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."


The way of the judge 15/24
     A second reality

“Judging” is one of those words, like “hierarchy” and “authority,” that makes many moderns uncomfortable. Though this is a topic on which Jesus is still quoted, such quoting is often done in an ironic mode, which is the only mode in which “judge not, that you be not judged” can be spoken as a rebuke.

Interestingly, people who are quite bothered by other people’s judgment seem not to have pondered what Jesus meant when he himself made judgment the theme of a rebuke: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye. . .have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith. . . .”

A person who has been badly wronged will understand his point immediately. Without judgment there can be no justice. A person who has suffered injustice wants nothing so much as an honest person willing to hear his story and to judge, to do the right thing. Postmodernists established distrust of judging as a cultural norm among liberals because judgment ties them to cultural norms not of their own choosing and so they fear it as an infringement of their radical sense of freedom. But they still expect justice from government, just as, I think, they still want their friends to tell them the truth though, in a philosophical sense, they question whether the concept of truth makes much sense. In any case, most people understand that establishing justice is the fundamental task of government.

By the time of the American Revolution, such works as Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) and Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748) had made rule of law into the preeminent legitimating ideal for liberals to follow in their attempts to establish and preserve justice. It’s important to understand that the rule of law is not the same thing as rule by law. In fact, rule by law is often the mechanism by which rule of law is undone, as is presently ocurring in America. Under rule of law, law is superior to the rulers and may serve as a check against abuse, while under rule by law, law is merely a tool that may be used by government to suppress whom it pleases through legalistic maneuvers.

Rule of law is nothing other than rule of principle, while rule by law has been used by every unprincipled boss man since time began, using government force to impose his will on others. Constant legislation in response to pleas from businesses seeking protection from competitors or a guaranteed cash flow supported by government policy is a far cry from identifying good principles by which all will be governed and then implementing laws in accord with them.

James Madison and the other founders understood this. Their hope was that it might be possible to establish a constitution made legitimate by the consent of those to be governed, and that such a constitution could establish basic laws that legislators and executives did not have the authority to change. Then, perhaps even a democratic government could be constrained by law, avoiding the tempestuous failures of historical democracies, where lawmakers made rules that favored some groups, leading to contests between groups, until one or another got permanent control and established a tyranny.

Maybe if law could be established based on principles that all groups accepted, the endless cycles of various parties getting control of governments to further their own interests could be broken.

That was the ideal. It was never fully realized, but what was realized was a nation stable and free enough to unleash wealth producing energies that surpassed anything the world had seen. Even when perfect justice is not attained, stable laws are preferable to the whimsical chaos that results when rulers just make things up as they go. People can figure out what works and what doesn’t work if the laws are stable and consistently enforced.

Merchants thrive at the level of law. They know that as long as a system is predictable, people can figure out how to accomplish work that furthers their interests. Merchants also figured out centuries ago that their own self-interest is not harmed and may be enhanced by someone else’s doing well. Enemies are costly but partners are valuable. Merchants excel at arranging things so that both they and those they do business with come out ahead. They see the benefits of cooperation, and, through negotiation, they create larger and more stable systems than are likely through force. Force is costly and inefficient.

Although unregulated markets tend to self-destruct due to the cumulative costs of unscrupulous behavior, markets established by laws that sustain moral behavior provide a vast array of benefits. People devise contracts that render the future less uncertain. They take advantage of opportunities to increase their might, their wealth and their influence.

Negotiation becomes a central cultural activity, and people construct a reality wherein the virtues of intelligence, rationality, flexibility, cooperation and industry are valued.

The more that justice is established–though laws applied equally to everyone, courts organized around discovering the truth amid claim and counter-claim, and rules of transparency that guard against courts from becoming corrupt–the more fear recedes.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Criminal nations 14/24
     The first reality: the way of the criminal

Some of history’s most compelling stories are those of entire societies slipping from some level of rule of law down to government by fear, conducted by gangs.

Germany is the recent example most familiar to us today. The nation in which Hitler rose to power was not an ignorant country compared with the America of today, and many educated people saw through Hitler from the start. But fear was widespread, and many people, thinking like criminals, thought that he was useful to their immediate self-interest. Some sort of change was needed, and if he didn’t work out, they believed, he would be easy to remove.

They were impotent when, within six months of being named Chancellor, he moved quickly to change long-standing institutions. His power grab was breathtakingly bold. He eliminated virtually all opposition to his rule, taking over the labor unions, persuading the parliament to suspend its own powers, arresting known communists and removing Jews from civil service.

