confused adolescents.

But there they were. I know they were fifteen because one of the girls said her mother was, like, totally amazed that she had made it to that age without getting pregnant. They were scantily clad in tight tank tops, talking angrily and loudly about what jerks the boys they were having sex with were, about what interpersonal dramas had transpired at recent parties, and how much they hated their parents’ counsel: “My Mom doesn’t care if I get an abortion or give the baby away as long as I tell her.”


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©2005 Michael L. Umphrey

Writing for the ages, Part 2
     Talking our way home

Few things are as educationally powerful as assisting young people in researching and writing about their family heritage. Family elders are often an ideal audience for young writers, drawing out the best that they have to say. At the same time, in coming to see more clearly how that elder was once young, students develop their own historical consciousness, sensing better what they themselves are becoming.

Sometimes creating a persona is creating a prototype identity, which is work all teenagers face.

In order to do a good job of either, we need to do a good job of imagining our audience. By “doing a good job” I mean both that we need a vivid and realistic sense of other people and that the other people we envision are the sort of people who bring out something good in us. We have trouble finding something to say or a way to say it when we have no sense of who might hear us, but who we imagine hears us affects what want to say and what we think we can say. One of the ways teenagers get to know who they are is by noting how others respond to them, and one of the ways any of us might go badly astray is to badly imagine who notices us.

Who are you, really? That’s a question writing teachers should pose, in dozens of ways, to every young person. The answer often depends on who is listening, or who they imagine is listening, or who they want to listen. Speech is social. Who is a teenager living in Terry, Montana, or Sutherlin, Oregon? Who will hear him? Who will care what she says?

It’s interesting to consider that, since what we send to the internet may last forever, much or most of our audience may be people who are not yet born. This is even more intriguing when you note that teenagers who have been introduced to family history get excited to find a page or two written by their great-grandparents. This suggests that the most attentive audience for much of what today’s teens are writing may well be their own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reminding them of that is a way of slowing things down. I’ve just looked at several blogs where the posters seemed frantic, wild for something to link and comment upon. They reminded me of gamblers in Reno dropping quarters in a dayless glitter of hope for the jackpot that hovers forever just out of reach. Slowing things down strikes me as quite wonderful.


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