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."


Constraints and the character of community
     Be careful what you wish for

A community’s character is mostly determined by the boundaries it understands and the constraints it observes.  A community is an order--something more unified than a crowd, and order is created by borders, by cell walls that allow life to arise from a random flux of elements. 

Advice included on a blog about forming online communities: “Invite everyone to share, without boundaries or constraints.” The site didn’t prove interesting enough for me to bookmark. The notion that including everyone and prohibiting nothing will somehow make us free and happy seems a rather constant source of unhappiness and bondage.

A community’s character is mostly determined by the boundaries it understands and the constraints it observes.  A community is an order--something more unified than a crowd--and order is created by borders, by cell walls that allow life to arise from a random flux of elements. To destroy a community, it is only necessary to invite members to believe they can live without boundaries or constraints.

Through folkways and formal rules, communities encourage or discourage conduct that strengthens or weakens the order that they seek.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Beyond Hollywood
     Let's make a movie

Left: Richard and Catherine Saltz watch a multimedia production at the Bigfork Veterans Assembly about their son, Matthew, who was killed in Iraq. The production focused on the beauty of Matthew’s life. Through creating and watching productions drawn from the real lives of our communities, we clarify the common core of feelings and ideas that bind us together. We now have the tools to create powerful public art born of our social life, revolving around celebrations, rituals, and recurring community events such as marriages and deaths.

The Montana Heritage Project is celebrating its tenth year this year. After a decade of paying attention to work done by high school students across the state, I realize that what sticks in my mind–that is, what really matters--are the moments of beauty.

In Bigfork this year I attended a school-wide Veterans Day Assembly put on by juniors in Mary Sullivan’s classes. Part of the program included a multimedia presentation using photographs and music to pay tribute to Bigfork High School graduate Matthew Saltz, Montana’s first casualty in the Iraq War.

The format was simple--images of Matt accompanied by music. But the production transmitted a powerful message about what matters to one group of people in a small Montana town, simply because the photos were ones that Matt’s family and friends had chosen to record and save. People document what matters to them.

Quite a few values were celebrated, and thus taught. Work hard. Take care of family. Learn to be good at things. Set goals. Take life seriously. Have fun. Have friends, and remember them. The production was a powerful event in the community’s history–the sort of art by which cultures are created and transmitted.

The entire assembly, which was carefully staged, got me thinking about the role of beauty in teaching. We are drawn to beauty. This is important for communities to remember as they think about how to educate their youth. Teachers today compete for the attention of kids who live in a world that is noisy with seductive and sophisticated claims on our consciousness.

It’s a hard world to grow up in. Many kids have questions about what really is important. If we want our youth to stay with us, caring for what we care for, we need to invite them into the beauty we know, teaching them to see it, to feel it, and to create it.

I like what I see happening in the Heritage Project. A student in Phil Leonardi’s class in Corvallis made a movie based on newspaper research into an eighty-year-old unsolved crime. Students in Darlene Beck’s classes in Townsend used images and recorded voices to explore the local culture of quilters. Students in Dorothea Susag’s classes in Simms did a documentary production that brought to life the Sun River Valley as it was in 1910. Students in Nancy Widdicombe’s classes created a documentary video about three families who have ranched near the Snowy Mountains for more than a hundred years.

Digital tools for making movies and music have made this possible in ways that didn’t exist a few years ago. Kids today have at their command the power of a symphony orchestra. They have in their computers access to movie wizardry unavailable even to Hollywood producers in the recent past. They have the tools. What they need are good ideas about what these tools are for.

Already, the power and sophistication of local productions is limited less by our tools or budgets than by what we haven’t yet learned. The learning could be a joy. Students today need to be critical viewers of the media that surrounds them. The best way to learn how perceptions are shaped by camera angle, framing, juxtaposition, and editing is to create their own videos. The work of researching, scripting, shooting, and editing a video can be a collaborative process, a series of conversations about appearances and realities, about possibilities and results, about what matters and what does not.