Before long, the only significant institution left to resist him was the German Evangelical Church. After failing to have one of his followers elected as bishop, he forcibly took over church headquarters and placed his man, Ludwig Müller, in power. He then engineered a church election to put leaders who were sympathetic to National Socialism in positions throughout the churches.

The new governing body of the church passed rulings banning Jews or persons married to Jews from holding church office, and requiring all pastors to take loyalty oaths to the Führer. This led Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others to form the Pastors’ Emergency League, joined by nearly half the pastors in Germany. The members agreed to be bound only to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church offered the only sustained and significant opposition to him.

Hitler continued to turn the screws down on the leaders of organized religion, however, and most of them submitted out of fear. After only three years, in August of 1936, only a few hundred pastors out of nearly 18,000 dared to read a proclamation from their pulpits critical of Hitler’s programs. Over the next few months, seven hundred pastors were arrested. Some were sent to the camps, but most were released after a few days or weeks. It was enough. They got the message. They were afraid.

I wish an examination of how entire societies become criminal was a standard part of every American child’s education. It proceeds through an inversion of traditional morality. Contemplating his guards while imprisoned in the Gulag, Alexander Solzhenitsyn saw that people seldom allowed evil to take away their freedom without first transforming themselves, making good seem bad and bad seem good. Such transformations are startling easy when people are afraid.

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good,” Solzhenitsyn said. “It is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.” He went on to say that it is ideology that helps the evildoer “make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.”

After decades of progressive decadence, we are today we moving into a period of social unrest. In many places people already fear leaving their homes at night. At dusk, city parks go vacant, given over to the lawless. Car rental agencies remove their decals from vehicles, attempting to make tourists less likely to fall victim to “hunters” who prey on travelers. Hospital emergency rooms are crowded with patients who have been shot with high-powered weapons, and EMT’s and fireman receive training on how to avoid being killed while trying to help.

Even organizations that think of themselves as morally engaged are drawn into the ecology of war. The murder of a physician who performs abortions, done in the name of the sanctity of life, illustrates the confused desperation that awaits those who choose to fight.

The education press regularly issues ominous warnings that we are in danger of losing the race for wealth, and across the land school administrators and teachers dutifully pass on the warnings to our children. “Be afraid,” is the underlying dogma in much official teaching premised on the belief that education is mainly about prevailing in a competition for money. Beyond a certain point, this becomes a doctrine of war, and it is folly.

Societies of fear may consist of a few dozen nomadic warriors or an they can extend into empires as ravenously vast as ancient Persia. In societies of fear, alliances form based on mutual self-interest. Oaths of allegiance are common. The virtues of cunning, strength, and loyalty are pre-eminent, and revenge is a key motivating principle.

People living at this level act out of personal passion, getting what they want because they can get it, without much regard for those they don’t need or fear. The main way of controlling others is to instill fear in them. Promises are given in the form of threats. The paradigmatic relationship is that between master and slave. A short tour of the more partisan blogs of both the right and the left will make it clear how far advanced this reality is.

Fortunately, the choice of pure selfishness is still rare among us. When people believe in something better, and speak in support of it, the kingdom of fear begins to erode. Better laws establish themselves, and fear recedes as evidence accumulates that we live in a moral universe in which we have the power and the right to make ourselves at home.

Large societies governed by fear, whether they are growing or decaying, always include some features of a higher reality: that created by law. 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Criminality as an education problem 13/24
     The first reality: the way of the criminal

The ironic truth is that homage to the self is self-destructive, because the self’s deepest desires can only be fulfilled in communion with others. A good life requires joining, of which marital union and reproduction is the central metaphor, and to choose extreme independence is to choose a deathward path.

Samenow stresses that much crime is an educational rather than a social or a therapeutic problem. What the criminal needs is to learn new thinking patterns. Earlier approaches, relying on psychoanalytic techniques, did not change the criminals but instead created criminals with insight. Samenow and his colleague learned that what criminals needed was a change of heart, and that a criminal can accomplish such a change by making choices and exerting will over the course of his life. He can learn to tell himself different stories about what is happening and what he wants to do.

America’s most sobering educational challenge today is that many children are growing up learning only the poorest of moral codes. They do not learn a morality that they are not taught, and if they do not learn an intelligent morality they have little to guide them except the self’s insistent demands. This does not mean that all such children will grow up to be criminals, of course, but between criminality and a life of peace and joy there are many gradations, and a great number of young people are not taught the little ways that encourage happiness.

We know that juvenile delinquency correlates with low levels of moral reasoning on Kohlberg’s scale. A person who has not been taught to think in the larger scales represented by advancement up Kohlberg’s stages may be prone to criminal solutions to life’s problems, and this problem is made worse because once a person associates with criminals he enters a narrative environment where learning more powerful ways of thinking becomes unlikely.

Joining a gang can stunt an adolescent’s cognitive growth. Such gangs are neither as compassionate nor as warm as less criminal adolescent groups or as good families. They teach less intelligent traditions that are savage and self-destructive, and those who look for their answers among such people are unlikely to find narratives conducive to a peaceful world.

For people caught in the way of the self, their preoccupation with their own independence clouds their perceptions. Most ways of joining are felt as infringements rather than as fufillments. This does not mean that people at this level do not join movements and mobs, but only that their relationships with others are characterized by force and dominance, and it is to their self-interest rather than to the good of the whole that leaders seeking their allegiance must appeal.

It’s an ancient route to power, and no society is free of charismatic criminals looking for followers.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The criminal mind 12/24
     The way of the criminal

Some people have trouble getting past fear.

Some who cannot see realities above fear choose the way of the criminal. Stanton E. Samenow, after spending hundreds of hours working with violent criminals, came to define criminality “not in terms of crimes committed but rather by the presence of certain thinking patterns.” Many criminals saw themselves in a story pattern which repeatedly led to their being treated wrongly, triggering a violent defense.

Samenow’s view is confirmed by Lonnie H. Athens, who conducted extensive interviews with convicted felons. After asking them to retell the stories of their crimes, he found that they “self consciously construct violent plans of action before they commit violent criminal acts.” They made up stories then acted them out. He rejects widespread views offered by countless other theorists that “criminal acts are committed as a result of unconscious motivations, deep emotional needs, inner psychic conflicts or sudden unconscious emotional bursts.”

Interestingly, Samenow learned that nearly every criminal believes he is a good person at heart: “He may write poetry, paint, play an instrument, love Bach, and have other laudable interests and talents. He may go to church and believe in God. He may embrace humanitarian causes and give money to a beggar or help an old lady across the street, even en route to a crime. He does not view the world with malice. He just assumes that people are his pawns. He does not consider himself obligated to others; rather, others are indebted to him. He believes he is superior and need not be accountable to anyone. It is this personal rebellion against external constraints and principles, this desire to be a law and a kingdom unto himself, that works evil.

“The criminal often shrouds himself in secrecy and does whatever he regards as necessary to preserve a self-created image of a powerful, totally self-determining human being. If he is interfered with, he considers himself the victim and decries the injustice. He is intolerant of adversity or any threat to his view of himself.”

Deep fear naturally accompanies such unrealistic views of the self, and the typical criminal is deeply afraid. Whatever does not confirm his inflated sense of himself, he experiences as a put down: “If someone disagrees with him over a point in a conversation, he is put down. If his boss rejects a request, he is put down. If his wife or girlfriend refuses him anything, he is put down.” His fear can quickly reduce him to a zero state in which he feels totally worthless. The criminal meets his fear with great intolerance, and he often projects a stance of invincibility. He attempts to cut fear off quickly and to get control of what scares him. He often responds to a put down by becoming angry and trying to get the upper hand. The criminal is nearly always angry, though he may not be aware that he is. He meets the normal frustrations and disappointments of life as though his entire existence is being threatened, and violence is pervasive in his thinking if not in his actions.” Sooner or later a situation occurs which calls forth these thoughts into deed.

A person who thinks his impulses are more real than the testimony or witness of others will tend to avoid letting others know what he is thinking, both because experience teaches him that others do not take his desires as seriously as he does himself and because he will encounter many opportunities to appease his desires that require him to deceive those around him.

His real life will thus tend to be his own secret, and he will need constantly to fear being found out or seen through. When honest people are brought into close association with those on the way of the self, they are often confused. The actions of the truly selfish frequently make no apparent sense, and fall into no predictable pattern that an outsider can see. This is partly because so much of the person’s agenda is hidden, but it is partly because such people often do act in contradictory and irrational ways. Since the self is not a unity but a city of voices, one who looks only inward for guidance is likely to behave erratically and even self-destructively. Normal people are often simply confused in their initial dealings with criminals. They often seem to ignore even their own self-interest.

I find it very hopeful that most criminals believe they are good people, and that being good matters to them. They are not at war with the idea of goodness, but their bad actions result from poorly developed views of reality, from mental captivity in unintelligent stories that don’t teach them how to untangle knots or take the bumps and scrapes of life in stride.