Over the past ten years, the world has become noisier. Learning to focus our attention is getting to be a survival skill. We can help young people, and ourselves, by ignoring many of the distractions and making space to have important conversations, to do research, to reflect, and then to do something beautiful. Let’s make a slide show about the history of this river. Let’s make a documentary about the building of this school. Let’s make a movie about your grandfather’s life.

If we pass on our cultural heritage by using our new technology to find and celebrate the beauties of life in Montana, we will be thinking about and teaching what matters.

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The Age of the Essay is Dawning
     The power to publish is now universal

“History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.” Of such observations, Paul Graham weaves an essay about how to write essays. He uses history to explain how the teaching of writing became entangled in the English departments in universities and high schools, and he doesn’t believe this has been a good development for students. Writing in school is too much about literature and too little about life experience (though not in the Heritage Project, of course).

But good things may be on the horizon. The age of short stories occurred between the rise of literacy and the coming of television, and it may well be that the age of the essay is dawning now, as the internet allows anyone to publish their thoughts on any topic.

I hope this is true. I rather like the idea that after centuries of working to be sure that nearly everyone can read, we may now be poised to take a giant step toward a world in which everyone can write as well. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone will aspire to being a New York Times bestselling author. We have enough of those. What we don’t have nearly enough of is local writers who talk about local matters. How local? I would say we need more writers, many more writers, who write for their families.

As cameras became easier and cheaper to use, a marvellous new thing came into the world: the family photo album. Most of the world’s millions of photographers are happy to practice their craft for their families alone. This is a very good thing. Today it is quite simple for family members to contribute to a group web site that combines photos and videos with emails from members who are far away. In the interesting way that current news becomes treasured history if it is simply saved, such sites are destined to become some people’s most important possession.  Such sites will teach us, I believe, to appreciate more keenly that all good and important writing does not concern itself with national events or politics. And unlike a photo album, such a web site is safe when the house catches fire.

But we are not just family members. We are also citizens of towns and neighborhoods, as well as amateur gardeners and geologists and volunteer firemen. All these groups would benefit from having their own writers. A gardening club with a group blog could create an informational resource of great value to gardeners from that area, especially young people just trying to figure it out. It could be a resource that would grow more valuable with time, enriching the pleasure gardeners already find in their hobby, by providing a way for them discuss their efforts and document their triumphs, sharing their work with others with similar passions. I wish such a blog existed where I live.

We do not develop and publish nearly enough local knowledge about such topics as gardening. What works in Missoula doesn’t necessary work in Great Falls. We also doen’t develop and publish nearly enough local knowledge about trout populations, building construction, business strategies, ethnic traditions, and cooking.

I would like to live in a place where local scientists studied local ponds and meadows, posting their findings on a local website. A place where local cooks experimented with local produce, sharing their recipes and ideas, developing an original cuisine rooted there. A place where local historians published the histories of local institutions, such as the volunteer ambulance service and the womens club, as well as the histories of roads and buildings, including barns. I would like to live in a place where people documented their favorite mountain hikes, the birds that reliably arrive in their trees, and any number of other topics that I would never have thought to wonder about, but would be surprised and delighted to find on a local website. And I would like to live in a place where I could find at least rudimentary information about every person who had ever lived there.

The easy storage and the growing power of search engines allow individuals or small groups to create repositories of knowledge, experience, and insight that could transform human life in ways we are only beginning to understand. Cheap, fast travel and saturation mass media have tended to homogenize culture in recent decades, but this may be only a phase in history. What lies ahead may be a renaissance of local culture, driven by new informational media. Local groups now have the tools they need to develop local culture to a high state by the simple expedient of sharing with like-minded others their ideas, their experiences, their occasional bits of insight, and their inspiration.

If enough people are drawn to writing and publishing essays, it’s easy to imagine that someday many people will live in such places. If so, it would constitute a true renaissance of local culture.  Such a renaissance would not replace the works of superior scholarship published by brilliant professors, nor need witty national pundits fear unemployment. High school teams and pickup basketball games do not, after all, threaten professional sports. Indeed, they cultivate the most avid of all audiences for the “big” guys.

I would be more skeptical about all this were it not for the several million bloggers who have already sprung into action. Something is happening. 

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