To the extent that this is true, it suggests the possibility of liberation through teaching.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

The force of fear 11/24
     The first reality: the way of the criminal

Fear is a primal human reality. We live surrounded by forces that may destroy us. Some of these come from nature, but many come from society. In this dangerous world, the crudest of human societies are those derived from fear and ordered by force. When two-year-olds disagree about who gets a toy, the strongest wins. This is quite natural. It is close to the animal world. It is the way of the criminal.

Fear is not entirely bad--it is one of our most effective teachers. After all, simply having a body puts one at risk. Anyone who has a head must fear situations, of which there are more than a few, that could lead to decapitation. Within limits, fear can be a strong ally of education. Fear of consequences leads us to understand and prepare, fear of disapproval leads us to seek to please our loved ones, and fear of failure leads us to invest mightily in good causes.

But though fear might tempt us to learn, it isn’t fear that actually teaches. Some poor teachers use fear simply to cow or to beat down an inconvenient or annoying learner, and when this happens the child is less likely to learn what is good than to learn that he or someone is bad. While fear may urge us to desire understanding of better forms of social order, leading us toward justice, fear itself doesn’t create justice any more than hunger creates food. Fear, without hope, leads to anger and hatred, to revenge and conspiracy, to destruction. Inspiration, a breathing into from a power beyond, is necessary.

Still, some teachers and parents have thought too little of fear. Every teacher meets children who come to school fearing only their own weakness, and without the right fear they are nearly unteachable. Robert Coles, who has seen and worked with children who had no fear of violating the moral codes of a society to which they had no sense of belonging, has warned us that “for education to proceed children must have learned to fear something before they come to school.” In our desire to overcome repression and from our experience of crippling pain caused by unloving parents and cruel leaders, we have been to quick to assume that fear, like guilt or like wolves, has no positive role in earth’s story.

Throughout history, groups of people have formed and taught moral norms that make cooperation more likely. Being good together is the strongest response to fear. People organized into groups are far more capable of meeting the demands of life. Cultures that endure teach their children to walk in fear of violating the culture’s moral codes.

To be sure, some such codes are better than others, and an important goal of education should be to help young people make such judgments. This is especially important in a postmodern culture where traditional boundaries have dissolved and adolescents must decide amid a din of competing narratives what core values to live by. A critical examination of the history of mores, establishing standards of evidence and following through time the consequences of various beliefs, can help keep our folkways fresh and vita--but we should fear losing sight of the truth that it is those folkways far more than the critical evaluation of them that teaches most of us how to be good.

When it comes to peace and morality, what we learn informally from the narrative environment--especially stories that are lived rather than merely told--is more powerfully educative than posters purchased with this year’s federal grant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Dangerous communication 8/24
     The way of the teacher

Overconnected systems
Riots are a form of horizontal communication–the exchange of information by people at the same level in a hierarchy.

Most organizations develop mild forms of the riot pattern--factions or cliques that feed each others’ rumors and paranoias. Organizations generally try to constrain horizontal communications to some degree, requiring some information to move vertically. We need to get permission from the office for this or that. We need to slow down and get our reasons in order. All our big talk and passionate half truths that work for a laugh at lunch get thought through more carefully. We tone things down, tending toward modesty and sobriety.

In their excellent book on communication within biotic systems,T.F. H. Allen and Thomas B. Starr (Hierarchy) describe animal communities that have too much horizontal communication as “overconnected.” To take a simple example, when the food supply is large relative to the population, what one member eats is not readily apparent to the other members. That is, the actions of one individual are not communicated to the others.

But as the food supply dwindles, each bite taken by one member noticeably reduces the available food, so the actions of each are communicated to all. Some animal populations reduce dangerous horizontal communication by becoming territorial, dividing the food supply into geographical areas, which limits communication. If the food supply continues to diminish, a pecking order sometimes emerges, and some members are sacrificed, removing them from the communication network.

In human systems, such as schools, putting shared resources before the group as a whole to decide often creates similar patterns. In one school where I taught, the administration, hoping to avoid responsibility and perhaps blame, allowed the staff to develop the schedule, which allocated student time–a scarce resource. People had to compete with one another to survive. Programs that couldn’t attract students would dwindle, and putting a class in the competitive time slot could virtually guarantee its failure. When a budget crisis aggravated the situation, territorialism and pecking orders based on seniority, along with calls for sacrificial RIFs, developed quickly.

A reasonable, authoritative decision from higher in the system would have been contested, but it could also have resulted in much more staff harmony and higher morale. Overconnected systems, in which destructive information moves horizontally too readily, can lead to instability and the danger of sudden collapse. This danger is often underestimated by those who call for committees to ensure that “in every step, every memo, every meeting, and every agenda, no student is excluded,” and for all decisions to be made through “face to face discussion. . .to avoid hierarchical domination and engender collective empowerment.”

Gossip, with all its distortions, fabrications, hypotheses, and rumors, often creates a pattern of overconnection. Passing on destructive information about others, except when their welfare is part of your stewardship and your goal is to find a way to help, is seldom a minor problem, but people quite easily convince themselves that, since they are opposing something bad, more good is done than harm.

Lynch mobs are an extreme form of gossip. Between 1889 and 1930, 3,724 people were lynched in the United States (more than 80 percent of them were black). In his study of this phenomena, Arthur R. Raper describes the pattern that led to these violent acts: “As the crowd grows and discusses the case, the details inevitably are exaggerated. These exaggerated reports, in turn, further excite the excited people who exaggerated them. After a time, the various stories of the crime take on a sort of uniformity, the most horrible details of each version having been woven into a supposedly true account. The milling process continues until an inflammatory speech, the hysterical cry of a woman, the repetition of a slogan, the accidental firing of a gun, the waving of a handkerchief, the racing of an automobile engine, the remarks of some bystander, or some other relatively trivial thing, throws the group into a frenzy and sets it on a career of arson, sadistic mutilations, and murder.”

The historical lynchings in the South were stopped, of course, by the imposition of a hierarchical system of justice that “disempowered” the local people, and that replaced pure democratic action with a system of authoritative constraints. Law and order were established.

In a milder form, this was the pattern I saw in my school repeatedly, as leader after leader was driven from the system only to have the levels above and below the administration create a new leader, similar in most respects to the one who had left.

New powers, new challenges
In an age of tweets, texting, and blogs, it’s worth thinking for a moment about some of the effects that improved communication technology has had in the past. Much is made of the way new technologies can thwart unjust authorities, as with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine or the incipient green revolution in Iran. And this is a good thing.

But new powers are never available only to good people. At each advance in communications technology, old regimes are threatened, leading to social turmoil which is frequently bloody. Even the automobile caused trouble. Soon after motor vehicles became widely available, criminals figured out that they could afford better guns and faster cars than local sheriffs. This led to the era of such notables as Bonnie and Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson, John Dillinger, and “Machine Gun” Kelly. The response was to strengthen law enforcement at a national level–out-organizing the criminals. The old United States Bureau of Investigation developed into a more robust FBI.

In recent years authorities in France and Australia, found themselves unable to constrain mobs of angry youth speeding through the city setting fire to vehicles and buildings. The trouble was that the rioters had motorbikes and cell phones as well as Molotov cocktails, so they were able to out-maneuver and out-communicate the cops. High schools have had problems with students disappearing, their parents calling them home in response to false rumors of bomb threats spread by cell phones. These may be the small warnings we so often get–English teachers call it foreshadowing–when new patterns are being formed. We got herpes before we got AIDS.

The first communications storm
We entered a new communications age in 1963 when the Kennedy assassination and funeral led broadcasters to hack together a temporary and haphazard national live television network. For the first time, viewers across the country were linked in a simultaneous television event. Afterward, people were ecstatic about the possibilities of finally unifying humanity, bringing us all together in the comfort of our living rooms.

Then there was 1968. Throughout that year, cities across the world were racked by wave after wave of demonstration and riot, as angry young people inspired by the radical literature of Marxism took “alienation” as their motto and revolution as their project. Students across oceans could learn overnight how tactics used in other places had worked. The occupation of Columbia University was widely copied. Students used the mass media to teach each other quickly the most effective tactics in their heady goal of bringing to collapse the national governments of the industrial world.

Provocateurs in Paris, Prague, London, Mexico City and Berlin quickly learned to enlist the new media in their strategy. From Martin Luther King they already knew that if police could be goaded into acting badly before cameras, passions flared and “the Movement” grew. Too often, the police complied, not yet fully cognizant of the new world that had come into being around them. In their world, belligerent confrontations against legitimate authority were put down. But the kids knew the game had changed. Provocation was their method. “All the world is watching,” they chanted.

Students in the Czech Republic were demanding freedom of speech and assembly, but it’s less clear what students in other places were demanding. They were not engaged in the class struggle as many of their leftist parents had been. “Alienation” was their cry, and they were fighting “the Establishment” symbolized by the Vietnam War, which they hated, and the universities that taught “it,” which they hated, and the governments that supported “it,” which they hated. They ranted against consumerism and materialism. They were disgusted by prosperity.

Some of them were having a tremendous amount of fun. “Sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was not just a motto–it was an anthem of liberation. Beyond suits and jobs and schedules there was ecstacy, as least for those under thirty.

The invitation sent out by the Yippies calling on people to come to Chicago to protest the Democratic Convention read, in part:

It is summer. It is the last week in August, and the NATIONAL DEATH PARTY
meets to bless Lyndon Johnson.
We are there! There are 50,000 of us dancing in the streets, throbbing with amplifiers and harmony. We are making love in the parks. We are reading, singing, laughing, printing newspapers, groping, and making a mock convention, and celebrating the
birth of FREE AMERICA in our own time.
Everything will be free. Bring blankets, tents, draft-cards, body-paint, Mr. Leary’s Cow, food to share, music, eager skin, and happiness. The threats of LBJ, Mayor Daley, and J. Edgar Freako will not stop us. We are coming! We are coming from all over the world!

The clashes with riot police in Chicago sent 100 demonstrators to hospital emergency rooms. Similar events occurred throughout the world in places such as Berlin, London, New York, Madrid, Tokyo, Prague, Paris, and Mexico City.

Finally, Russia mobilized 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops, and armored cars and rolling tanks put an end to the earlier liberal concessions of Prague Spring, leading to protests in every European capital.

In Paris, leftist student terrorists set off bombs in the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Bank of America, and Transworld Airlines. Rioting erupted at the Sorbonne, and the strikes spread to schools throughout Paris. In the streets, radicals heaved Molotov cocktails at the police.

Long-haired students and communist union members briefly joined forces against De Galle in a general strike that eventually involved ten million people. The French government was paralyzed by the worst social protests in nearly a century. An advanced industrial economy was stopped. DeGaulle’s government in near collapse, he took refuge at an air force base in Germany. The events dominated global mass media.

Students throughout the world, even in Sweden, looked desperately for injustices they could denounce.

In Mexico City, riots went on for months, fed by news of student demonstrations and riots around the world. Mimeographs made publishing cheap and easy, and throughout the nation students created inflammatory “wall newspapers” full of details of police brutality. Handbills and leaflets drifted down from tower blocks. Busses rolled by spray-painted with revolutionary slogans.

At sunset on an October evening ten days before the Mexico Olympics, 5,000 soldiers accompanied by 200 tanks fired on 10,000 students demonstrating in Mexico City. Sniper fire and helicopters contributed to the surreal scene of a nation’s military force turned against its youth. The number of people killed in the Tlatelolco Massacre is unknown but most estimates range from 200-300. The number of arrests is also unknown..

Writing in The Nation, Robin Blackburn argues that the processes that nearly led to the collapse of national governments forty years ago “are far more advanced today than they were in 1968.” We are all “now within the same global communications space,” he says. “All this persuades me that there is a greater potential today for a type of ‘global storm’ . .as we used to say, 1968 was just a rehearsal.”

He thinks this would be a good thing. He’s far from the only one. The debates about what it all meant continue. At the moment, American youth seem more interested in IPODs and personal worlds than large-scale social action. But any number of events could change that quickly. Mass movements are a recurrent pattern in history, and next time the movement will be supercharged by powerful communications. It seems that another national or global communication storm at some point is a bit more than possible. It seems quite likely.

The traditional response
All of the world’s major cultural traditions include clear constraints about how people are to communicate with one another. Christians are directed to avoid backbiting or speaking evil of one another, to avoid provoking envy, to avoid dissembling and deception, to avoid murmuring against one another, to edify one another, and to be slow to anger. Buddhists are exhorted to refrain from false speech, to be sensitive to others so speech can be timely and appropriate, and to know when to be silent and to listen. Confucius advised people not to listen with impropriety or to speak with impropriety, but to speak with absolute sincerity, to cultivate one’s own virtues so as to never complain of others’ virtues, and not to say of others what you yourself would not like.

Both email and texting have tended to make communication more informal, and the laxness of many online messages goes beyond typographical simplification. We should think about that.

It may be that more powerful communications technologies have the potential to magnify the effects of what individuals say, sometimes without their knowledge of how someone, somewhere is being affected. More than we can imagine may depend upon people re-learning the wisdom of old constraints.

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
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

Making a balance 4/24
     The way of the teacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2009 Michael L. Umphrey

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